Friday, 5 March 2010

Tubing it in London City

On a recent trip to London, I experienced the Underground for the first time and for someone who comes from a small village in Fife, using the tube was a steep learning curve!

Observations made at the station

With an average of 3.4 million people using the tube daily, I have to admit I did feel like a minority. People were constantly rushing by me, banging and barging to get through and with so many rules to remember, I found myself feeling slightly nervous! Being constantly reminded to keep to the right and to walk fast to keep out of everybody's way, this was an experience that I was not going to forget in a hurry.

With this many people using the tube a day, safety is surely one of the most important aspects but with little Police presence I struggled to see how it was safe. The whole system lacked any human interaction to be honest...You walked into the station, bought your ticket at a machine, put your ticket through a barrier, went on a lift, checked when the next tube was available on computerised boards, got on the tube, hear instructions over the tannoy, get off train, travel up escalators, put your ticket through another barrier then leave the station. I would struggle to count on one hand the amount of workers on duty there yet no one seemed to be causing trouble. Everybody seemed to accept that the whole system was about getting people from a to b as efficiently as possible.

Travelling the tube at different times of the day allowed a different insight into how it operated. With a lot of people using the tube to get to and from work, morning and evening times seemed the busiest. Although I soon changed my mind... Attending two football matches (Brazil v Republic Ireland, Emirates Stadium, attendance - 40,082. England v Egypt, Wembley Stadium, attendance - 80,602) it really put into perspective just how heavily the network was relied on with the term "Sardines in a can" being the most suitable phrase here. I was up close and personal with complete strangers and I'm just thankful that I got stuck next to people who were familiar with soap and water!

Attending the football games gave me an insight into how the Police controlled the thousands of people that tried to use the tube at once. I have to say that I felt safer among the 80,000+ than the Emirates supporters, purely because of the sheer volume of Police presence at Wembley. Mounted Police and the standing officers managed to keep the large crowd calm and everyone seemed to accept that we were getting to the tube as quickly as possible. The tube at Arsenal did not feel as safe due to the fact that the Police were trying to divide people onto two different lines of the tube so people had to push past trying to get to the correct side. Herding us into pens, some people were able to skip over the barriers and get in front of those who were waiting patiently. Getting onto the tube was even easier - the ticket barriers were all just left open allowing people to stream through and down onto the platforms. For me the Police at Wembley seemed to be more prepared than those at the Emirates which in turn I feel had a calming affect on the crowd. Climbing the hundreds of steps to the station at Wembley, people did not try and run or push past each other, everyone kept the same pace.

Relying heavily on stairs to take people from the different levels, one thing that struck me was that the tube didn't seem to be that accessible to people with disabilities. Seeing a blind woman and a wheel chair user trying to interact with the surroundings really put things into perspective for me. So many people pushed past them and did not treat them any differently than the other users around them. It strikes me that the only support the blind women received was the tactile paving at the edge of the platform! She struggled to get past people and her stick was kicked out the way (not intentionally, I hope) as she tried to leave the station. I lost her after a while but I'm sure that she would have had to rely on other passengers helping her on the lift, then at the ticket barriers. The design of the Underground really didn't take her needs into consideration, but as a minority should you not still be taken into consideration?
The woman in the wheelchair found it hard to gain access through the large crowds and even when she was trying to get from one place to another, she was no Moses! People still thought that she would skip in front of them in the queue and their stubbornness meant that she had to try and go around them - not an easy task I'm sure when you are in a wheelchair. Although wider ticket barriers had been installed and the lifts gave her access to the platform, when she reached the platform she had to rely on someone to help her with the gap and height difference between the platform edge and the train - she could not get onto the carriage herself. Most public services are now installed with measures to help those in wheelchairs but there was nothing that I could see here to help her. She was drawing attention to herself when I'm sure she just wanted to make the journey as quickly as she could.

