I’ve been commuting on the tube into and around London now for around three of the last five years which has taught me a few strategies when it comes to either getting a seat or a decent amount of standing room while maintaining as little fellow human contact as possible. I’ve mainly kept them to myself as I’ve often pondered that I’ve been over-thinking it, but after discovering a couple of similar blog posts (here and here) I feel less neurotic. My findings are below, feel free to merge them with your own or disagree entirely!
Know Your Enemy
- Tourists. Local or foreign, they are grouped so by having luggage or backpacks (though anyone with a suit and luggage doesn’t fall into this category, see below), paper tube maps and unique to other tube passenger categories, a spark of life behind their eyes that hasn’t been snuffed out by the daily commute. They don’t know where they’re going, are in no rush and are quick to stop or change direction. Avoid, especially those with luggage on escalators and when turning corners. Their sudden stops could bestow you with a rapid trip to the floor. Many don’t know much English, so requests of ‘excuse me’ or ‘stand on the right’ may be met with blank faces.
- Constructicons. So named after the Transformers who combine to create the enormous Decepticon Devastator, constructicons are teenage tourists who individually can be lumped into the above tourist category but when part of a school or summer camp party (pro tip: spot the identically coloured backpacks and the adults at either end of the torrent) combine to create Devastator, a being that will fill a carriage regardless of whether there is any room. Cut your losses, find another carriage.
- Suits. Fellow veterans who already know pretty much all the tricks of the trade. They can be largely ignored as they’ll be applying these same rules, but watch out as they’ll show no mercy if it improves their commute. Luggage wielding suits are also little issue, as they’re well aware of the above category’s luggage sins and are loathe to commit them.
- Bookworms. A smaller category, both the classic paper book aficionado and the more recent Kindle connoisseur, they make use of the time walking to and from the Tube on auto pilot, head in book. Again watch out as they are not aware of their surroundings.
- Wireheads. Anyone with headphones, wired or not. Often combined with another category, wirehead rules always take precedent. Similar to bookworms they’re not aware of their surroundings so take that into account. Often a wirehead’s choice of music combined with tinny earphones will lead to what I have coined (c)rap-leakage, where a torrent of ‘yo-yo-represent-yo-g-yo’ and a monotonous synth beat leaks out and ruins your serenity. Use your ears and avoid such wireheads.
- Wideboys. Contrary to the dictionary definition, I use this term to categorise younger tube denizens who (depending on your social upbringing) you might refer to as rude boys, chavs or simply delinquents. Hence their name, wideboys have no qualms about taking up as much space as possible, more often than not by sitting down and spreading their legs as wide as possible (sexing up so may fellow wide-girls clearly must require extra cooling of the undercarriage area) or taking up a seat with their junk (that’s bags and coats, not the other kind of junk). For any other fellow tube category I would contemplate being self-righteous with these social faux-pas, however though nine out of ten wideboys are harmless, I have seen the occasional (and brutal) fight caused by a suit taking exception to a wideboy’s actions. Leave well alone.
- Star Cross’d Lovers. Young couples who happen to take the same tube into work fall into this category. The first, less problematic characteristic of a star cross’d lover is PDA. Turning away and shutting out the sounds of smooching are the solutions here. The second characteristic is if they’re not exiting at the same station a lover’s embrace as you’re pulling in to the station might block your exit. Plan accordingly.
- Femme Fatales. See that gorgeous women with legs that go on forever, long flowing hair, ample… CONCENTRATE MAN. Getting distracted by femme fatales can lead to crashing into tourists or worse, losing a prime seat. Sometimes referred to as an Agent Smith by geekier types (“Were you listening to me Neo? Or where you looking at the woman in the red dress?”).
- Patient Zero. Hey he looks like death! So will you if you’re downwind of his sneezes. Assess whether your comfort requirement exceeds your desire not to die of cholera when choosing proximity to patient zero.
Know Your Team
- If you’re travelling alone, you are the team. Go team!
- If you’re travelling with non-veterans, take charge.
- If you’re travelling with children, please, please, please avoid the rush hour. This is the front line, the rush hour is a place where humanity is left on the platform. It’s no place for children.
From Street/Train/Tube to Platform
- Veteran mainline train users choose their carriage such that when pulling into the station they minimise the distance between the train door and the entrance to the Underground. This isn’t because they’re lazy, it’s because an efficient decamp from a commuter train is the difference between a decent seat or a swim in a sea of zombie commuters and a fight for the best spots on the tube platform.
- Similarly tube to tube users should factor in carriage choice (more on this later) based on the most efficient route between lines
- For those coming in from street level learn the easiest route down to the platform. Often you’ll find alternative entrances that are closer to you, less crowded and closer to the platform.
- Occasionally and more often than not in the older, more labyrinthine stations you’ll spot people taking what seems to be wrong turnings down exit corridors. Sometimes they are people who are genuinely lost but often following them you’ll discover other platform entrances which are designated for exists, but work just as well as entrances.
- Similarly don’t be afraid to go against the flow. On more modern stations you’ll often find that the escalator dumps you half way down a corridor adjacent to the platform. Signs will keep the people flowing in one direction, but taking the other direction you might discover the other half of the platform is empty.
- If you’re on a fairly modern, deep line such as the Jubilee Line and fancy a gamble, taking the lift down is an option. This bypasses the several flights of stairs and escalators you’d otherwise have to take and so as not to eject a woman with a pushchair into the masses, their exits are often located at the ends of the platforms: an optimal location. Of course this must be tempered with the knowledge that Underground lifts are slower than those in Mass Effect (can I get an a-men from my video game brothers) and if you’ve left the main flow of commuters to grab the lift and find it’s at the bottom of the shaft, you’ve already thrown away the next five minutes of your life.
- Stand on the motherf**king right.
