May 22, 2007
For years (five at least) I had a relatively straightforward (mostly) 20 minute bus hop from home (in Mortlake, SW14) to work (in Olympia, W14).
Five minutes walk to the bus stop. A couple of minutes of waiting, then 20 minutes on a shuttle bus through Barnes, up Castlenau (thank heavens for the bus lane – I’ve never figured out why all those single car drivers (that’s solo, not unattached, I assume) bothered sitting in that interminable traffic jam every morning when the bus lane alongside proved the effectiveness of public transport, at least for that stretch), over Hammersmith Bridge and then 10 minutes walk from the bus depot and I was at my desk. And on the way home, the same in reverse (except without the bus lane, dangnabit) or in good weather a 40 minute saunter down the towpath.
Before we moved to SW14, my commute was an 8 minute walk. Before that, it was an overland train (the North London Line AKA the Crack Line) from Wet Hamster round to Olympia via Willesden
Arsehole Junction. Before that, half an hour on a bus from Maida Vale to Chelsea.
In other words, pretty cushy and relatively stressless, and all above ground.
Until, that is, I started my new job last month. Nowadays, I have the same short and joyful bus ride, topped off by a minimum of forty minutes on the tube, and then another ten minute walk.
Let me tell you, it’s been an eye-opener, and after a month, I’ve come to some conclusions. None particularly earth-shattering, and all old news to you seasoned commuters, I’ll warrant, but quite revelatory to me. I’ve been jotting things down on my extra 2 hours travel a day, and will be sharing them here as time permits. Bet you can’t wait, can you?
Anyway, without further ado:
1. There’s a definite hierarchy to tube seats.
The thing about buses is that they’re usually relatively short hops. You know that it’ll be over pretty soon, which means that standing up for a short while isn’t a great hardship. Bus passengers take sitting down for granted.
Not so on the underground. On the tube, you’re in it for the long-haul. Seats are hard-won and bitterly defended which means selective eyesight when old/pregnant people get on, and a competitive pounce when a spot becomes vacant. Which brings me to the realisation that not all spaces are equal.
This is something which isn’t immediately apparent to the casual tube user, but which quickly reveals itself to the hardened commuter. Everyone knows the prime seats and standing spots, and people jostle for supremacy when the doors open, especially at the depot, when the train is empty.
In the reference diagram below, the preferred pecking order of one end of a Hammersmith & City line carriage is dissected:
Position 1 is supreme, because you have only one neighbour, and (usually) a wider seat, with windows behind and beside you, plus a door which might give some hope of a breeze.
Position 2 has only one neighbour, and the breeze factor, though usually someone’s arse squished up against the glass partition beside you.
Position 3 is like position 2, in that the occupants have a maximum of one neighbour, but being in the middle of the carriage offers less hope of fresh air and more crowds.
Position 4, meanwhile is the worst of the seated positions, having two immediate neighbours and thus no elbow room.
Of the standing positions, position 5 is the prime spot, in front of the emergency exit door, which provides both fresh air and leaning support, along with putting the occupant in a good tactical spot to steal an available (1) or (2) seat, should one become available.
Weirdly, the next best standing areas are actually position 6 spots, because they provide somewhere to lean and the possibility (on all but the busiest rush-hour services) to make a dash for a high number of seats – more than positions 7 and 8, at least.
Meanwhile, position 9 is utterly tactical – by hanging onto the centre pole, the user suffers some mild discomfort, but usually has more space to read and (crucially) is in the best manoeuvring position when one of the (3) or (4) seats becomes available. People occupying position 9 really tick off people who’ve been loitering in positions (6) or (7), because a seat can be stolen out from under their very noses.
Finally, the blocking move, position 10 can work out well, because it effectively covers the exit seats in position (3), which means getting a seat is a good possibility.
The worst possible place to stand is position 11, being neither close enough to any seat to have a hope in hell of ever sitting down and yet also far removed from anything to lean on or hold onto. Poor, poor 11s. Life’s never fair.
What’s weird is that every day people automatically (possibly subconsciously, possibly consciously) go through the same dance on the H&C line at Hammersmith. The seats get filled up in exactly this order, every single day, and that’s what makes my anthropology background kick in.