London’s metro rail is lovingly called London Tube or the London Underground. With 250 miles of track and 270 stations, it sprawls in every direction with around six million daily travellers. It is indeed the beating heart of London. Globally recognised, locally loved. Transport for London (TfL) is the authority responsible for enabling this seamless travel to become a reality. It looks after the integrated management of London’s transport, including its tube, buses, taxis, cable cars and boats. London isn’t London without TfL. They have served and shaped the city for decades. There are probably 100s of lessons we can draw from their 160 years of functioning, but this article specifically focuses on bringing the humane side of the London Tube system. Some small or big initiatives have given life and belonging to the otherwise mundane transit systems, intertwining them with art, culture and tradition. From the buskers performing a wide array of music to the many thousands of pieces of art which grace the station walls every day, we have the pleasure of essentially walking through an immersive cultural gallery every single day.
Poems on the Underground
‘Poems on the Underground’ celebrated Its 37th anniversary in 2023. Poems featured in Tube carriages have been a big hit with the public. Poems on the Underground was launched in 1986, following an idea from the American writer Judith Chernaik to bring poetry to a broader audience and the delight of bemused commuters. These poems pay tribute to the magnificent tradition of English poetry and those who have contributed to its richness and diversity. Old and new, familiar and unfamiliar poems explore diverse topics such as love, London, exile, family, dreams, war, music and nature and feature hundreds of poets. Arts Council England, the British Council, The Poetry Society and TfL proudly support it. What an unconventional partnership! The poems became so popular that they were published as a book, and some were hosted on a website.
Complimentary Morning Newspaper and Weekly Magazines
The free morning newspaper has become part of the fabric of city life and something that Londoners say improves their daily Tube and bus journeys. But the first question is, what is the business model behind the free newspaper for everyone? The newspaper distribution contract with London Underground Ltd. began in 1999. It went through the process of public tendering. Today, newspaper agencies fiercely compete with each other to get this partnership. It is said that there has been a sharp revenue rise from advertisements to these newspaper agencies that got these tenders. Hence, newspaper agencies are willing to give the newspaper for free. The profit has been more than the cost of the newspaper. These new paper agencies also pay a fee to TfL. Revenue from such Tube and bus distribution deals is used to fund transport improvements, carbon emissions-cutting projects, and to boost paper recycling. It’s a win-win!
I recently realised that there has been a stark change in my taste in music. Thanks to TfL and the artist at the tube station near my office that keeps playing classic jazz. It’s been 20 years since TfL launched its first busking scheme, where it designated around 40 pitches across 30 central London stations, where music artists get fantastic opportunities to show off their talents. Passer-by would often donate money as a token of appreciation, supporting the livelihood of the artists. London is world renowned for music, with many venues to visit and performers to appreciate. Busking has a vital role in the music ecosystem and provides artists with a free, public stage to hone their skills, whether on the street, at one of Busks in London’s high-profile locations or on the Underground. These buskers join a long-living tradition that has been part of the careers of international stars such as Ed Sheeran, Bob Geldof, and Jessie J.
Art on the Underground: Art Everyday for Everyone
In 1917, Frank Pick said, “Where there is life, there is art”. He was not an artist but the Managing Director of the London Underground. Art has now run in the veins of the underground system for ages. Tottenham Court Station is a prevalent example of that note. It has mosaic works done in 1986 by Eduardo Paolozzi (1924 – 2005), and Daniel Buren was commissioned for his works in 2016. This station is now one of London’s most remarkable spaces for public art. The ‘Art on the Underground’ initiative invites artists to create projects for London’s Underground that are experienced by millions of people each day, changing the way people experience their city. Incorporating installation, sculpture, digital and performance, prints, and custom tube map covers, the programme produces critically acclaimed projects that are accessible to all and draw together the city’s diverse communities.
Book Swaps for London
I have encountered many book swap pop-ups on the London Tube, at Stratford, and at Tooting Broadway, to name a few. Some are purely community-led initiatives, and some partner with social charities and TfL. Delving into the history, ‘Book Swap for London’ dates back to 2012, which started with an ambitious aim of a London-wide book-sharing scheme. It’s an exciting yet simple idea. Shelves are set up in the Tube & overground stations, and commuters can use them to pick up books they would like to read and drop off books they want to give away.
The ‘Quote of the Day’ made my day.
I am cheered up by this whiteboard every Monday morning on my way to work. Someone wrote a book called ‘TfL Quote of the Day’ compiling these words of wisdom from 100s of boards at the underground stations that bring London together through the power of words.
The idea of sharing these initiatives is to make oneself look beyond the usual definition of a transit system and inspire a fresh perspective on the humane side our transport systems can carry. It can be a reflection of the soul of the city, its diversity, inclusion, sustainability, and deeply rooted culture. The London Tube is not just a means of getting from A to B; it’s a journey that weaves a tapestry of poetry, music, art, and wisdom into the daily lives of millions.
Intrigued by the future of Metro and its impact on our city? Join us at our upcoming InnoMetro event to delve deeper into this vital issue. Stay informed, get involved, and let’s ride the Metro towards a brighter, more sustainable future together.