LONDON – Without shame, I admit it: I have a bad case of subway envy. It is pretty common in Philadelphia, and for good reason.
Lord knows what our civic leaders were doing in the decades when the world’s great cities were digging intricate tunnels for massive subway systems. Probably the same not-much they’re doing nowadays. You can’t grasp how lame the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines really are until you travel a bit.
You only have to go as far as New York to get the idea. Getting around Boston on the T is a blast. Washington’s Metro puts Philly to shame. Ditto Chicago’s system. It even had a band – they were the Chicago Transit Authority before they shortened it to Chicago – named after it.
The last two Summer Olympics provided opportunities to explore the Athens and Beijing systems. Athens is miles better than Philadelphia. But Beijing – well, I developed a crush on the Beijing subway.
My roommate, Mike Jensen, and I would take off from the stop near the media village and navigate all around. The degree of difficulty was heightened by the fact that the stops all had Mandarin names. It wasn’t as simple as getting on the A train in Manhattan and knowing whether you want uptown or downtown. You had to figure out which station was right for changing lines and then which direction you needed to go based on words that pretty much all looked the same to a Westerner.
It was fun. But I have to break some bad news to my old flame in Beijing. The London system, the legendary tube, is my new number one.
It’s a little imposing at first. After a U.S. women’s basketball game the other day, Tamika Catchings was asked what kind of sightseeing she had done.
“I rode the tube,” she said, as if it were a climb up Kilimanjaro. “Everybody was talking about, so I had to try it.”
“Not for me,” she said. “Too many steps, up and down. And it was hot in the train. No, it’s all cabs for me from now on.”
You’re killing me, Tamika. Not only does London have a wonderfully convenient and widespread system of interconnecting lines, the whole vibe is still Swinging Pop Art London. The cool station signs, the vibrant red, white and blue trains.
And the stops are like a tour of my teenage record collection: Waterloo, Clapham Junction, Shepherd’s Bush (home of the Who), Willesden Green, Brixton.
One memorable day last week, I needed to get from my dorm room at the University of East London (or, as I’ve dubbed it, the Hobbit Prison) to the rowing venue at Eaton. I took six trains: two from here to the Olympic Park, one from there to King’s Cross (and a stop at Track 9-3/4), then two tube lines to Vauxhall Station where I picked up a National Rail train to Eton.
There was some serious mistake-making in the mix, too, but still – the train lines let you zig and zag all over the region.
I’ve been here 16 days and I’ve only had to wait more than 3 or 4 minutes for a train twice, and I just missed one on both occasions. There are signboards telling you the destination and the wait time for every track. Everyone uses the tube because it’s everywhere and it’s easy and it’s clean. No Philadelphia Parking Authority to ruin every trip into Center City. No traffic jams on 95 or the Schuylkill.
It is going to be a shock having to leave here and return to the paltry SEPTA sytem.