- Know the high ground. To further abuse the Art of War analogy, the high ground is key to winning any battle. On the tube, the ends of the platform are the high ground. Anyone who’s spent more than a week on the tube will know this rule. Tourists and virgin tube users tend to cluster near the platform entrances and outside of rush hour you’ll commonly see the centre of the train full and the extremities completely empty. There is one exception to this, which brings us on to rule 2.
- Know your exit strategy. If your commute ends with the tube this isn’t so important however if you have a connection you have to make (most likely a train out of London) plan your platform position accordingly. If you have to transfer to another line consider choosing a carriage that aligns you with the corridor to that line so that you don’t have to swim amongst the tide of people heading for the exit. If you’re taking a train out of dodge, consider your carriage choice based on the shortest route from the tube exit to your train platform. A classic example is my commute if I’m visiting my folks: my journey takes me from the Hammersmith and City Line platform at Farringdon to the tube exit at Paddington, platform 13 at which point I have to transfer to platform 11 to get my train out. Sounds easy? Due to the travel time of the H&C between my two stops and the excruciatingly slow driver changes at Edgware Road I often have less than five minutes to get off the tube and across to the train and there’s only one exit from the platform. You can spot true veterans amongst the virgins standing at the middle of the platform at Farringdon. They’re sacrificing their tube comfort so that when it pulls in at Paddington they are five steps away from the Tube exit. Failure to do this leads to being stuck in the stampede to get up the staircase and that horrifying realisation when you’re trapped in the flow and can see your train a couple of platforms away, smugly leaving the station.
- Seek out other veterans. You may spot clusters of people on the platform and a no man’s land between them. The clusters are where the doors are, the empty gaps are between carriages or doors.
- Find landmarks. Once you’ve been using a route for a while and settled on your chosen carriage, align your perfect entry point with landmarks. This could be your position relative to a platform bench, a poster or a fire extinguisher. On one regular journey my chosen landmark was a fellow veteran who I could count on to be there every morning. This worked well until he was obviously messing with my head by choosing different spots and watching me wander around on the platform like a lost child.
- Assess your door position. Contrary to popular logic, on most of the older lines you’ll want to stand so that when the train arrives you’re lined up with the centre of the doorway. This means you have to step back into your fellow passengers to let people off but retain your lead on entry. Politely standing where the edge of the door will be will lead you to be three of four people back behind those who know this trick which is often the difference between getting on or not. This rule doesn’t apply to more modern lines with wider doors, standing in the middle of the doorway is akin to being an island stuck in the middle of a raging river- battered by the stream of fellow passengers coming up the sides.
- Assess what part of the carriage you want to be on and chose your platform position accordingly. This is covered in more detail below.
On the Tube Itself
Phew, we’re finally on the tube. If you’ve followed the rules above, you’ve already put in most of the work needed for a pleasant tube journey. Here’s what you need to know once you get on. I’d also read the blog posts I mentioned at the top of this entry for further detail.
- Decide on your adherence to tube etiquette. Popular opinion holds that seat pecking order is pregnant woman > old people > children > parents of children > women > men. Commuters fall into three categories, those who believe this and will always end up standing, those who ignore this and will blindly grab a seat and blank people above them in the order and those who know the true, agreed order which is smoking hot woman > pregnant woman > everyone else. Choose your category and stick with it, though personally I find the ‘true’ pecking order I’ve described is most likely to get you a seat.
- Decide if you want a seat. If you do your strategy will be based on lining yourself up to grab them as they become available. If not your strategy will be all about making a beeline for the best standing spots.
- If you want a seat, go for the aisles, don’t stand in the entrances. This gives you the maximum number of chances for a seat. I tend to avoid the end of carriage aisles if I want a seat, these tend to be populated by long haulers who grabbed the seat at the end of the line and won’t be moving for a while.
- If you’re happy standing, know the sweet spots. On deep, hot tubes priority number one is the space next to the intra-carriage doors which will reward you with a sweaty, yet cool breeze. Be mindful of the direction of travel however as you don’t want to be stuck at the end of the carriage where the breeze has picked up a carriage-load of exotic smells and the body heat of a hundred other commuters. Failing that, your next choice is the spot next to the aisles. On modern lines this will be the ‘standing seats’, the odd cushions that double as the parking spots for disabled users (don’t worry about the gamble of this spot actually being needed, wheelchair users have the smarts not to bother with rush hour entirely). On older lines this will be the clear plastic partition between aisles. If these are taken go for the (often empty) aisles. Never sit in the entrances unless you have no choice, or your exit strategy (see above) demands it.
- Don’t be afraid to push (gently). No I’m not talking about the twats who will body slam you out of their way. If your train pulls in and it looks full, feel free to squeeze in to get through to the empty aisles. Also remember the passenger categories outlined above means that your fellow passengers may not hear or understand your request to move out of the way. A gently push is the way to go.
- Maximise your presence. Shoulders out prevents people thinking there’s a gap next to you they can comfortably exist in. When seated have your legs spaced evenly apart to prevent the aforementioned ‘wideboys’ from taking up half your legroom with their stretched legs. Don’t be rude about this rule though, broadsheets are not for crowded spaces.
- Be prepared for your stop. This is as simple as making the motions that you’re about to leave so people are prepared to move out of your way when the train pulls in. Don’t move on a crowded train as it’s stopping, you’ll end up on the floor in a tangle of ankles. Take a look out of the window as you’re stopping to see which way your exit or line you’re transferring to is. This prevents you from exiting the tube and having to stand there gormless for two minutes working out where to go and among your non-veteran friends makes you look like a real pro as you seem to know exactly where to go at all times.
Wow that turned out to be a lot longer than I intended. Hope it will be of use to you if you’ve not fallen asleep by this point!