London Transportation with (or without) a Toddler

April 6, 2016

One of my top priorities has been learning how to explore London with the little one.  This is a family friendly city and it’s atypical to walk more than a couple blocks without seeing a stroller.  There are tons of museums, parks, playgrounds and activities for children.  However, since we don’t have a car, my options for getting around are walking or public transportation.  Public transportation was pretty daunting in the beginning since I was unfamiliar with the system and the city in general.  And toting around an energetic toddler with a stroller and plenty of other baby accoutrements didn’t make it any easier!  Here’s a break down of the various public transportation options, how they work and how easy they are to use.

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Map showing routes for the Tube (Underground), Overground, National Rail Service stations, Riverboat, DLR and more. Click picture to expand.

The Underground/Tube

The Tube has been operating since 1863 and now has 11 different train lines and services 270 stations.  According to Wikipedia, over 1.3 billion people rode the Tube from 2014 to 2015! But contrary to it’s name, only about half of the lines are underground.  I’ve included pictures of the Gloucester Tube station (underground) and South Kensington (below ground level, but not actually underground).  Similar to the Subway in NY, the majority of stations have several flights of stairs to get down to the train platforms.  In order to improve accessibility for wheelchairs and strollers, the Tube has added elevators (i.e. lifts) in some of their stations.  Which is great…if you’re actually going to one of those stations.  Neither of the two stations closest to our home are fully accessible and more often than not, neither is the station where I’m heading.  Occasionally there will only be a handful of stairs to get in and out but since most stations are pretty far underground, this might mean 20+ stairs, an escalator and/or multiple flights.  Carrying a toddler, diaper bag, shopping bags and stroller can make you work up a sweat in a hot minute!  The Tube has an accessibility map showing which stops have either lift access or zero stairs from the platform to the exit. You can check it out here (but sadly, you probably won’t understand it! It’s pretty complicated.). When I have my sweet hubby in tow, we can tag team the buggy but otherwise, Momma’s working up a sweat (or conspicuously struggling in front of the stairs until someone offers to carry it for me!). But there are many positives about the Tube.  It’s relatively inexpensive, you can get practically anywhere within a 45 minute radius and it’s typically faster than the bus or a taxi.  You can get an Oyster card (i.e. a card that you pre-load with money and can be used on multiple public transportation methods) and just swipe in and out instead of having to buy tickets. Once you learn the maps, it’s very easy to figure out where you’re going, even if you need to change trains.  This is my primary mode of transportation when I’m traveling somewhere alone that isn’t within walking distance and also my preferred method if I’m bringing my daughter somewhere without the buggy.  The only downside is trying to keep her from dancing up and down the aisles – but that’s another story!

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To give you an idea of the what you may experience when taking the tube, I decided to take pictures of all the stairs I encountered on a recent trip to the doctor’s office.  Luckily, I had a sitter so I was traveling alone.

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1st escalator down to the platform

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2nd escalator down to the platform

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When I arrived at the first station, I had to change trains which meant walking up this short flight of stairs….

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And then a second flight of stairs….

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And then a third before I arrived at the other platform

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Once I arrived at my destination, there were lifts from the platform (yay!)….

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But to get out of the station to street access, I had to go up this flight of stairs…

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And then this one. Whew! I see daylight!

Bus

You can find a bus stop practically anywhere within a few minutes’ walk. The buses are much more accessible than the Tube and they are very low to the ground.  It’s easy to roll your buggy directly onto the bus and they have wide aisles and wheelchair/buggy parking in the middle. They also have an electric ramp that can extend from the middle door for easier wheelchair access.  One of the bonuses of the bus is that not only can you see the city (which is clearly not an option on the Tube) but if you’re lucky enough to get a front seat in the top seating area, you can see everything!  I was much more intimidated by the bus system than the Tube and didn’t take a bus for a couple months after arriving.  Rightfully so, because on my first bus trip I rode the wrong direction for about 10 minutes before I realized it! But I just got off, walked to the bus stop on the opposite side of the street and waited for the next one.  On the positive side, it made me understand better how to read the maps and now I use the buses more frequently than the Tube when I have the stroller.  The buses are less expensive than the Tube and while it may take a little longer, it’s worth it to not have to struggle on the Tube stairs with the buggy. It’s often less crowded (depending on time of day) and you can typically find a bus stop closer to your destination than a Tube stop. They do not accept cash, so you’ll need to have a pre-loaded Oyster card (or a contactless debit card) to board. It’s a set price regardless of where you get off, so you don’t have to swipe your card again with you leave (unlike on the Tube).

