Getting Around in London

London is one of the few cities in which having a car is unnecessary for most residents. While cars can be useful for those living on the outskirts of London or those with young children, most locals rely exclusively on public transport and taxis for getting around London. 

It's also relatively easy to get from point A to point B on foot, and sometimes it's easier to walk between places than hop on and off the Tube. 

Keeping in mind all of the public transport options, learning to navigate the streets and circles of the city is not too hard, and expats should find it fairly easy to travel around London.


Public transport in London

London, as new arrivals will quickly discover, is divided into nine zones. Zone 1 and Zone 2 are considered central London, with zones 3 to 9 forming rings around this core.

In general, taking public transport in London – no matter which option – will be cheaper, and often faster, than using a taxi or driving. However, there are downsides, as any city-dweller knows. While trains and buses are for the most part clean and comfortable, they can become unbearably crowded during rush hour. 

London’s public transport network includes the Tube (also known as the Underground), overground trains, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), trams and buses. Expats can also hop onto a public riverboat on the Thames.

The Oyster card system

London has an integrated ticketing system. While it is still possible to get paper tickets, it is recommended that expats living and working in London buy an Oyster card. This plastic smartcard allows commuters to load daily, weekly, monthly and annual or pay-as-you-go credit on it. It's also usually the cheapest way to pay for single journeys and is valid on almost all forms of public transport throughout London. Oyster cards can be bought or topped up at any tube station, most newsagents and online.

All tube stations have automatic ticket barriers and those travelling with an Oyster card simply tap the card against the yellow pad at the beginning and end of the journey.

Another advantage of the Oyster card is that one's credit and travel card are protected. If a commuter reports an Oyster card lost or stolen, Transport for London is able to block it to prevent anyone else from using it. However, it's important that the card is registered online so that in the event of it being lost or stolen the cardholder is able to claim a refund on the remaining credit. 

Tube

London is home to the world’s oldest underground rail network. The London Underground system is made up of 11 lines, which make travelling anywhere in the metropolis quick and easy. The Tube generally runs from around 5am to midnight. There is now a 24-hour Tube service operating on Fridays and Saturdays on several lines. 

Although the Tube is the quickest way to travel in London, it gets very crowded during morning and evening rush hours (7am  to 9am and 5.30pm to 7pm respectively). The Tube also gets incredibly hot and stuffy during the summer, so it's worth carrying a bottle of water.

Bus

Buses can be a quick and efficient mode of transport for travelling short distances or outside central London. It can also be a nice alternative for those who want to see more of the city.

London has an extensive bus network with more than 700 routes. Each bus stop has a sign listing the routes that pass through. Bus routes are identified by a number and sometimes letters. Buses display the route number at the front, side and rear. They also have their location and direction of travel on them.

To complement regular daytime service, there are over 100 night bus routes across the city which run 24/7. Night buses are especially useful for those returning home after a night out when the Tube and regular bus services have stopped. 

Docklands Light Railway

The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is a dedicated light rail network that operates in East London and connects with the Tube network at several stops. The DLR operates on a driverless system and runs above ground on much of its route.

Train

The British railway system is known as National Rail. London’s suburban rail services are operated by several private companies, with trains running mostly in the south of the city and away from the city centre.

There is no single central station in London. Instead, there are several mainline stations dotted on the edges of the central areas.  

National Rail services are especially useful to expats who are commuting into London from outlying areas.

Overground

Overground services can be a useful shortcut for crossing the city, or can be used to travel further out than Tube services go. London Overground is different to National Rail and is operated by Transport for London, but Oyster cards are accepted throughout the network. 

Tram 

Due to the fact that South London is poorly served by the Tube and National Rail services, the tram system was introduced in 2000. The network centres on Croydon and surrounds, and links up with a number of train and Tube services.

Trams are fairly frequent and arrive every seven to 10 minutes. 

Boat

London has followed in the footsteps of cities like Sydney and Hong Kong and has introduced a number of river bus services along the Thames. London River Services is part of Transport for London and manages regular commuter boats and a network of piers along the river. 

While boats can be slow and a little more expensive than the Tube, they're a pleasant transport alternative within the city with unrivalled views of the London skyline.  


Taxis in London

Taxis are a convenient way to travel around central London but they're best used for short journeys, otherwise fares can become costly. They only become an economical means of transport when shared by a number of people going to the same destination.

London has two types of taxis: the famous black cabs and minicabs. Black cabs are the only type that can legally be hailed by people off the street. Available cabs have a lit-up yellow "taxi" sign on their roof. Licensed minicabs can only be pre-booked and will not pick up passengers from the street, although unlicensed minicabs might. Unlicensed minicabs can be unsafe, however, and there have been a number of incidences where passengers have been assaulted in these vehicles.

Black cabs can also be found at designated ranks throughout the city. Drivers of black cabs have to pass a rigorous exam called ‘The Knowledge’ and should be able to navigate London without a map.

Ride-hailing applications such as Uber are also an option and can be cheaper than black cabs. Though briefly banned from operation in London in 2017, the judgement was overturned and Uber is once more available to London commuters.


Cycling in London 

In recent years there has been a concerted effort to make London more cycle-friendly. Transport for London operates a city-wide bicycle hire scheme. The first half hour is free, after which there's an hourly charge. Once users have registered their bank card online, they can hire a bike from one of the many automated docking stations dotted around the city. Contactless bank cards can also be used, making the process even easier.

Cyclists need to be confident before taking to London’s streets as London motorists are often hostile towards them, especially at busy junctions. The sophisticated cycle lane networks found in many other European cities don't exist in London as cycle lanes are limited. The safest option during rush hour is to stick to minor residential roads.

Taking a bike onto public transport isn't easy because of overcrowding during rush hour. Non-folding bikes can only be taken onto limited sections of the Tube and the National Rail network outside of peak hours. For this reason, folding bicycles have become more popular in London.


Walking in London

Whenever it is possible, walk. It is the best way to see the city and central London is very easy to tackle on foot, as long as new arrivals have either a paper map or a navigation application on their phone. Just remember when crossing the street that cars drive on the left.


Driving in London

Most Londoners avoid driving, especially in the centre of town, and it is a good idea for expats to follow their example. However, people living south of the river or outside of Zone 2 and expats with children do often choose to own a car.

Expats might find the best option is to rent a car in London, which is a good compromise between relying exclusively on public transportation and owning a car.

Drivers should be aware that driving into central London on weekdays during daylight hours incurs a congestion charge. Drivers who don't pay this charge are fined. 

Parking in central London can also be a problem. It's difficult to find a parking space and fees are expensive. Parking restrictions are stringently enforced and fines are hefty.

Betsy Remes Our Expat Expert

Born and raised in Washington, DC, Betsy Remes received her BA from Columbia University and her MA from University College London. She moved to London in the summer of 2010 and works in development at an arts organization.