A tormented feeling has gotten under my skin. It’s has been scratching to surface for some time, and I’ve been in denial, going about my day as amiably as I can because if there is one thing I’ve noticed, people here don’t actually complain that much. I like to think of myself as a good-natured, positive person, but compared to those I spend the most time with, it sounds like I have much to complain about. Or, perhaps, I find every small thing to whine about when there is one major complaint that I don’t have the energy to address.
Public transport is humiliating.
There. I said it. I already feel a little better.
Maybe the cold weather and dark days are getting to me, or the influx of cough-infested air on the Central line, or the seats that smell as if they have been marinated in urine for years on the Southeastern trains from London Bridge. It’s all of these events and more. I know it. I just haven’t wanted to mention it until now because what is there to do?
I realize that some things are easy to problem-solve. If your occupation allows you to travel at non-peak times, leave for where you need to be after 10 a.m. and come home nowhere around the hours of 4:30 and 6:30. Carry hand-sanitizer. Don’t make eye-contact with anyone. It is easy to do all of above, and if you follow these the unwritten rules of the TFL, you dance with the possibility of a more pleasant journey. There are, however, many obstacles, biding their time to spring humiliation and general humbuggedness on the otherwise content and comfortable passenger.
Like today, for example. Aware of the time after finishing up a day of research in Central London, I stopped into a Starbucks to kill an hour by studying up on the history of cream of mushroom soup and sipping a latte (not a great combo; I tried not to think about both simultaneously) in order to avoid the nightmarish rush hour at Holborn Station. I didn’t wait long enough. Being on the tube was like revisiting a high school prom. The window-fogged gymnasium where I bumped and grinded my way through the Thong Song and Baby Got Back wasn’t that far from the sweaty Northern Line carriage, where I was uncomfortably sandwiched between two men.
Though its guide is a bit tongue-and-check, the BBC has a 9-point list of rules that pertain to just physical contact on the tube: “You may find yourself getting more intimate with complete strangers than you may ever have done before. There is no other helpful advice here other than to just hope it will end soon, and not to complain - no one else does.”
Have you ever been in a series of situations so uncomfortable that even thinking about an exit strategy makes you squirm? That’s my commute home at rush hour. There really is nothing you can do. The handrails were out of reach, and without anywhere to brace myself, I relinquished my balance to the crotch of the man behind me, pulling a standard bump-and-grind move that would have gotten me kicked out of Junior Assembly dances. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and was relieved to feel that that my impromptu Underground dance partner wasn’t excited about the situation either.
Don’t get me wrong. Transport at rush hour is a great place to go if you happen miss contact with humans. At half-5, show up at a random station, swipe your Oyster and hop into the silent, non-moving dance club of the underground. Ride as long as you like. I, however, have been accused by most loved ones of being too unaffectionate. Anti-touchy-feelies beware: Tube touching will make you gag, just a lil’.
Public transport is also a place to avoid if you are planning on being pretty, clean or pretty clean. I get what I deserve for taking a shower when I knowingly need to be somewhere on a rainy day. But I’m a midwestern winter girl. The cold is no match for my corn-fed bones. My hair can take a little drizzle. Still, really London? Signal failures and faulty tracks due to excessive rain? That’s your excuse for why my first train was canceled and the next one was delayed by 30 minutes? An abhorable rationale for why I looked like a drowned rat when I showed up to class on Monday. And that was even with a dependable umbrella in tow. Beginning in October, the rain inexplicably comes down parallel to the pavement. Your fight to stay dry is in vain. Additionally, general city grime is no match for the acne-inducing air kryptonite of the tube — the layer of pore-clogging film as thick as a hot wet towel takes hold of your face and never, ever lets go.
I know what you’re thinking: Surely there are other ways of getting around London. Why don’t you cycle? What’s wrong with walking? What about the bus? Dear reader, allow me answer your questions.
At the moment, I have a bike here. It’s resting comfortably against the wall in my living room, eagerly awaiting the day I decide to buy a helmet and take it for a spin. It won’t be a commute-worthy spin, though. You see, me and bikes, we have a history. Well, I have a history with bikes — of crashing and burning. I am incapable of turning tight corners and the wind on my face is far too distracting. The thought of falling off a bike in the middle of Picadilly Circus is a far greater fear and reality than its Tube-equivalent. I’ll ride my bike, but it’ll happen in Dulwich Park.
Of all modes of transport, walking is by far my favorite. I could happily walk briskly for miles. When I get on a treadmill, I don’t run for exercise; I speedwalk. And the day I broke 13:30/mile I celebrated by speed-walking an extra mile. I love it. But you and I both know that it isn’t the most convenient or fastest way to get somewhere, especially in heels. Enough said.
The bus? The bus!? YOU MUST BE CRAZY. Nothing is worse that jumping onto a bus in the middle of a downpour and hearing the driver announce that the route is changing — we are now headed in the opposite direction. I don’t wish humiliation on anyone; but girlfriend, you should be ashamed if you are one of three people on the bus in a queue of five other buses on Camberwell Road. Of all modes of transport, the bus is the biggest waste of time, money and oxygen.
The hard truth of the matter is that, for the foreseeable future, transport in London today might be the best it will be. Or at least, the idea of improving is daunting due to the volume of people who commute and immigrate to the city on an hourly basis.
In a statement released earlier this week, British MP’s expressed concern that London’s already dismally expensive and overcrowded transport system would continue its downward spiral. Currently, train tickets are unreserved. A passenger who buys a ticket for the 09:11 train is not guaranteed a seat, and sometimes it’s impossible to even fit into a carriage. According to the BBC, in the past decade, rail passenger numbers have risen by 40 percent. Though the Department of Transport aims to improve rail travel by investing 9 billion pounds over the next five years, passengers can count on an increase in rail fares and still not enough seats.
Which brings me to a point more serious than whining about my hair getting wet and unintentional groping by random men. Transport is humiliating because as a passenger, you have no control. It’s hard not to think of barnyard animals being herded through gates when you are a member of the hundreds-strong pack that shuffles along the platform and into train carriages, stuffing them to capacity. Sometimes your control is lost to the point that if you were to stop moving, you would still be carried with the crowd. Tube transport is a true test of your confidence in finding your internal “happy place.” We all want to get to where we’re going, and for the most part, passengers are quiet and polite non-complainers. They have found ways to read newspapers in the tightest of spaces, somehow turning pages with just one hand.
Transport for London (TFL) has been “making improvements” for the 2012 Olympics for years. If current rush hour is any indication, TFL has a long way to go. In the meantime, I’m still not riding my bike. Definitely not taking the bus. I’ll continue to use the tube and trains because despite high school flashbacks, it is the quickest way to Point B.