I tended to stick out like a sore thumb on the tube, thanks to the broad Scottish accent and my Liverpool FC jacket which led to a few funny encounters!
One of these included a chat with an Irish man who was attending the football at the Emirates and who took it upon himself to give advice on the best stop to get off at and where we should sit. This encounter was so random and we ended up speaking about each other's lives and what we did. Not a common occurrence on a system that seems to forget all about the rules of communicating.
Another came on the way back from Wembley in the afternoon after buying tickets for that night's game. A bunch of school boys who had just played a football game were all arguing about what football team they supported and right on cue I step on with my jacket. You can only imagine what happened next...I was the butt of their jokes! They got a lot of attention from other travellers but everyone seemed to be laughing at their immature youth - even the teacher just accepted this was boys being boys!
It was amazing how slight differences could attract attention that other's did not receive, I wonder if I hadn't have spoke much or wore my jacket would I have still had the same encounters?

Most of the time spent on the tube was spent in silence. People fought hard not draw attention to themselves and tried to just blend into the background. Hiding behind broadsheets and immersing themselves in their music, people spent most time looking at the floor or the roof - most seemed scared to look at others in case they got caught looking. Being in such a small space with such a large amount of people I found it hard not to look! There was so many different characters travelling on the tube, I found myself playing a game trying to guess what they were doing in London and where they were going using clothing and bags as clues... This probably had something to do with the fact that I was there to observe, maybe if I had just been travelling normally without this assignment into my mind I might have just fallen into a zombie like trance, jumping on and off the tube like everyone else.

The vast amount of advertising that takes place within the network surprised me. With most people spending very little time there, at first I thought it was a waste of money companies spending money to put up posters in this location but the more I observed the more clever I thought they were. With no mobile phone network in the stations, people needed something to do when they were waiting on the platform. Although a lot of people did have books or newspapers to read instead, it was interesting to watch that most people stopped and looked at the adverts while waiting for the next tube to come. Someone has clearly studied the best place to put the adverts because they only appeared in the places that people would spend the most time waiting. Not once did I see a poster in parts of the station that you walked through quickly, they were placed by places like the ticket machines, on the lift and on the platform...clever! I'm not saying that sales of a product would have went through the roof because of the placement of posters in the tube stations but I do think more people would have read them there than they would have done on the streets - they had a bit more time to understand what was being advertised than otherwise would have been obtained from a quick glance while running through the streets.

For me, this assignment proved that location was the key factor in my observations. Watching people going about their everyday life naturally really did show me how people reacted to their surroundings. It also allowed me to pose myself questions such as, would people react differently if the Underground wasn't in London? Do people block out their surroundings? Does it make them react any differently to normal/out of character?etc.

Speaking about my experiences with others when I got back from London, many people that I spoke to had never thought about some of the things I shared with them. By taking notes, I was understanding more about what I was observing suggesting that I was seeing things I would never normally have noticed. Actually taking time to sit down in the Underground while others were rushing about around me, I was looking more into what I was seeing. Listening to people talk about their experiences it was clear that the main idea reoccurring was that we had all experienced the attitudes adopted by people travelling the tube. Now I'm sure many people are really nice but put them in this sort of context and they seem to have a personality change, something I myself am guilty of. At the beginning of the week I was being civil letting people through and saying sorry if I bashed into people but by the end of the week I am ashamed to say that I gave up. I was so sick of people just treating me like I was invisible, I ended up just falling into the stereotypical tube traveller: rude and inconsiderate! Other people I spoke to also felt the same way so why is it that we adopted this new way of behaving?

Thinking back to last semester when I read the Tipping Point, with my favourite chapter being the Power of Context, it was interesting to see whether the ideas that Gladwell discussed about the subway in New York were similar. Something that struck me though that Gladwell talked about being a significant factor was vandalism and littering - something there was very little of in and on the Underground. Gladwell presents examples where these small things resulted in crime, e.g. Bernie Goetz, so with very little of this present in the stations, is this a reason why I never witnessed any crimes?

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