London Underground: Happy birthday to the Tube

After a year in which the celebrations never seemed to end—the Queen’s Jubilee, the Olympics, and lord knows what I’ve already forgotten—the celebrations have barely paused for breath in the new year. Because 2013, it turns out, is the 150th birthday of the London Underground—The Tube. This is a big deal. Residents in larger cities with underground mass transit systems will appreciate this—it is frankly impossible to think that London, or New York, or Tokyo, the world’s three major cities, could function, let alone support the number of residents they support, without an underground transit system. And, as in so many other things, it was invented, and perfected, in England, right here in London. And it still works.

There are a number of celebrations here, in fact. The Royal Mail has come up with a nifty set of stamps, shown above. Transport for London, which is responsible for the Tube and other forms of mass transit in London, has been posting all sorts of interesting stuff on its website, and has sponsored some interesting projects. Other outfits, such as the Telegraph, have gotten into the act as well. The Guardian has, on its website, a series of historic photographs covering the entire 150 years of the Tube’s history. Penguin Books has commissioned a special 12-volume set of reflections on traveling the underground by 12 well-known, and often excellent an incisive, writers, each volume inspired by a different Line. And not just Penguin—there are any number of books being published about specific lines, or specific regions, or even specific Zones, such as Tube London, which is a history of stations and neighborhoods in Zone 1. What a nifty idea. The London Transport Museum (of course!), in addition to rolling out a whole new raft of celebratory merchandise, is having an exhibit of Tube posters, a topic that, strangely enough, we have mentioned before. Some of the many blogs devoted to the Underground are coming into their own.

Then there’s that map. You know, the one that has turned into a template for maps about just about everything—and nearly everyone in the world will look at these and know immediately where they come from. But the history of maps of the Underground is its own story, even before Harry Beck came up with his iconic design.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I love the Tube. It is by far my favorite mode of travel outside of walking. I’m with Arthur Bryant here—the Tube is unique, irreplaceable and necessary, and encapsulates London in a way that no other institution does. We have a car here, but rarely use it. We’re always astonished at people who drive everywhere in London. Aside from just cluttering up the roads, what is accomplished by this for just simple transit? We use the car when we get a Christmas tree (although one year I did bring one home on the bus), or go to the Garden Center for stuff in the spring. Otherwise, its primary use is to leave the city—head out into the gorgeous English countryside. For urban travel, we use the urban systems—London’s very dense system of busses, or the Tube—which now essentially includes the Overground as well.

The Tube has shaped the growth of London, there’s no doubt about that. It’s still shaping London—just consider the various extensions of existing transit lines to the east of the city going on right now. Any guesses where London development is going to take place over the next two decades? There have been a number of books on this subject (Christian Wolmar, our best writer on railroads, has written two of the best of these, The Subterranean Railway and Down the Tube). The Guardian has a nifty little gallery from one of the most recent.

I like busses, and will take them when it’s useful to do so. But for my commute, or for longer trips, it’s the Tube. It’s comforting, down there in the bowels of the earth. There’s something primordial about it. This isn’t a new observation—there’s a whole arena of scholarship looking at underground urban life since the 18th century, and this really took off once construction of underground rail systems started in the mid 19th century. These visions aren’t always comforting, admittedly—there’s a reason why the ancients located the afterlife underground. Rosalind Williams’s Notes on the Underground is a good guide to much of this.

John Lanchester has written one of the best things I’ve ever read on the Tube, in a piece that appeared in The Guardian several weeks ago. He is one of the contributing authors to the Penguin series, and I assume that it’s part of his offering. But it captures the marvel of the thing—evening rush hour traffic is the equivalent of the population of Glasgow. But he’s also brilliant on not just the Tube, but what we do when we ride it. We create a kind of public persona for the Tube that suits it perfectly. It’s a learned behavior, of course, a pose we adopt to not call attention to each other—but more importantly, to accommodate each other. Urban living is a never-ending exercise in toleration and accommodation, and again the Tube is one of the best examples we have of this phenomenon. Cities may be stratified in any number of ways, one of the most obvious being geography of residence; but when we travel underground, we suspend this stratification. It’s one of the most democratic, non-elitist things that we do—and millions of us do it daily.

So here’s to the next 150 years! If I had a glass of Meantime’s special limited edition beer for the anniversary handy, I’d raise it.

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