Route Choice – Public Transport

I have recently found myself frequently discussing and giving advice to travellers in London, as well as planning my own journeys in a range of circumstances, primarily focussing on travel to or from all of London’s airports. This has brought to my attention the range of factors which contribute to the choice of journey we make and the challenge of catering to our needs in most journey planners, from the good old fashioned tube map, through TfL, National Rail, Google or even Citymapper, which is my go-to travel app.

I would like to argue that whether or not you’re travelling in a hurry or not, with or without a suitcase, on a familiar or unfamiliar system, can potentially have a huge impact on what is the optimal route you may wish to take. Let’s start with the obvious…

Time & Money

In general, time is considered the primary and most obvious factor in deciding route choice and indeed journey planners now often tell you at what time you need to leave to arrive at your destination by your desired time, even giving live departure times for buses and trains. You can get across most of London on a bus, but taking the tube is likely to be faster or even, if you happen to be on the right route, jumping on a train. The other side of the story, however, is cost. Getting the Gatwick Express can be only 2 minutes faster than taking the ‘normal’ train, yet cost twice as much, while the Heathrow Express might be worth it if you’re travelling to Paddington, but less so if you’re going somewhere else on the tube network (especially if you can just sit tight on the Piccadilly line for an hour). The most frugal travellers may choose to walk or cycle, of course, but as soon as public transport comes into play, so does cost. The difference between a single bus journey (£1.50) and tube (£2.40) may not be much, but over a week of commuting, it’s 90p x 10 = £9! But time is not always equal to money…


Whether or not you have heavy luggage can potentially have a huge impact on the route you take. Let’s take two hypothetical ways to get to the airport… route A: overground + tube + train, travel time = 45 mins; route B: bus + train, travel time = 60 mins. Route B is takes over 33% more time (15 mins), however route A requires you to carry a heavy suitcase up and down several flights of stairs, as some tube stations don’t have lifts. Since you’re presumably leaving with enough leeway to get to the airport, adding an extra fifteen minutes might well we worth the convenience! Similar factors apply to travellers with mobility difficulties, be it an elderly traveller, someone in a wheelchair or with a buggy.

Knowledge of the network

In this instance, ‘knowledge’ can be understood in a number of ways, depending on experience and exposure to the network, as well as the ‘savviness’ of the traveller. London is famous for its tube network and many visitors are still planning their route using a faithful tube map. For many tourists, a bus journey could be preferable – but I am yet to meet someone who thinks that deciphering London’s bus network is easy. Awareness of the entire network may not come readily, even looking at TfL’s website. If you’re travelling from West Hampstead to St Paul’s Cathedral, should you take the Jubilee and Central lines? No! Hop on a train and get off at City Thameslink – it’s faster and there are no changes required. A further element of this is the capability to extend beyond the public transport offering into the fringes of MaaS. Perhaps the quickest way is neither bus nor tube, but hopping on a Boris bike, an ofo or a mobike?


Whilst we might prefer to have the simplest/cleanest solution (“just get me from A to B”), knowing the context of the journey might be really beneficial despite our inherent defensiveness about apps or services knowing too much about us. Wouldn’t it be handy having a personalised guide who can differentiate between when we just need to get to a meeting as quickly as possible, or whether we have time to take a more comfortable journey with two heavy suitcases, as well as when we might save money from altering our trip by walking an extra 5 minutes to catch a bus?

Photo by Janis Oppliger on Unsplash

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