NyLon: New York subway versus the London Underground

A New Yorker and a Londoner give their impressions of their hometown metro systems

How old were you when you first took the subway?

Ilona Braveman (IB):I was an infant. City moms don’t have much of a choice – it’s the best way to get around!

Gregory Hollings (GH): I first took the tube when I was a teenager in the early 90’s. Being a country bumpkin it was a deeply unpleasant eye opener for me; too dirty, too crowded, everyone in a hurry and too noisy. I didn’t rush to get back on one!

What is the most memorable experience on the subway?

IB: When you grow up in New York, one of the most exciting moments, and a sure sign you’re all grown up, is the first time you use the subway without supervision. And my moment came when I was nearly 14, on my first day of high school.

GH:  There’s not a lot of talking on the London Underground. Everyone is either listening to music, reading or sleeping. But one day, one man broke the silence and, in front of everyone, asked the woman sitting opposite him out on a date! She said yes and they left the train together. This is a true story that did not involve me!

What is the strangest thing you have ever seen on the subway?

IB: Ha! There isn’t enough room here to describe some of the bizarre things I have seen in over 30 years of taking the subway. People carrying huge snakes. Transporting furniture. The strangest moment for me was when someone asked me if I was that girl from “Sex and the City.”

GH: I’ve not seen any strange things (I was too busy reading my book!) However, the horror novel A Mystery of the Underground, written by John Oxenham, was set on the District line and was so convincing that passenger numbers plummeted. Especially on Tuesday nights when most of the murders occurred in the story.

What is your favorite subway station and why?

IB: It’s a tie between the old World Trade Center station and the Lincoln Center station. The first for sentimental reasons, the second because that was my stop for high school, attending the Performing Arts. I would get out right into the beautiful Lincoln Center and the famous fountain in front, and that is the real starting point for the Upper West Side, one of my favorite parts of Manhattan.

GH: There are some very nice looking tube stations ranging from the art deco at Southgate to the modernist architecture at Westminster, but my favourite is Baker Street. Perhaps it’s the connection to Sherlock Holmes. It’s also London’s oldest tube station, first built in 1863 for the Metropolitan Railway.  I love the wood paneled ticket hall.

Name your favorite historic fact about the subway?

IB: Track 61, which now lives under a track in Grand Central station, is a secret one that was used when VIP’s were in town and needed private access to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Apparently it was used by the likes of FDR, but operation of the track ended with his death in 1945. Legend has it that Andy Warhol threw an underground party on it in the 60s…

GH: The London Underground is 150 years old this year, which makes London the first city to build an underground train line! Also, Jerry Springer, the talk show host, was born in Highgate tube station.

What one thing would you change about the subway?

IB: The rats! Lack of phone reception! But the big one, which they are fixing now, is access to the very eastern and western parts of the city. It goes to show how much the city has changed and developed, and that there is a real need for expansion. The city that never sleeps also never stops growing!

GH: I would have my own private carriage. Is that allowed? But seriously, I would add effective air conditioning. London is getting hotter, even more so 300 meters underground!

How has art played a part within the subway stations?

IB: I’ve seen some of the most incredible musicians and dancers perform on subway platforms, and I have often thought how odd, even sad, it is that such talent is relegated to the underground.

GH: For nearly thirty years poetry has been displayed in the stations and on the trains, ranging from DH Lawrence to Carol Ann Duffy. I do like the tube posters as well. They sometimes play classical music in the stations, mainly to disperse sullen looking teenagers!

How do the subway trains compare now to when you first commuted on them?

IB: Well for one thing, since the dawn of great mayors like Giuliani and Bloomberg, there’s a lot less spray paint! And taking them at night is not as scary anymore.

GH: The trains are wider and cleaner and the seats are more comfortable (if you can find one!)

What does the future hold for the subway?

IB: I’ve yet to meet a real New Yorker who doesn’t rely on the subway. It’s cheap, it’s convenient and it’s fast.  In the future, I think as it expands its reach, we will hopefully see much less of a reliance on yellow cabs that clog up the city, and smog up the air.  If celebrities and the mayor do it, then there is no excuse for everyone else not to!

GH: Perhaps a little ironically, the future of the underground lies above ground with the current and conceptual Crossrail projects. Existing tube stations and lines will be improved upon and expanded respectively. But there’s only so much tunneling you can do!

Image credits: Marcin Wichary and az1172 under CC licenses (1 and 2) on Flickr

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About the author

Gregory Hollings and Ilona Braverman

Hi, I'm Greg (Londoner) and I'm a social media editor within the ABB Newsroom. Standing next to me is Ilona (New Yorker), the ABB Newsroom manager.
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