Sustainability has unquestionably achieved a stronger place in cultural exchange over the course of the past decade. What began as a conversation mostly lead by environmentalists has branched out to include proponents from all walks of life. As the topic dances in between the realms of a cultural movement and political correctness its growing traction allows “green” and “eco” to appear on more products, agendas, powerpoint presentations and even buildings. Undoubtedly, a meaningful portion of sustainability’s frontage is realized for reasons other than actually following its mindset, but is that okay? Does having individuals and corporations pitching “green” if they don’t really subscribe to the mantra help the movement enough to justify a thin sell?
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Even before I went to London, I had heard tales about its extensive subway system. Known as “the Tube,” many boasted that the infrastructure was easier to understand, cleaner and safer than New York’s MTA service. In short, I was hearing it labeled as “better.” While the Tube is an impressive system, a closer look at its operation and costs draw into question its existence as a system of “public transit.”
New York’s underground subway system began in 1904. Over a century later, it is made up of 26 different subway routes on 9 different lines with a total of 468 individual stations. It spans across four of the five boroughs with a total of 229 miles of route track distance and 842 miles of track bed (most of New York’s system are three or four tracks across.) Transporting an average of 5 million passengers every weekday, the system carries over 1.6 billion people annually.
Beginning in 1863, the Tube is made up of 11 different subway lines with a total of 270 individual stations. 250 miles of track spread across the neighborhoods of London. An average weekday hosts 3 million passengers, bringing an annual total to around 1 billion patrons. Like New York, the Tube began as a series of privately funded ventures that were eventually encompassed by municipal oversight and direction.
The train cars, also called “rolling stock”, of the Tube feature cloth-covered seats and colored handrails. Every car I traveled on was clean. The speakers announcing stations were clear. Comfort was a clear goal in the cars’ design and it was achieved. Averaging 8’6” wide, the average train is approximately 437’ long. New York’s cars are often wider at 10’across with trains as long as 600’ to provide a larger average capacity. Though New York subways can transport more passengers per ride, once inside the digs are not plush, merely smartly infrastructural with plastic seat surfaces easily cleaned. Finding a car where one can actually hear the announcements is hit or miss.
While the street grid of New York provides for fewer crossings of train lines, London’s web of streets forces many tracks be carved deeper beneath the road surface. Most tunnels in the Big Apple are 15-20’ underground, but London’s can go as deep as 65’ (a healthy five story building.) Not only can getting down to the tracks take longer, but air movement at such depths becomes more difficult. In the London heat wave of 2006, the temperature in Tube tunnels reached 117 degrees Fahrenheit.