I always dreamt about one day living in London.
I’m not quite sure what I pictured this life would be, but presumably my dreams did not involve things like: queuing for a bus, cramming onto a crowded Tube, getting wet feet from a hidden puddle under wobbly paving on the footpath. But these are as much a part of living in London as … well… what should this London life look like?
If you work, you have to get to work, and unless you’re very rich, or one of the brave souls who cycle (not me!) then you will probably take some form of public transport. Londoners complain about the public transport systems but it’s actually very good. If I turn up to a bus stop in London, pretty soon a bus will come along. Maybe not as soon as I wanted, but pretty soon. On a visit to my hometown, I forgot about this miracle and went and sat at the bus stop waiting for a bus. I sat and waited for 40 minutes. That’s a long time to sit and wait for a bus.
My niece, on her first visit here, went to catch a Tube. She and her friend saw there was a train at the platform and ran to catch it but the doors closed and it rattled away. “Oh no,” they thought, still in home-town transport mode. “Now it will be half an hour until the next one.” Then they looked up and saw the display saying “Next train 3 minutes” and started laughing.
My local Tube line runs a train every 100 seconds in rush hour. This is tremendous service. I’m sure there are places in Japan or China where they run metros more often than this, but 100 seconds is fine for me.
So frequency = good.
But despite the frequency, there are still a lot of people living here (~8 million), and there are certain times of day when a lot of these people are all trying to get somewhere at the same time. And no amount of frequency will save you from crowds during those times.
Rush hour Tubes: the lucky ones with a seat, everyone else jammed into the standing space. Nose-to-armpit, hip-to-hip, someone’s bag sticking into your kidneys, someone’s bad breath in your ear (really people, is it so much to ask for you to brush your teeth in the morning?). Stretching at an uncomfortable angle to grab hold of something to brace against so you don’t fall over when the train starts to move… or stops moving. At least if you are sitting down you can look at people’s shoes (always a popular Tube pastime) but when you’re standing and uncomfortable and someone just trod on your toes and there’s no room in the carriage but that man in a suit who looks like he used to play rugby and bully the weaker boys at whatever private school he went to decides to jam himself into the carriage anyway… at those times, it’s very hard to hold any love for your fellow humans. You start to hate EVERYONE.
The early-terminating bus: My local route has started to do this a lot during home-time commuting hours. It’s the end of the day, we are all jammed onto this bus, we all just want to get home. So when the announcement comes, “The destination of this bus has changed,” it’s not good news. “This bus terminates here.” People are always surprised. And often angry. If it happens once then maybe I can put up with it but when I get three early terminations in a week? And even if the bus decides to terminate, it’s only 2 stops before my stop, but that’s still up to 10 minutes of walking I have to do to get home. Ten minutes of extra commute at the end of the day is 10 minutes of my own time that I’m not getting back.
My commute is going to change soon because my employer is moving to a new building in a different part of the city.
I’ll have to take a different route to get to work. The options are many but not great:
- 15 minute walk plus 50 minutes Tube ride. Fast but in winter no daylight. Also, rush hour Tube.
- Same route as now (25 minute walk, 20 minutes on the overground train) but now with another 7 minute train and a 15 minute walk at the other end.
- Seven minute walk to a bus, bus ride of something from 40-60 minutes (because – traffic) and then another 15 minutes from the bus to the Tube to the station to my new building
- 15 minute walk, 25 minute Overground train, 40 minute ferry ride (this one is fanciful with its hour-and-a-half duration but would probably be the most pleasant of all the journeys)
There are other options as well but they involve even more changes and one thing I know from years of living in London, the more changes you have, the more tedious your journey, the greater the possibility of something going wrong.
I could also cycle (1 hr 15) or walk (3hrs 35), but realistically I would only be walking if all the transport in London broke down, which would mean it was snowing.
That was the one time I remember we had no transport. It snowed, heavily, and they got the timing of the road gritting wrong, so the roads were frozen. No buses. No Tubes. No trains. I remember seeing cars abandoned on the street near home. Drivers unfamiliar with driving in the snow, obviously scared by the slipperiness of the roads, left their cars where they had skidded to a crooked stop against the kerb. ￼