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Taxis

One of the coolest things about London transportation is that, similar to the buses, the taxis are very wide on the inside and low to the ground so you can simply wheel your buggy or wheelchair into the car.  The drivers have always been quick to help me get them in and out if needed. Relative to my experiences in the US, taxi standards are much higher – on average, they are all relatively new, clean on the inside and drivers are courteous. The downside is that it’s not ideal in the long run because it’s significantly more expensive than the Tube or a bus and with the traffic in London, it may take you a good amount longer than taking the Tube (or even walking in some cases)!  Also, many of the drivers still only accept cash so you have to make sure you have some on hand.

As an aside, when my mom was visiting recently, our taxi driver told us it took him four years to pass the examination.  He said there are over 25,000 streets in London and you have to (more or less) know all of them, in addition to the hotels, restaurants, pubs, etc.  Part of the examination consisted of being told the starting destination and the ending destination and naming every street and landmark from one to the other on the preferred route.  He also had to do the same for alternate routes in case he encountered traffic.  Not to mention the background checks, driving tests and more.  In short, you’re in good hands when using the black taxis in London!

Here are a few images of my stroller inside the taxi.  These were taken a couple months ago with my lightweight travel stroller.  My new buggy is a few inches wider and taller than this one and still fits perfectly fine and doesn’t even encroach on your leg room.  This is invaluable when you have a sleeping baby!

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Walking

You always have the option of walking.  When you live in a walking city, the mindset is different.  It takes me about 15 minutes to walk to Hyde park and another 10-15 minutes to get to the playground and that’s considered very close.  It’s not uncommon to walk 45 minutes to a location.  In Atlanta or even the suburbs, walking simply wasn’t an option and if you told someone you were walking to a store that was 30 minutes away, they would think you were crazy!

Another interesting map to reference is this one that shows the walking distance between Tube stops.  If you’re only planning to go a few stops, by the time you get to the platform and wait for the train, it might have been quicker to walk!

The four options above are the ones that I use most frequently.  However, in addition to these there is the London Overground (a network of trains that primarily focus on the London suburbs which is less than 10 years old), the National Rail Service (longer service trains to visit destinations outside of London), the TFL Rail (serving 14 stations in East London), the Docklands Light Railway/DLR (serving about 45 stations from Northeast to Southeast London), the Riverboat (access to 30 piers on the Thames river), Cycling (Santander cycling has stations all over London with readily available bicycles) and more.  The Transport for London site is very easy to use and has maps, fare information, current and upcoming closures, etc. You can even use this site to find walking and biking maps of London, free of charge.

In summary, there is no shortage of transportation options when you’re traveling in London, even with a child.  We’ve talked about purchasing a car but at this point, I think it would be more of a hassle than a benefit.  While we have parking outside of our house, trying to find parking around London is rather difficult and would likely take more time than to simply use public transportation.  I remember my parents asking if we felt safe here, particularly me being alone with my daughter using public transportation and/or getting around at night.  So I was happy that we were out walking at 11 pm one evening for them to see how many people are still out and about at that time.  We then took the Tube home and there was a complete mix of people – young and old, well-dressed and casual, business people coming home and others heading out on the town.  So don’t be nervous about using public transportation in London. If you get lost, you can always just get off on the next stop and regroup or just ask someone.  Londoners are (usually) very happy to help!

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Mom and Dad in the Gloucester Road Tube stop.

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