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

Free Public Transport

Have you ever been tempted not to pay a fare? I imagine this will largely depend on the nature of the transport system you are using. In Paris, the barriers to enter the Metro are full height, so no chance of dodging them. In London, Underground barriers are about chest height, so probably too high to get over. In Warsaw, on the other hand, the barrier is only a turnstile, which I have seen jumped over (or slipped under) many times. Would a simple solution such as broader barrier stop this from happening? I’m pretty sure!

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How to catch a train?

I found an interesting question on one of the Linkedin groups I belong to and felt compelled to write an answer. As it turned out to be a pretty complete response, I deemed it worthy of its own blog entry, so here it is.

How can we get more rail passengers to arrive at the station by bike, bus or on foot?

This is a great question which I have pondered somewhat in the past, so it’s great to try and put these thoughts in writing. The methods with the most potential in my opinion are buses and bikes. As to how to encourage walking to a station? Presumably only by deterring driving by car!

In situations where walking or cycling is not suitable, be it due to weather, distance or convenience, buses seem like the obvious answer, provided that they have an advantage over taking the car. In simple monetary terms, a return journey to the station by bus must be cheaper than a day’s parking ticket at the station. More importantly though, the bus timetable must be suitably synchronised with the train one to ensure convenient connections. This should be relatively simple to arrange in a sleepy commuter village.

As to cycling, the answer is relatively straight-forward – ensuring that the bike which is left at the station remains safe. Although cycle boxes may be an attractive idea, they take up far too much space to be an effective solution anywhere with more than 50 bikes. There are in my opinion two key criteria to meet for someone to leave their bike at the station: ensuring it is protected from thiefs and the elements. The latter is ensured by bike shelters closed in on as many sides as possible. The former, by installing CCTV cameras and optionally having ‘guards’ patrol the racks, as well as by encouraging cyclist to register their bikes. The solution feels simple enough to me.

My experience spans reaching train stations semi-regularly in three very different cities. In Oxford, I lived too far from the station to walk so, as a poor student, cycling (there and everywhere else) was the only option. However, the bike racks were perhaps the most crammed I have seen anywhere. In the commuter town of Harpenden (Herts), there was a vast car park alongside the track which caused endless traffic jams on the main Station Road leading into the centre. Walking or cycling past the long queue of frustrated drivers was therefore very satisfying. Finally, in Edinburgh, I commute out of town at 8am – the 20min bus journey drops me off outside the station with a slightly excessive 15 mins to buy my ticket and board a train for a 20min train journey, which is followed by another 20min walk (or a 5 min cycle ride on the rare occasion the weather is clement – at least going ‘against the flow’ means there’s always space for my bike).

To summarise, what will encourage walking, cycling or using public transport to catch the train? A smoother and friendlier journey than getting there by car – something well within reach if it is planned properly.