Travel better London
It’s 150 years of TfL this year and because National Poetry Day is on Thursday, TfL have placed a number of my poet-friends around London tube stations this week to entertain some commuters and (yet again) to encourage better behaviour on the undergound. Despite being a poet who lives in London and who has published a whole book of poems about travel and transport, I never got round to applying for the role so I won’t be one of them, but good luck to them and check them out if you can. Instead, I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer my own advice on how we could improve public transport.
By this, I’m not talking about some dry political programme. I’m talking about what is in our power to change right now. We might think that we should re-nationalise the railways or that we should run the network in small, interconnected, self-governing, cooperative syndicates, but it’s not about to happen now.
So we need to think about what we can change that we are able to change, and then let the big changes happen later.
To get to Edinburgh to perform my show at the Free Fringe, I took a National Express coach overnight from London. London to Edinburgh in August in one of the busier coach routes of the year. The train is just too pricey and let’s not even discuss those people (wherever they are) who think it’s ok to fly that kind of distance.
I took the coach. Twenty two quid one way. I could have got it for less, but it’s an OK price. I don’t what to have to pay more than it would have cost me as a single car driver in petrol, not when there’s 38 of us to share the costs of the vehicle. Five of us – even four of us – in a car would have been cheaper, but an OK price all the same.
It was an overnight route, which means the roads are clear, no waiting around in traffic plus I saved myself a night’s accommodation. It meant that I was completely knackered for my show, but a sensible choice all the same.
Behind me on the coach were two girls, not long out of school, obviously from their accents and topics of conversation quite privileged. They were talking incessantly as we waited around at Victoria, with a public school self-confidence bordering on unawareness, about their friends and the boys they knew… and the boys their friends knew and whether or not so and so was pretty and who was wearing what at which party and so on. It was, at times, quite interesting, but generally it was pretty irritating.
And the heater was on. The coach was excessively hot. Loads of bodies cooped up in a cramped coach on a warm August evening, crap air-conditioning dribbling out overhead and on the floor, the radiator blasting our shins.
I heard the girls complaining about it so it can’t just have been me who was feeling it. We finally got moving but the radiator stayed on. So, at a set of traffic lights at Golders Green, I left my seat, went up to the driver and said,
“Excuse me, mate. Do you think you could turn the heating off, please? It’s a bit too hot back there.”
Now, I wasn’t the only one who felt it , but I was the only one of the 35 or 40 passengers to get up and try and do something about it, after 30 or 40 minutes of sitting on this overheated bus.
As it turned out, the driver couldn’t do anything about it because the heating system was stuck on, but at least I had asked. Like I said, we’ve only got a certain amount of power to achieve change, but we can at least assert what we have. Ask of power the right questions, even if we don’t get a response.
Ten years ago, I went to Senegal and when I travelled, I took buses and shared cars and unofficial taxis. There (at least back then), when people open a packet of biscuits or get out their food, they offer the packet around to the strangers they are sitting with. That’s not hard, is it? It’s not the result of some particular African spirit. We can do that in the UK too.
I don’t want to advocate an enforced talking to strangers. If you have been a commuter, especially in London, and are forced to take the same public transport journey every day, often at a ridiculous time in the morning on very little sleep and a massive hangover, you don’t want to have to talk to anyone. You just want to drift off into a book or into your own world and shut out everything around you. But if there is something you want to say to someone, go and say it. At Hackney Central station, I walked up the steps over the bridge to the West-bound platform, bounding up two steps at a time as is my wont, passing an older man as I went. A few minutes later, sitting on a bench waiting for my train, that same old man, of whom I had been vaguely aware as I had climbed past, sat down next to me and said,
“I saw you taking those steps two at a time. I used to be able to do that as a young man. I can’t do that anymore.” I liked that. He just wanted to tell me something, so he did. In Senegal (to use that example again) people sit down next to you on buses and say ‘Bonjour. Ça va?” So you exchange good days and that might be, and often is, the end of the conversation but you have acknowledged the existence of another human being and should you want to talk about something, the ice is already broken.
Of course, this is not an excuse for men to go chatting up women. Leave sex out of it!
Leave the Metro out of it too while we’re at it. Too much distraction in our lives already without some Daily Mail Group rubbish making us even stupider than we already are. I’ve seen people running for a train, pause for a few seconds to grab a copy of the Metro before sprinting to the platform. They are desperate to make the train but more scared of the possibility that this might be the one day when there isn’t a spare Metro lying about on the floor or a seat and they’re going to have to spend 10 minutes thinking to themselves or reflecting on the world. And if you want to read, bring a book! They’re not that heavy, not that expensive and there’s been millions of them published. Some of them are quite good.
So, what I’m saying is: let’s get started on changing our attitudes on public transport and once we’ve started to get a grip on that, the vital infrastructure changes will fall into place quite naturally. In Mumbai, a few years back, commuters staged an impromptu protest when their train turned up late for the 150th time. They somehow agreed that they would all stand on the track and demand that the train company sort out the service. But you don’t get that kind of collective purpose that is necessary for serious change unless we start acknowledging each other a bit more. Offering to help carry bags and prams. Letting someone go first. Passing a few casual remarks. Sharing food and jokes and newspapers. Dealing with bad behaviour. That sort of thing. We see examples of it already but start getting that right and do it a bit more and the norms of the public transport user change. Then we might be able to do something about the horrendous price rises and the deliberately short trains. That’s my advice anyway.