London Transport

Londoners are famous to anyone outside of London for their thousand yard stare, their seeming indifference to all things involving social interaction and their stressed-out attitude. Everyone is in a desperate rush to get where they’re going and they’ll ignore everyone else as much as possible.

A Note On The Tube

Most of these observations are made by people who don’t live in London when they happen to interact with Londoners, which almost exclusively occurs on the Tube. Moreover, it is on the tube at Oxford Circus on the weekend, or central London in the rush hour. Such conditions are going to be a challenge for even the most kind-spirited individual, but even under these conditions I think Londoners are wholly underrated for their good wishes towards their fellow humans and London social norms are entirely misunderstood.

First of all, Londoners do make eye contact and even talk to each other on the Tube. It is a slow process, and requires the circumstances to be correct so that each party can be fairly sure that the other one is reasonably sane and actually desires to interact. This involves gradual increase of eye contact and something external upon which to comment.  Londoners don’t talk to non-Londoners on the Tube because non-Londoners don’t realise that refusing to make eye contact means “leave me alone”. In a city that screams for your attention every second and from every surface it is the height of politeness to leave everyone else around you their own personal space. This ‘personal space’ is an interactive space, or a communication space. Londoners deal better than anyone with a lack of <i>physical</i> personal space, as the rush hour Tube will testify. It is the demands on one’s attention that Londoner’s are sensitive to, since we are all trying to shield ourselves from the constant communication we are in with the city itself. As a result, demanding another Londoner’s attention is a matter of delicate etiquette. Any non-Londoner trying to make conversation with the entire Tube carriage has severely trampled that etiquette and will be met with cold shoulders and averted eyes, even if some of the people were inclined to talk.

In addition, the transport systems are incredibly busy. It is a simple fact that every seat on your vehicle will be taken, and many might be standing too. Now, no-one wants to have to sit next to a nutter. In other cities I’ve heard talk about how to make yourself look unwelcoming so that no-one sits next to you on the bus. Not so, London. London life obliges us to sit cheek-by-jowl during every journey we make. As a result, the social etiquette of *not* talking to the people next to you has evolved so that we can all get along, none of us makes the others uncomfortable and we can all get where we’re going unharmed.

This etiquette has evolved out of necessity however I believe it is a testament to humans overcoming their tribal, in-group/out-group tendencies – something which is extremely hard to do. The complaint is still raised that this system isn’t very happy because it essentially leads to everyone ignoring each other but frankly the “let’s chat on the bus” way of doing things has the unacknowledged downside that people also feel free to be openly hostile to each other. In London, I have yet to observe anyone so much as raising their voice on a bus or a tube, let alone have a fight. In a city of 7 million people teeming all over the transport system, this is nothing short of a miracle.

A Note on London Bus Drivers

London bus drivers are the friendliest bus drivers I’ve ever come across, and there is really no need for them to be. If someone’s Oyster card is not working, they let the person on for free. If they see someone running for the bus, even though there is guaranteed to be another bus coming along in 8 minutes or less, be it day or night, the driver still holds the bus to allow them to get on. Pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike are awful road users around London buses, seeming to have suicidal tendencies, but bus drivers never get angry. Why should this be so? I have no idea, but it is.

A Note On London Cycling and Taxi Drivers

I always try to cycle within the Highway Code and in such a way that another road user will not be freaked out by my behaviour. I love to cycle in Central London and have not once had a near miss. The first time I was beeped by a taxi driver, I was quite upset. However I quickly realised that, like most other communication in London, it was by no means a personal slur and oddly also complied with the Highway Code. London taxis use a very short beep to signal their impatience. Beeping the horn in the Highway Code simply means “Warning – I am here” and this is pretty much what a London cabbie means when he beeps you. It means, “we’re all busy trying to get somewhere, you are in the way, warning – I am here and I’m about to swerve around you.”

I find road use can feel relatively safe if the vehicles around you have predictable behaviours. Luckily, London taxis are fairly predictable, in that they want to be away from you, and fast. I often move to the centre of my lane if overtaking me at that moment would be a bad idea, and move far left if there is a good spot to overtake me (given oncoming traffic). Since knowing what I know about taxi drivers, I seem to have good interactions with them. They appreciate that I mostly try to get the hell out of the way, and give me space when it’s impossible to overtake anyway. These days, I only get beeped at when I probably am in the wrong.

A Note On Standing On The Right

It may seem harsh at first, but it is the simplest, easiest and oh-so effective rule which enables everyone to move around this town at their chosen speed. I am fully behind it as a rule. Don’t make excuses, just stand on the right.


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