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London, a super developed worldly metro with immense infrastructure and extensive transport systems, is one of few large cities in which having a car is wholly unnecessary for most residents.
While cars can be useful for expats living on the outskirts of London or those with young children, most locals rely exclusively on public transport and taxis for getting around the sprawling capital.
It's also relatively easy to get from point A to point B on foot, and sometimes it's even easier to walk between places than hopping on and off the Tube.
With a profusion of public transport options, learning to navigate the streets and circles of the city might be tricky at first, but once settled, expats should find it fairly easy to travel around London.
Most of the public transport network is managed by Transport for 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. There are downsides though, as London locals know. 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. One could also hop onto a public riverboat on the Thames.
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 or annually, or on a pay-as-you-go basis. 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. That said, 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.
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 also a 24-hour 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.
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, and each bus stop has a sign listing the routes. Bus routes are identified by a number and sometimes letters, and 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 a number of night-bus routes across the city that run 24/7. Night bus routes are marked by an 'N' preceding the bus number.
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.
The British railway system is known as National Rail. London’s suburban rail services are operated by several private companies. 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 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.
The tram 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.
London has a number of river bus services along the Thames. Uber Boat by Thames Clippers 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. They can also be found at designated ranks throughout the city.
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 are not recommended.
Ride-hailing applications are also an option and can be cheaper than black cabs. Uber has had continued legal battles with Transport for London but has been back on London streets since 2020. Other ride-hailing apps such as Bolt, Ola and Xooox are also available.
Cycling in London
In recent years there has been a concerted effort to make London more cycle friendly, and Transport for London operates a city-wide bicycle hire scheme. Trips of half an hour or less are free, with a fare being charged for each half hour thereafter.
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.
Cycle routes in London are known as Cycleways and are in the process of being expanded.
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 certain types of public transport outside of peak hours. Non-folding bikes can't be taken onto buses at all. 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 exceedingly easy to tackle on foot, as long as new arrivals have either a physical 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. That said, 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.
►Read our Areas and Suburbs in London page for more information on the best and most well-connected parts of the city
"We joke about whether we need a car quite often. Having sold all our automobiles before moving here, we challenged each other to see how long each could hold off before buying a car here. So far neither of us have given in and we have managed to avoid that purchase with an annual Oyster, knowing our bus and underground routes, using Uber and black cabs as necessary and subscribing to and using the occasional Zip car. We rate the public transportation very high and so will probably forego auto ownership the entire time that we are here." Read more about US expat Kimberley's London experiences.
Are you an expat living in London?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to London. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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