It’s time to give London Overground different line names

Part of the deeply confusing London Overground map. Image: TfL.

This piece was amended on 28 February 2020 to reflect, well, my evolving thinking about names.

So here’s a thing I’ve been thinking a lot of late: it’s time Transport for London stopped pretending the London Overground was one big thing and started giving its lines individual identities. Just as on the Underground, each route should have a colour and a name. It’d make the world better. Honestly.

In some ways, of course, this line of thinking is a sort of greed. I’ve always been in favour of TfL acknowledging the existence of more lines (my strong belief that the District and Northern lines should be two lines apiece, say), in large part because a metro network with 13 lines sounds cooler than one with 11. There’s a similar impulse at work in my sudden determination that the Overground should be many lines not one. London is big, and its transport network one of the best in the world. Stop talking LO down, TfL!

But that’s not the only reason I’m thinking this slightly mad thing: there is, believe it or not, an actual practical argument for it too. On several occasions of late I have needed to go from east London, where I live, to north London, where I want to be. There are a number of ways to do this, but not having a death wish I prefer to avoid the Central line at rush hour, so that limits my options. 

When I asked CityMapper for suggestions, the two fastest routes it offers are these:

Screenshot from CityMapper.

Now. You wouldn’t know it from that screenshot, but here CityMapper is suggesting I take three different lines. On one route, I could get the Overground from Shoreditch High Street to Highbury & Islington. On the other, I would instead head to Bethnal Green Overground station, get one train to Hackney and then change to another heading west. 

To find that out, though, I’d have to click through and frown at some maps and who has the time for that? If each of those lines had a different identity, which could be simply communicated through some combination of logo and colour, then my options would be obvious.

This sort of thing happens a lot. You know you can get the Overground at Whitechapel, and at Gospel Oak, but can you get there directly? No – but you’d need to know the map to get that. Because the different lines that serve those places use the same name and the same colour god it makes me so mad.

Anyway. Thanks to my irrefutable logic, you’re now convinced, I’m sure, I’m sure, of the case for breaking the Overground up. The next questions are – how many lines should it be? And what should we call them all?

A few years ago, in fact, TfL was considering doing, well, basically what I want it to: splitting the Overground into a handful of separate lines, and showing each of them on the tube map using different colour. To distinguish them from the Underground, and to make up for the fact the human eye can only distinguish about 15 different colours at a glance, each would have been shown using “hollow tram lines” – two thin coloured lines with a white space between them – rather than a solid block.


That never happened, obviously – TfL concluded that the status quo was better, although god knows why. (Rumour is that then mayor Boris Johnson preferred being able to point to a big and growing Overground network, rather than a handful of individual lines, some of which are crap.) And, from the glimpses of that map that have occasionally found their way onto the internet – I can’t find it anywhere now; if you can let me know and I’ll add it in – I’m also not convinced by the choices TfL made. 

For one thing, it treated all the Liverpool Street routes through Hackney as a single route, the Lea Valley Lines. To my mind, it’s obviously two – one to Chingford, and one via Seven Sisters which then splits at Edmonton Green – because they use different tracks, have only three stations in common before they split, and follow a different service pattern. (The Chingford trains don’t stop at Cambridge Heath or London Fields because of the aforementioned track thing.)

For another, TfL used really boring names. The East London Line and North London Line are established names, sure. But they’re also sort of colourless. Surely there are better names for them that that?

The full London Overground map. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

So here are my proposals for better names. Some of them I’m quite pleased with. Some of them I’m not. But this is what I’ve got at the moment:

The Brunel line – The extended East London line, from Highbury & Islington down to New Cross/Crystal Palace/West Croydon/Clapham Junction. Named after the Victorian engineer who designed the tunnel under the Thames it uses. 

The Olympia line – The old North & West London lines, from Stratford to Richmond and Clapham Junction, which serve both Kensington Olympia and the Olympic Park. (Here I originally had the Broadway line – a bit of a reach, based on the fact some of those lines used to run into Broad Street station, and it’s a cool name, and North London Line is misleading and too similar to Northern, but Olympia is better and means we don’t end up with two closely connected lines that both begin with the same letter.) 

The Goblin line – The Gospel Oak to Barking line is already known as such to pretty much everyone, and okay the Goblin line means including the “lin” bit twice but what the hell, it’s its name now.

The Harlequin line – Euston to Watford Junction. A name given to the line in the late 20th century, possibly on some kind of Bakerloo model (Harlesden, Queen’s Park), possibly after a shopping centre. Anyway, it’s a cool name and seems worth resurrecting.

The Forest line – London Liverpool Street to Chingford, which is in Waltham Forest and on the edge of Epping Forest.

The Ermine line – London Liverpool Street to Enfield Town/Cheshunt, which roughly follows the Roman road once known as Ermine Street. I toyed with Edmonton, and then settled on Tottenham on the grounds that it’s better known and the line serves several stations in it including the one for the football club’s stadium, but it doesn’t serve Tottenham Hale and someone on Twitter suggested Ermine which is obviously better.

The Emerson line – The Romford-Upminster shuttle only serves one other station, at Emerson Park, so this one is a boring no-brainer.

As I said above, some of these names are, well, not great – so please do email me better suggestions. No, we’re not just going to use letters or numbers, this is London for heaven’s sake.

Then, once we’re agreed amongst ourselves we march on TfL. We’ll win this one yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.