Monday, August 27, 2012

What can we learn from the London Underground?

A Passenger’s History of the Tube,
by Andrew Martin,
Profile Books, 304pp.

Railway books have such a passionate and distinctive following that its hard to read one without feeling like a nerd.

On the other hand, the way a community builds, uses, and thinks about its public transport system is a key insight into the values of the people who make up that community - whatever their diversity.

To use public transport is one of the few collective experiences of daily life that crosses social divides, or in bad cases may accentuate them. 

The history of London’s Underground, or “Tube”, make a meta-narrative of that city’s development over the past two centuries. 

London was first to try the principle of building underground thoroughfares. It tried private and public models of investment and ownership. It tried competitive and centralised models of operation.  It reflected fashions in in engineering, architecture, and urban development principles. It embodied the aesthetics of its time in design, advertising and public communication.

London had the luck to be built mainly on soft clay that made tunnelling relatively cheap, but that didn't stop many lines falling in and out of bankruptcy. Urban transport is one of those fields that defy economic rationalism, because the benefits are too thinly spread to be allocated to individual users.

Most public transport users both love and hate their networks, but Andrew Martin mostly loves the London Underground, warts and all.  A barrister turned journalist and author, he has published six detective novels on railway themes, and edited a weekly column called “Tube Talk” for London's Evening Standard magazine. 

There’s a huge culture of complaint, commentary and anecdote among Tube travelers who include every class and kind. Martin provides lots of fun and color in this tangled history, while keeping the reader aware of the evolutionary forces that have shaped the Underground, and London with it, since the 1850s.

Richard Thwaites lives and works in Canberra, a car-based city sadly lacking in effective public transport.

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