Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Underground economy

So far, our experience with the Underground (the subway in London, for the uninitiated) has been generally positive. Very reliable, clean, generally not packed, and incredibly helpful and friendly staff. We had the problem of looking everywhere for a trash can one of the first times we rode, and after coming up empty in two different stations, asking a staffer. He explained that they removed them all after the bombings two years ago. Duh!

Edit 1/14/09, 5:30pm: I take back what I said about the Tube not being packed. After taking the girls to Hampstead this morning, I experienced the inbound Northern Line during rush hour. It was like sardines. End edit

The economics of the Underground are interesting. As I posted earlier, the best bet for getting around is the Oyster card, which works like a debit card which you top up. The Underground fares work on a zoned system, with Central London (including Islington, where we live) in zone 1, moving outward through zone 9. Hampstead station, for example, where the girls go to school is on the boarder of zones 2 and 3, so to take them to school we travel in zones 1 and 2.

The Oyster fare to travel in zones 1 and 2 is £1.60 off-peak and £2.20 during peak times (6:30a - 9:30a and 4:00p - 7:00p). Without an Oyster card, you purchase a paper ticket which costs £4.00 anytime, and is good for zones 1 through 6. So using the Oyster card for our commute to school reduces the fare by almost half during peak periods, and over half off-peak times. Even so, for one of us to take the girls to school and then return costs £4.40, or about $6.60 at current exchange rates.

In addition, the Oyster imposes a daily cap, so that you can take as many trips as you want in the course of a day in zones 1 and 2, and not pay more than £6.70, even with travel during peak times. This is still a hefty amount, but does provide quite a savings. So instead of our two return trips to take the girls to school and then pick them up costing £8.80 (£2.20 X 4), it gets capped at £6.70, or about $10.00. Tomorrow, for example, I will take the girls to school at Hampstead, then get back on the Tube to go to Birkbeck, then take the Tube to a seminar at the British Academy, then take the Tube back home. If I had paid cash fares, the trips would total £16.00, but the daily capping on Oyster will put it at £6.70.

You can also add monthly and yearly passes to your Oyster card. A monthly pass allowing travel in zones 1 and 2 of the Underground costs £99.10, or a little less than half of the daily capping. I'll likely purchase a monthly pass for myself, since the cost ends up being less than two trips daily during peak times.

Buses are cheaper; bus and tram fares are £1.00 on the Oyster and £2.00 cash.

There are substantial discounts for children; Lena as a 10-and-under, rides for free on the Tube. Or at least she will until her birthday in April. Rosie pays £0.55, or one-fourth the adult Oyster card fare, for any trip within zones 1 through 6.

These fares are higher than fares on subways in the cities in which I've lived or travel frequently, including Boston, New York, and Washington, depending upon the nature of your travel. For example, with a CharlieCard in Boston, you can ride the subway anywhere for $1.70/trip, or $59 for a monthly pass.

In New York, the subways cost $2 per ride (with small discounts for multiple purchases on Metro Card), or $81 for a monthly pass. In Washington, which imposes a station-to-station pricing scheme, the fares range from $1.65 to $4.50 during peak times. A 7-day Metro pass costs $39. So transportation here is significantly more expensive -- as are many other things -- than major cities in the U.S.

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