When I first arrived in London, I knew it only as a series of street-level islands around Underground stations. I never took to buses much, so, for me, the city was defined by the Harry Beck-originated Tube map.
It was a while before I realised how wildly out of phase with reality that diagram is. Even today, I sometimes find myself confused by the Bank/ Monument link and the over-supply of Aldgates. And time slows almost to a stop as you negotiate Hounslows East, Central and West en route to Heathrow. Couldn’t anyone come up with a livelier sequence of station names than that?
London’s not alone in having trouble squaring fiction and fact in its transport graphics. For sheer confusion, nothing beats the Châtelet interchange in Paris. But London has more trouble than most because it is expanding in one direction only – east – and changing the nature of its transport at the same time.
It was always odd that Londoners didn’t have a map that showed all the real connections they can make. Given that the Tube network is concentrated north of the river, the impression given was that south London was a transport-free zone.
Now, even I, a committed north Londoner, know that’s not true. Forget buses – nobody has ever been able to make a comprehensible London bus map. But south London has a surface-rail network that links all kinds of places in sometimes unexpected ways. You would imagine that this network would be fully integrated with the tube map. Sometimes they try, in a half-hearted way. The surface routes are always shown in ghostly outline as if they’re not quite there, or not to be trusted.
Partly this is to do with the ridiculously inconsistent fare-charging system in London. You can buy an expensive paper ticket that lets you travel above and below ground as much as you want – but you can’t do that with the much-vaunted cheaper, hi-tech Oystercard, because the overground rail companies don’t recognise it. The result of this absurdity is to shrink people’s perception of where London actually is – because most people now define the capital as where they can get to with an Oyster.
We’re told this is now being addressed. The rail companies will Oyster-ise, while Mayor Ken Livingstone is patching together a branded overground system that will balance the Underground one and have equal validity. Eventually, it will encircle London. In the meantime, strange little Tube anomalies like the East London Line are being extended and linked into the main network. Elsewhere, did you know that they’ve just dug a £180m tunnel to extend the astonishingly slow and jerky Docklands Light Railway system to godforsaken Woolwich? Apparently it’s part of the Olympics transport legacy.
My point is this: bunging Ken’s few overground-branded lines on to the Tube map in orange – the chosen colour – doesn’t solve the underlying problem: that we badly need a rethink of the map that shows us how to get around on all those other surface lines, particularly in south London. A proper one that gets to grips with the system that already exists.
I fear it won’t happen, for one very good reason: colour. The Tube lines are quite simple and colour-coded. The south-eastern surface rail network is highly complex, hence resistant to colour-coding. Besides, all the main colours have already been used. So we need a new Beck – someone to come up with a new explanatory diagram for all London’s railways. Any takers?