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Tangle of Frustrating Lines? Transport for London.

This post was written by second year Drama, Applied Theatre & Education: Writing for Performance student Chloe Phillips-Bartlett. If you want to write a post for our blog, send through a proposal to [email protected]

When I moved to London, the whole transport system confused me. I come from a very small town in Norfolk where buses are rarer than flying pigs and take longer than an unabridged performance of Hamlet. Consequently, almost everyone learns to drive the minute they turn 17, and each year the Sixth Form car-park welcomes in new Ford KAs and Renault Clios. Until I came to university, I hadn’t realised that this wasn’t a nation-wide necessity, and until I moved to London, I hadn’t needed to understand bus stops. Hopefully, this blog post can help you avoid just a few of the mistakes I made.

But first, TfL is the non-profit, government body which organises the public transport in London, including the iconic double-decker buses and black cabs, the infamous underground system (including the overground and DLR), and even boats, trams and cable cars!

To use this system, you will need either a contactless credit/debit card, or an Oyster card. To get an Oyster card, go to a machine in any tube station, and click “Get New Card”, they cost £5. Make sure you tap in and out using the same card.

Mistake #1: Not understanding the zones!

My first day in London, I was trying to be savvy- instead of using the tube for long journeys, I walked as far as I could, and then took the tube, reasoning that because I was travelling shorter distances, I would be charged less. Except, that isn’t quite how the system works. If you look at the tube map, it is divided into zones 1-8. Prices are set depending on which zone you begin and end in, not which stop you go from, or which route you take. The only exception to this is if you make a journey which could go through zone 1, but you manage to avoid it (usually involving the over-ground or DLR system). If you do this, there are pink Oyster readers to touch, to ensure you are charged the correct fare. It might sound confusing but avoiding zone 1, especially at peak time, could save you several precious pounds (which you can come and spend in the Backstage Bar!)

Mistake #2: Going in the wrong direction by bus!

I was eating in a restaurant with my visiting parents one evening, and as we were sat by the window we could see the bus stop which served the bus number I needed. All through the meal we hadn’t seen a single bus arrive. As we settled the bill, I couldn’t believe my luck as the bus came around the corner- I leapt up and jumped aboard. Only about half an hour later when I checked Google Maps did I realise, I’d gone in the wrong direction! The good news: it’s an easy fix- get off, cross the road, get the next one. The bad news: I was caught in the winter rain and now very, very grumpy. A while later I realised that each bus stop had a unique letter code by the bus stop. This makes it really easy to ensure you’re getting the right bus, because Citymapper will tell you the bus number and bus stop code.

Citymapper is a fantastic tool, accessible as a webpage ( ) and as an app (available for free for Android and Apple). You type in where you want to go and it gives you directions by foot, car and bike, as well as several options for public transport, which you can select based on time, changes, and cost. Citymapper is more accurate than Google Maps and definitely worth downloading.

Mistake #3: Not getting the best value fare!

There are several ways to pay for your travel, and each has it’s benefits. In term 1, I used pay-as-you-go Oyster where you are charged for the zones you travel to, and you have to keep topping up. Although this means you only pay for what you use, I found I resented spending that money, and so often avoided ‘unnecessary’ journeys, walked long distances, or spent many minutes waiting until off-peak times when the tube is much cheaper.

[Tip: Buses don’t change price- they are always £1.50, but the new ‘hopper fare’ means if you use two buses within an hour, you only pay once!]

To get 30% off off-peak fares there were two options for me: 1) Link my 16-25 railcard to my Oyster card. To do this you just need to ask a member of station staff. Go when it’s quiet. Or 2) Order online, and pay £20, for an 18+ Student Photocard. The application takes a couple of weeks, but you get a lovely Oyster with your face on it. The main plus side is that your 30% discount includes travelcards (7-day, monthly, 6-monthly, and annual season tickets). This allowed me to travel far more freely, although it has a big upfront cost, and doesn’t include bus travel.

I’m sure you will make other mistakes, and learn how to avoid them (I certainly did!). Within a few weeks I felt like I had a grasp on the system. If you only ever travel by tube, London becomes a patchwork of places, and only when you walk around a bit can you start to stitch them all together and realise how close everything is. The tube map is not to scale, so don’t be fooled by that! A really great way to start exploring is by attending the Fresher’s Week Scavenger Hunt!

Once you understand travel in London, it becomes clear that really, the whole word is your Oyster!

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