Little Differences: London

This is me, trying to record a few offhand observations, and ridiculously try to link them to larger social trends and stereotypes, aside from the stuff everybody already knows, e.g. the habit of driving on the wrong side of the road.

Climate Change

Air conditioning simply isn’t used as much here in London; the indoors are kept a few degrees (F) warmer than I am used to in Chicago, which has a similar (outdoors) climate.

I’d expect that if I stayed here I’d sweat off about 10 lbs just doing standard office work, which could explain how the average frailty here is noticeably higher.

A Can of Coke

SI measurements mean a can of pop is 330ml, which is just shy of 11.2 oz. In the US, it’s a 12oz can. That’s about 12 calories less sugar per-can, which would be another reason why people here are thinner.


Holy Christ as a cracker.

So here’s the thing: U.S. cities are mostly planned and Cartesian; they’re on a grid. It may not be perfect, but you can expect big long streets that run the length of the city, cross-streets that cut over, and a few exceptions that cut diagonally to help you get from A – C without going north to B, then over to C. Once and a while, a street will dead-end for some reason, and you’ll have to go around the block, or up and over a few to find an underpass beneath the expressway or avoid a one-way section of a street.

And for you native Bostonians, I recommend you come visit your cousins in Chicago and you’ll see what I mean… Hell, even Newark has a grid.

You can also expect the numbers to count up coherently: if I say that Madison and State are (0,0), and I live on 1800 N. Wells, you can figure out pretty easily how to get from Madison and State to my house by glancing at a map. The only information that isn’t encoded in the address is the X axis of Wells, which means that once I know 2D geometry (which everyone is taught the first year of High School), the only additional cognitive load required to find my way to any given address is the missing coordinate of the street the address is on. I have to learn that Wells = 200 West, that x = -200. And that’s something you can learn once and never forget. If I do have to detour for some reason, I know that I’ve cut over to Clark, which is 100 West, and can get back most any time I want.

Not so in London, at least Tower Hill, which is where my hotel is. Without some kind of map, it isn’t even possible to discern that you’re headed the wrong direction—even Sol has deserted you in your quest. The closest analogue I can imagine is that some mad fiend has turned the heart of a major metropolitan area into the cul-de-sac hell that is restricted to the suburbs in the US.

I’m not saying that Hell is wrong, but I can turn left twice and still end up travelling the same direction, because the streets all curve and stop after a block or two. Just sayin’

This also means that cabbies here have a tremendous racket, as they can legitimately meander around a neighborhood trying to find a street which only exists for a block or two. It also means that no matter where you are, where you’re going, or how you’re getting there, it will take you about an hour.

Transit Costs

The Underground is 2.3x more expensive than the CTA. Yes, things are much more posh, and London is more expensive in general, but it costs me 6 USD, rather than 2.5 USD to get anywhere.


“Thanks, you’re a diamond, babe” is not something you’d ever hear in the U.S. for letting someone bum a smoke. (Well, maybe Boystown.) I tend to worry that I come across as something of an ogre for the businesslike, give-nothing-away, “thanks” I’m used to. We’re not assholes, we just play poker.

Update: If you’re tempted to take offense, please recall these are tongue-in-cheek, touristy observations of a confessed business-traveling Chicagoan who actually did enjoy himself, particularly on Brick Road the night before he left. 😉

23 thoughts on “Little Differences: London

  1. The air-conditioning thing is something you’ll find almost anywhere outside of the US. I’ve traveled a bit, and when in the US, I usually find places like office buildings and malls to be unpleasantly cool. It’s odd to me, that in mid summer, I might be sweating in the sun, then need a jacket if I go inside.

  2. Google Maps Navigation is a life saver here in Omaha. I can’t imagine operating without it in London..

  3. I personally prefer unordered streets/them curving etc. Been growing up in Germany, and here it’s pretty much the same. Well, actually, over most of Europe you find those disorderly streets, due to all the history behind the cities and settlements.

    Walking/Driving through all those meticulously ordered streets in the USA just made it seem so… indexed. It’s already bad enough how much is indexed about people everywhere, but to have almost the exact geographic location just by your street-name? That’s just that extra-bit of creepy to me. Of course, if you have the address, you can find out the exact location over here, too. But not just by reading the street-name unless you live in the neighbourhood. It might be more convenient the way the US does it, but it’s just one of those things that give me an even worse feeling of “being indexed”.

    And yes, Underground is extremely expensive in London…

  4. Two things I thought I would mention.

    It’s not just Tower Hill! Most Towns and Cities in the UK are laid out in the same way. I imagine it’s because they have developed over such a long time. The only place in the UK that I can think of that has been developed according to a grid is Milton Keynes.

    Are you using an Oyster Card on the Underground? Paper tickets are fiendishly expensive. Oyster Card tickets cost significantly less.

  5. if you’re staying more than two days in London, always get yourself a pays-as-you-go Oyster card. there’s a small deposit fee (£6, last time I checked) and then you’ll pay half the ticket price for tube and buses. and you can return it at the end of the trip and you’ll get the deposit back.

  6. ttx,

    Actually you know quite a bit less about where someone lives from their street name in Chicago than you would in London. If I say I live on Myddleton, you know where I live to within a few blocks (and could crack wise about Arsenals fans). Wells is 81 blocks/15km long, but starts at the wealthiest neighborhoods in Chicago: Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast (very Cubs), runs into the downtown, stops for a bit, then gets picked up again on the south side running past US Cellular Field, which us north-siders crack wise about having to dodge bullets after the games.

