One of the big drawbacks with public transportation is that it just isn’t cool. Unless, of course, you’re in London.
Here, tourists gladly shell out 20 bucks for t-shirts featuring their favourite stations, coffee mugs with the Underground logo and everything from umbrellas to boxer shorts featuring – get this – the bloody route map. Even their in-train announcements are cool… the phrase ‘Mind the gap’ has a product line all its own. Including the thong pictured here.
So how did they do it? To begin with, the system has some serious cultural history to it. Heck, the tunnels served as bomb shelters during WWII. And the term ‘Underground’ has a cool to it that ‘subway’ can never hope to match. The logo is even older, passing it’s 100th year mark in 2008, having undergone several renovations. Most notably by Edward Johnston [1872-1944], the brilliant arts and crafts calligrapher, and most recently by Henrion, Ludlow and Schmidt in 1984. The map is widely recognized as a design masterpiece. (Harry Beck, the designer of the map in 1933, was only paid five guineas for his original job. The only official acknowledgment he received is a plaque at Finchley Station)
As a result, at least for tourists, the London Underground seems to suffer from little of the stigma of most North American transit systems. Everybody uses it, from Fleet Street bankers to mod clubbers. It’s just the way things are done. They have also developed a tidy side-business in tourist wares.
So how does the branding of Canadian systems rate? The Toronto Transit Commission dubs their clanking, clanging streetcars the ‘Red Rocket’… which only really makes sense if Jules Verne is your astronautical engineering reference point. Vancouver’s ‘SkyTrain’ sounds a bit newer, but suffers from a pre-school compound-word simplicity… rather like the TreeHouse or GummyBear. And TransLink… BC’s regional transportation authority, sounds like a manufacturer of train couplings. Not to be appearing on sexy tank tops any time soon.
Actually, there’s little chance a Canadian trasportation board would even approve the term ‘Underground’ at all. I can just hear the focus groups… “Sounds too dark. Scary almost.” “What abut the trains that run above ground?” “Is there a more positive spin we could put on it… how about ‘HappyTrains’…?”
Mind The Gap t-shirts... way cool.Perhaps our North American society won’t be able to match the cool of London’s Underground until we’re out of short pants. But gosh, I wish we could. Getting people out of their cars and onto more efficient and responsible transportation would be a lot easier with branding that has a chance of being cool.

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