It may feel like an eternal entity of our city, but Transport for London (or TfL as we invariably call it) celebrates turns just 20 years old in 2020. Here are 20 things it’s given London.
1. The cringeworthy mayoral photo op
Like TfL, the modern Mayor of London position was created in 2000. It didn’t take long for the first mayor, Ken Livingstone, to pounce on the photo ops afforded by TfL (not least being snapped reading papers on the tube just like One Of Us). Boris Johnson dragged the TfL media appearance into a realm of his own, (literally) hanging out with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Emirates Air Line, even thought the Terminator had previously mocked his bumbling speeches. Incumbent mayor Sadiq Khan has been more subtle with his photo calls, although when running for his first term as mayor, he didn’t half bang on about being the son of a bus driver.
2. Bendy buses
Talking of buses. Championed by Livingstone, articulated buses (or bendy buses, as they were always going to be known), snaked their way onto London’s streets in 2001. Soon, they were subject to a slew of rotten press, not least because they proved lethal for some pedestrians and cyclists. They had a habit of going on fire too — the entire fleet momentarily pulled from operation in 2004. Similar buses are still rife in other major cities, including Paris, but the last bendy bus slithered out of London in 2011. Good riddancccccccce.
3. Journey Planner
Before Citymapper there was TfL’s Journey Planner. We may scoff at it now, but in the early 2000s, this was a revolutionary way of finding your way home in the event you’d had one too many after work pints and accidentally wound up in Alperton. Because of TfL’s excellent open data policy, this pioneering technology helped build the apps we’ve come to depend on. Including Citymapper.
4. Barclaycard/Santander Cycles
In July 2010 — at a time when he was still permitted to ride — then-mayor Boris Johnson proudly introduced one of the first Barclays Cycle Hire scheme bikes as “the Rolls-Royce of bicycles.” He was wrong, of course — they were clunky old things — but the scheme itself changed the way Londoners got about. TfL’s gradual introduction of cycleways also emboldened Londoners to take to two wheels. 10.5m journeys were made on the bikes (now rebranded by Santander) in 2018. The scheme has paved the way for numerous private cycle hire operators to get in on the action; ironically, although it’s now easier than ever to get around London, the bloody things block pavements wherever you go.
5. Art on the Underground
Everyone from Edward Johnston to London Underground’s ‘Poster Girls’ have ensured that London’s tube network is like an art gallery with trains. Art on the Underground has made it even more so: thanks to the scheme, we’ve had Mark Wallinger’s hypnotic tube labyrinths; a spate of wonderful murals at the entrance to Brixton station; a massive fried egg on the platform of Gloucester Road station; and an entire building at Edgware Road permanently wrapped in art. These are the kind of touches that can brighten up a Londoner’s day.
6. The Oyster card
The Oyster card isn’t as fresh as it used to be; in fact, it’s slowly being phased out, and you won’t even be able to use it at further-flung Crossrail stations. But when TfL introduced the blue and white card in June 2003, it was a boon that meant you no longer had to buy an endless ream of paper tickets. This had some part in speeding up the demise of ticket offices (see later on in this article). It also led to a spate of sightings of people dressed up as Oyster cards, which was fun.
7. The Overground
A network of orbital rail services had been mooted as early as the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that TfL started to make its mark — initially taking the Silverlink franchise off National Express’s hands, and soon after, incorporating the old East London line into its network of gingerness. Even Iain Sinclair got excited about it, writing a book that was based on the ‘ginger line’ although apparently had little to do with it. The future was bright, the future was orange, as extensions continued to come, and new stations opened — today totalling 81. Hip, air-conditioned, and punctual [pdf], we can safely say that the Overground is one of TfL’s most treasured gifts.
8. Barman moquette
If there’s one moquette we’ll remember from the last two decades, it’s Barman — named for Christian Barman, a pioneer of London’s strong moquette game. When the pattern started appearing on Central line trains in 2011, Londoners were enthralled by its geometric use of four London icons: The Eye, St Paul’s Big Ben and, er, what’s the fourth one again? Luckily, we made a video to remember.
We can also partially thank TfL (alongside London Transport Museum and people like Andrew Martin), for Moquette Mania: we now live in a world where you can get moquette socks, cushions and pencil cases. And frankly, it’s a better world for it.
9. New Routemasters
While Livingstone foisted the bendy bus upon on, his successor gifted us the New Routemaster. They may have seemed a bally good bit of nostalgia — and they looked on fleek from the outside too — but, like their bendy predecessors, they were beset with problems, which led to them being something of a damp squib. TfL won’t be ordering any more of them.
10. The Dangleway
It’s impossible not to hold a morbid fascination with any of Boris Johnson’s vanity projects. There were no exceptions as far as the Emirates Airline (or as cynics loved to call it, the ‘Dangleway’) went. Spanning the Thames from no man’s land in North Greenwich, to no man’s land in the Docklands, commentators such as the New Statesman and Diamond Geezer and, er, Londonist, questioned the actual reason for the cable car which had no mountain to go to. To be fair, North Greenwich and the Docklands are now highly sought after areas, and the people who can afford a house in both can presumably hire a pod to shuttle their gold back and forth.
