London has a sophisticated transport system which is characterized by an extensive public transport network. Much of this network is operated by Transport for London (TfL), the agency in charge of the city’s bus, trams, and Underground while other rail services form part of the National Rail system.
The London Underground (known colloquially as the Tube) is perhaps the most representative transport network in the city, its iconic red-and-blue logo without a doubt a symbol of the city itself. It is the oldest metropolitan rail system in the world (from 1863) with 11 lines and the longest in terms of track, of which slightly over half of it is actually above ground. Annual ridership is over 1 billion but does not include the Docklands Light Railway which serves the Docklands, Canary Wharf and East London, or the London Overground (previously part of National Rail, now converted to be compatible with the Tube) as well as the many National Rail connections within the city which are estimated to add nearly a quarter billion passengers to the total (London.gov.uk, 2009). Underground stations are overwhelmingly concentrated north of the Thames, with South London being mostly served by National Rail.
London is a major hub of the national railway system which provides links to the city to the numerous suburbs and extra-urban communities as well as to the areas of the city which are not served by the Underground. Major rail termini in the city include Charing Cross, King’s Cross/St. Pancras, Liverpool Street, Paddington and Waterloo and these generally associated with a particular geographical area, for example, Liverpool St. serving the east of England and Essex. International high-speed rail services are also provided by Eurostar at St. Pancras to either Brussels or Paris.
London’s road network is notoriously congested in Central London, this due largely to the fact that it was designed before the advent of cars and the general lack of large avenues and boulevards throughout. A controversial congestion charge currently applies to vehicles entering the central zone and has been claimed to reduce traffic somewhat: roughly, only one of ten people use cars to go to work (London.gov.uk, 2009). Urban motorways have also been suggested but have been objected by residents; however, there is an orbital motorway (the M25) designed to relieve traffic passing through the London area but also often suffers from excessive vehicular flow. Public services are provided by London’s bus network of 700 different routes (many of which run 24 hours). Composed largely of red double-decker buses, these are one of these most representative features of the city and instantly recognizable around the world.
For international travel, there are five airports which serve the city. Heathrow, located to the west of the city, is the largest and the busiest airport in the world for international passenger traffic. Gatwick Airport, located in West Surrey, is the second busiest airport in the UK, while Stansted Airport (Essex) and Luton Airport (Bedfordshire) cater mostly to low-budget carriers. Lastly, London City Airport is located in the Docklands and serves mostly mid-range airliners and business jets. Despite the availability of these five airports, current concerns about overcrowding and costs have prompted suggestions such as the development of a controversial third runway at Heathrow, and the selling of Gatwick and Stansted by their current operator, BAA.
Lastly, there are number of water transportation services available. These include various river bus commuter services along the Thames and the Port of London, which was once the largest in the world but declined in importance after the 1960s and the advent of containerization. Most port facilities have since been moved towards the coast with many of the former wharfs and docks having been extensively redeveloped for commercial or residential use during the past decades.
London is one of the world’s most important centres for higher education, boasting a wide variety of institutions many of which are world-renowned. Many of these are part of the federal University of London which in total comprises a total of 120,000 students arranged into numerous colleges and institutes which are largely autonomous (a high concentration of facilities are located in the Bloomsbury area of London, mostly around Senate House which is the administrative centre of the University). Of these, four stand out due to their international reputation for research in a broad range of academic disciplines: Imperial College London, King’s College, the London School of Economics and University College London (UCL). These are constantly ranked among the top 5 or 10 universities in the UK and also compare favourably with the major universities in North America and Europe (Times Online, 2009).
Other institutions of higher learning include numerous devoted to arts education including four music conservatories, drama schools, and art & design schools. There are also a number of medical schools which are linked to the leading hospitals in the city.
Like most European cities, shopping in London is done along various thoroughfares, the main one being Oxford Street. Running from the eastern corner of Hyde Park to St. Giles’ Circus, Oxford boasts numerous flagship stores from both high-end and budget retailers (Selfridges, Marks & Spencer, Topshop, Primark). Other major shopping streets and areas include Regent St, Covent Garden, Picadilly, Tottenham Court Road, Savile Row and Sloane Street. Knightsbridge is also particularly famous for Harrods department store, one of the largest in the world (and largest in the UK).
Shopping centres (generally smaller than those found in North America) are also found dispersed around the city. Recently, the Westfield London shopping centre was opened in Shepherd’s Bush. It is the largest shopping centre in London (and third largest in the UK) as well as being the largest urban indoor centre in Europe. Other large shopping centres in the city include the Whitgift Centre and the Centrale in Croydon, and Brent Cross in Hendon which was the first of its kind to be built in the UK.
London has a distinguished sports history, having previously hosted 2 Olympic Games (1908, 1948), the World Cup (1966) as well as other international events such as the Commonwealth Games. London is also the host city of the 2012 Olympics and has submitted a bid to host the 2018 World Cup as well.
Football is the most important sport in England, and London has a total of 5 teams (Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United) in the Premier League and various other teams in lower divisions. Two of these teams, Arsenal and Chelsea, are perennial favourites for domestic and international titles and are considered among the ‘big four’ English clubs today. London is also the site of Wembley Stadium which hosts the English national team’s home games as well as the FA Cup Final. It is also the largest stadium in the UK and second largest in Europe (and hosts many non-football events including concerts). It was built to replace the original Wembley Stadium which was considered one of the world’s foremost sporting venues after its construction in 1923.
Other sports which have a major presence in London include rugby union (Twickenham Stadium is the second largest stadium in the UK after Wembley), cricket (major venues being the Lord’s Cricket Ground and the Oval), and tennis where one of the four Grand Slam tournaments (and arguably the most prestigious) is played, in Wimbledon. Besides this, some notable sporting events include the boat race between Oxford and Cambridge universities, and the London Marathon.