My first day on a recent vacation to London, I visited the London Transport Museum in the lively commercial and entertainment district of Covent Garden.
The gift shop, packed with foreigners, offered pricey souvenirs featuring the city’s iconic red double-decker buses, the Underground roundel and the colorful map of the 150-year-old Underground. The diagram showing the 11 local rail lines was plastered on umbrellas, coffee mugs and boxer shorts that sold for about $18 apiece.
It was the perfect start to my week-long trip to London and Paris, where I would get around by public transit and experience service as vital to Londoners and Parisians as it is to scores of tourists visiting attractions by bus, train and boat.
The moment you step off the plane — or the train if traveling by Eurostar between Paris and London — you find an array of transit options.
At first you might find the system, particularly rail, a bit intimidating. Transit systems in both cities are more than a century old, which means older and less comfortable trains when compared with our 38-year-old Metrorail system. London’s Underground, also known as the Tube, is the world’s oldest subway system, yet it offers WiFi at some of its stations.
The systems also offer a lot more rail lines than Metro: London has 11 local lines and Paris has 16 lines identified by numbers, colors and end-of-the-line names. For the most part, I found that if you are familiar with our Metro system, riding on the Underground and the Métro de Paris should be no problem. They are easy to navigate, and the service is reliable, accessible and convenient.
The signs directing you to the platforms are clear. Maps at every station serve as good guides even if you don’t have a pocket map, which are readily available at the airports and rail stations. And the announcements at station platforms and on the trains were audible and as clear, if not clearer, than Metro’s.
I found the bus systems to be equally as important and as vital to commuters. Dedicated bus lanes are key to the transportation infrastructure in London and Paris, and they certainly help buses move more quickly than they otherwise would considering that both cities, like Washington, are plagued by bad traffic.
London was particularly impressive. The red buses that have become a symbol of the city were everywhere, and I found that they are London’s most widely used form of public transit. Many hop-on and hop-off tourist buses, which I shamelessly say I tried, also benefit from the dedicated lanes and move at a fair speed between each attraction.
As a bus rider in the District, where rail takes priority over bus and where buses sometimes travel at average speeds of less than 10 mph, it was refreshing to see the investments in bus travel in Europe.
“They have tons of bus lanes and bus priority signals and streets that are dedicated to buses,” Joseph Barr, a transit expert who a few years ago was in charge of the New York City Department of Transportation’s bus rapid transit program, said Wednesday night during a Coalition for Smarter Growth forum on improving bus service in the District. “In London, despite the breadth and width of the Underground system, more people ride the buses on a daily basis than they ride the subway.”
Riding the subway in central London and Paris can feel a bit tight for those of us used to more spacious train cars. Even our older Metro trains feel more open and comfortable than those in London and Paris. Our platforms, too, are longer and wider, particularly when compared with London’s. During peak hours, getting to the platforms was difficult with large crowds in some of London’s busiest stations such as Waterloo, near the south bank of the Thames River.
Just as in Washington, trains are more crowded during the morning and evening rush hours, and the system stays quite busy throughout the day with scores of tourists. Once aboard the trains, the narrow aisles allow for very few passengers standing in the middle of the cars and most riders cram around the doors. Bulky luggage can be inconvenient.
Still, the arrival of trains was surprisingly frequent when compared with my daily Red Line ride to work, and I experienced no train disruptions or delays because of maintenance through my travels. I never waited more than five minutes at the platform. Trains were as frequent on the weekends as during the week in both cities. It is fair to note, however, that I was lucky to visit before a rail workers’ strike that left many Londoners facing commuting disruptions last week.
Ticket machines are easy to use and provide information in English and other languages. On several occasions, I went to Parisian station managers with questions and found that many were trained to help non-French-speakers. In some stations, announcements are made in French, English and Spanish.
The ride experience also is much livelier. In both cities, musicians perform at rail stations and in train cars. There are souvenir and foods kiosks in Paris Metro stations, and the sight of food on the trains is common.
In both cities, the trains are clean. The stations feel relatively safe, although you are warned, particularly in Paris, to beware of pickpockets. And it is recommended that you stay alert when traveling alone, as thieves can snatch purses from sleepy riders. But none of that is exclusive to those dense, historic and populous cities.
Despite their age, both transit systems offer some of the most effective public transportation I have experienced. Riding on the iconic double-deckers to Buckingham Palace and sitting on worn train seats to visit the Arc de Triomphe made the experience much more memorable. After all, as I learned in the London Transport Museum, transportation heritage offers a deeper understanding of a city’s past and future.
Washingtonians often complain about the cost of transportation and fare increases. A typical subway ride in Washington is about $2.90, and a typical bus ride is $1.60. Here is how that compares with London and Paris.
Depending on the length of your stay and how much you plan to use public transit, you can choose between single-ride tickets, day passes and multiple-day passes in London and Paris. The systems also have their versions of Metro’s SmarTrip card.
In London, the cost of a ride varies depending on which zones you are traveling through. If you stay in central London, a Tube trip using the Oyster card costs about $3.70, and the cash fare for a single journey is about $7.90. A bus trip is about $2.45 with the card and about $4 in cash.
In Paris, a Metro ticket good for one ride within the city center costs 1.70 euros, or about $2.35. I purchased a package of 10 rides for about $19, and that got me where I wanted to go in the city. Bus fares are the same as subway fares.
Keep in mind that the British pound and the euro are holding stronger than the U.S. dollar.
In Washington, we are still waiting for Metrorail lines that will take us to Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, but in Paris and London the rail systems provide easy connections.
In London, there is the convenience of a quicker, more comfortable ride on the Heathrow Express, which takes you to central London in 15 minutes and offers ample space for luggage. You can also enjoy WiFi during the ride. The fare is about $36.
Other options include the Heathrow Connect service, which will take you to the Paddington station in central London in about 25 minutes for about $12.
The Underground also serves the airport and can take you to central London in 50 to 60 minutes. If you are traveling at night, the N9 bus connects Heathrow with central London every 30 minutes.
In Paris, the 35-minute train ride to or from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport costs about $13. You will need to take the RER B train, a line connecting central Paris to the surrounding suburbs.