11. The return of the original ‘Mind the Gap’ announcement
It’s one of the most touching stories in London lore; the widow of Oswald Laurence, the voice behind the original ‘mind the gap’ announcement, used to take comfort in listening to her late husband’s caveats broadcast at tube stations. (“Thank you, darling, I will.” was always her reply). Eventually, though, the recording was phased out in favour of more contemporary recordings. Mrs Laurence wrote a letter to TfL asking for a recording of the announcement that she could listen to on CD. In 2013, TfL went one better, and reinstated Laurence’s voice to Embankment station. You can still hear it there now.
12. Ticket office closures
You can’t say we didn’t see it coming. Automated ticket machines have been on the network for almost a century, and so the demise of the manned ticket office was always on the cards. In 2015, though, swingeing cuts were implemented by TfL, with 268 tube ticket offices closing down. As of 2020, unions continue to seethe at TfL’s cuts to Overground ticket offices, which they argue will make stations less safe, secure and accessible.
Tiny Parks, introduced by TfL and The Edible Bus Stop in 2017, were a silver green lining, which turned former ticket windows into terrariums. You can find them at St James’s Park, Kilburn Park, Belsize Park and Wood Green.
13. The night tube
Tantalisingly trialled during the 2012 Games, the first night tubes started running in earnest (on the Central and Victoria lines) in August 2016. Londoners, who suddenly had a 24-hour city. Well, at the weekend. On selected lines. Since then, the night tube has rolled been out to the Northern, Jubilee and Piccadilly lines, as well as parts of the Overground. When we sent Geoff Marshall for a ride in 2017, he found many of the trains packed; indeed 8.7 million customers used the night tube in 2017/18. A major success for TfL, with services on the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines expected by 2025.
14. The fare freeze
Londoners have got used to hearing ‘fare freeze’ every January. Mayor Sadiq Khan has stuck to his word, in keeping pay as you go fares at the same price for his first term (2016-20). Of course, if you’re one of many Londoners who uses a travelcard, the fare freeze doesn’t apply, and all those posters featuring icy lettering are a bit of a kick in the teeth. While it’s good news for those who find travelling in London difficult to afford, detractors of the fare freeze suggest it’s an unrealistic gimmick that’s not exactly helping TfL’s financial woes. We predict the freeze will be thawed in January 2021, whoever the mayor is.
15. All on the Board’s ingenious whiteboard scribblings
It started with a Craig David gig. In 2017, a pair of TfL employees working at North Greenwich station put their heads together, and wrote an ode to Mr David, scribbling it up on a noticeboard. As fans streamed into the gig at the nearby O2, they stopped to take photos. All on the Board was born — and since has drawn up increasingly inventive wordplay, citing everyone from Ed Sheeran to Stormzy to Katy Perry (who actually posed with the board for a snap).
All on the Board has also touched on poignant moments, such as recent London terror attacks, and the Grenfell tragedy. In general, TfL’s tube station whiteboards have become something to look forward to: daily bouts of philosophy, quotes, poems and comedy now greet tired commuters emerging from the depths.
16. Please offer me a seat
Though there’s always more work to be done, TfL is to be lauded for what it’s achieved for accessibility. We’ve personally heard many people praise TfL’s well trained staff, its push towards more step-free access, and various other moves towards making London’s transport network for everyone. An endearing symbol of this progress is the ‘please offer me a seat’ badge. Introduced by TfL in 2017, it’s now worn by over 30,000 people with visible and invisible disabilities.
17. Novelty roundels
The red, white and blue roundel has been a beacon to London’s commuters for over 100 years, but in recent years, TfL has taken to jazzing it up in some spectacular ways. Its series of Pride roundels have become a familiar sight during the summer, while in November 2019, all 70 roundels at Westminster tube station got a pan-African makeover, thanks to artist Larry Achiampong. Following England’s (relative) success in the 2018 World Cup, there was even a Gareth Southgate roundel. We hope Frank Pick would approve.
18. New Woolwich Ferries
TfL, of course, does boats too. The diesel-chugging dinosaurs that are the Woolwich ferries were finally replaced in 2018, with more eco-friendly models. It’s great to see a route that’s been plied since the 1300s continue, and it’s a wonderful free ride across the Thames to boot. In other riverine news, TfL announced that it wanted 20 million river passengers on the Thames by 2035.
19. The Crossrail debacle
This paragraph has been delayed until later in the article.
Well, we’ve certainly got a lot of extensions in the pipeline, anyway. While the Northern line extension tunnels are already dug, TfL is asking the public to name new stations on a planned Bakerloo line extension. There’s a DLR extension to Thamesmead on the cards; a mooted Tramlink extension to Sutton; along with an Overground extension to Barking Riverside. Lots to look forward to then, and in 20 years time, we hope all these have seen the light, with plenty more extensions in the offing.
20. The Crossrail debacle
TfL rather dug itself a hole with this one. And then forgot to install it with a functioning railway line. OK, it’s not all TfL’s fault — but the stingingly behind-schedule, over-budget purple elephant that is Crossrail has come to be one of the defining legacies of TfL. The gleaming new east-to-west network was meant to be up and running by now, but at the time of writing, Crossrail may not be fully functioning until Christmas 2022. We wouldn’t be surprised if we have to update this article with further postponement. The good news is, you can already buy Elizabeth line moquette socks.
Feature image: TfL