    Other streets, like Western Ave, are nearly 40km long.

    andrew, emmanuele,

    There’s something similar in Chicago, though it requires registering and having a card mailed to you last I checked—I assume your comments mean Oyster isn’t quite as difficult to get ahold of.


    Could you elaborate on what version of Chrome you’re using? I use Chromium (5.0.377 in Ubuntu, trying out 6.0.472 PPA now) as my default browser these days and it works fine…

  7. Your blog is invisible in Google Chrome, just thought I’d let you know.
    It never “fades in”.

  8. As has been mentioned, it’s not just the large cities in Europe – the vast majority of the towns and cities are the same. It’s because, for the most part, they haven’t been ‘designed’ or ‘planned’ – they’ve grown organically from much smaller beginnings. I personally think it’s much nicer this way – especially when thinking about getting from one part of a city to another. You have to think about it and plan your route a bit more… none of this ‘two over and five up’ approach to navigation nonsense! You actually have to navigate!

  9. Now you know why “map making” is counted as a great invention in civ-like games 😉

  10. People are more frail on average in London? What? We’re certainly not as obese as you lot are.

  11. It seems that less airconditioning makes electricity networks more stable. For streets without a grid I recommend Istanbul.

  12. $6 for a tube journey? You’re paying cash rather than using an Oyster card aren’t you?

    Tower Hill is in Zone 1. Oyster PAYG single price to anywhere else in Zone 1 is £1.80, whereas the cash price is £4.

    Oh, and there’s a reason everyone in London owns a portable copy of the AtoZ. You can buy them everywhere for a few quid. Get one 🙂

  13. Oyster cards are easy to get – there are machines which vend them in every Underground station, and you can top them up at the usual ticket machines. Well worth it if you’re not just passing through.

    The streets are definitely like that because the city is old. Really, really old. Everywhere else in the UK is the same – Milton Keynes is a notable exception due to being a new town built after the Second World War. Most everywhere else has roots in settlements hundreds or thousands of years old. We’ve got cities that still partially reflect Roman street plans, and streets which still run more or less where they ran in the time of Henry VIII.

    Personally I think that’s pretty awesome.

  14. That’s because while civilisation thrived in Europe, overseas you were still hanging from trees like ignorant apes. Which is basically what you remained throughout centuries of “evolution”. And now you suddenly feel like you’ve got something to teach us on bark, branches and leaves.

    Not everywhere you will find a McDonaldised society, and this always disconcerts you, I know, not to find a mirror in which to stare at your own faces for days on end. Luckily, there are still towns and countries you’ve not destroyed to have them rebuilt… yet.

  15. does the Coke in london have cane sugar, beat sugar, or high fructose corn syrup?

    HFCS has been known to cause spontaneous detonation in rats.

  16. Oyster cards never expire, either (or if they do it’s a looooong timeout), so you can just get one and keep it for whenever you next happen to be in London. I only go to the UK once a year, usually, but I keep an Oyster card in my ‘UK wallet’. There’s really no excuse for ever using anything else to travel in London. You *can* register and have your Oyster card tied to your identity if you really want to – you have to do this if you want to use some of the options like paying a flat monthly rate or a student rate or something – but if you just buy one from a dispenser it’s anonymous. They’ll track the hell out of where you go using that card, of course, but there’s no way to know that it’s you who owns it. The other London travel tip is that using the buses is a lot cheaper than the tube, but the problem with that is it’s much harder to work out, and they don’t have the buses programmed into Google Maps yet so you can’t use that.

    Yes, British cities look the way they do simply because they’re very old and their layouts were not planned, as such. There’s the additional complication that all the very old stuff is now historically significant and can’t be knocked down. This is why, fr’instance, Cambridge town centre is gridlocked for three hours every morning: the road layout was more or less finalized in the 14th century and now it’s utterly impossible to change it because you can’t bulldoze anything. So it’s stuck with very narrow single lane roads for evermore.

    There’s one advantage of the grid system you didn’t touch on – public transit. The UK spends quite a lot on transit, but it can still be extremely difficult to get around on buses, simply because laying out routes is a gigantic nightmare. In a grid system city you can run a bus on every five streets on each axis, maybe a few express runs on popular routes, and you’re pretty much done. (Here in Vancouver, half the bus numbers are simply the street they run along – the 41 runs all the way along 41st Avenue, all across the city). In a British city where the street layout resembles a spaghetti bomb, it’s pretty much impossible to cover the same area with the same level of efficiency with the same number of buses.

  17. Welcome to London, dude! I spent a year in Chicago a while back. Nice town. Don’t know if the climate is all that similar though….

  18. I visited Chicago many times when I was younger and I really don’t see the similarities in climate. London is MUCH milder. Chicago can experience ungodly extremes. I remember this one winter when the temp was down in the -20s F for the week I was there. The stillness in the air was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before (even when living in upstate NY).

  19. Hi James, I’m using Google Chrome (not Chromium) version 5.0.375.125 from Google’s repository and it’s not showing up for me. Works fine in FFox.

  20. In the words of Eddie Izzard: “I grew up in Europe, where the history comes from.”


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