Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Critical mass

Just back from a few days in London, to read that the Tube is severely overcrowded. I seem to remember that it always was, in the rush hour, and my experience of the numbers using it last week was no better or worse than ten years ago.

No, the shocking thing about the London’s transport system, and how it’s really changed, is the extent to which it’s now almost exclusively geared up to the needs of regular users. There’s a flat rate cash fare of £4 for anywhere in zones 1 – 6, which meant my single from Paddington to King’s Cross cost, yes, £4. If I’d had an Oyster card it would have cost £1.60. I kept thinking I should get a card, but wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing for most of my stay. However, next time I visit, I’ll buy one online and use it from the moment I arrive. Another irritation is the long queues if for some reason you need to buy a ticket from a real person rather than a machine. Londoners would no doubt argue that they subsidize the transport system through their council tax precept. London’s politicians would probably add that the interests of the workforce must come first. But I’ve not noticed such a difference in other cities that seem to work quite well such as Sydney, Melbourne, Chicago, New York, Toronto, and even Glasgow.

This experience started me thinking about critical mass in cities, and how people deal with it. Big cities are wonderful. The constant energy and bustle; the world class arts and culture, which can be sustained due to both large numbers for mainstream events and every niche interest you could imagine; the employment and business opportunities; the diversity; all the shopping you could ever want; and of course the politics – it’s often overlooked that national (and regional, devolved and federal) governance takes place in cities, as do most political protests.

But if you live in a big city, you also experience the downsides. Expense, crowds, long journeys to work or to be entertained, perhaps crime or harassment. Every city resident adapts, and the sum total of this adaptive behaviour shapes the city and the individual, and for all of us determines ultimately where and how we choose to live.

An example: on Sunday, we thought of going to the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy. That’s quite a trek from Hounslow, especially with some tube lines not working, and one overground train an hour. We didn’t want to make all this effort if there would be a problem with admission. So we get on the magic interweb, to find it’s possible to book tickets, but it appears there are none left. A phone call confirms this. There are no tickets left for the day, and none for many other days too. So one of my old London pleasures is no more – deciding on impulse to go to an exhibition. Instead, tickets must be booked, routes must be planned, Oyster cards must be topped up. We had a pub lunch instead.

But I did manage to get to the new V&A ceramics galleries earlier in the week, which were wonderful. Swings, roundabouts and adaptive behaviour in a world city.


Timothy Belmont said...

I've had an Oyster card for two years now. I think it's so convenient. I checked my balance online the other day - £6.60.
I'm in London in Jan. so I'll add £20 to the card online.


Jenny Muir said...

Yes, it's obviously the thing to have, especially as it can be ordered and topped up online. I really felt for people without good English, trying to work out all the fares. I don't actually go to London much, funnily enough, which is one reason I keep putting off getting one.

Timothy Belmont said...

Snap! I'm usually there once a year; but I do use the Tube a lot. I don't use it from one year to the next, and it has never failed me.

I think it must save valuable time too, walking swiftly though the turn-stiles!


Jenny Muir said...

It's certainly better than queuing .... I am convinced!

Wisewebwoman said...

I must remember this Jenny for when I'm there next Sept.
This past Spring was a nightmare, but then Paris Metro was worse.

Jenny Muir said...

Paris was worse??? Funnily enough I have no desire to go there again, perhaops just as well!

Anonymous said...

There is quite a lot to be said about the benefits of big cities.

One is that if you don't have use of a car the tube etc is a worthy alternative. OTOH if you live in a small town public transport is not so good.

Crime is a problem in big cities but can't help thinking that it might be concentrated in fairly small areas.

Haven't been in London for a while, but I do remember a very large & fancy station in the docklands area. The overground rail line nr London City Airport is worth a trip also IMHO.

Jenny Muir said...

Anon- you are right that it's possible to get around in a big city without a car, but I'm starting to think quite a lot about connectivity and how it can contribute to inequality as well as to quality of life in cities - in other words, poor areas have worse public transport. Your point about Docklands confirms this, although interestingly the transport to Docklands was initially quite bad (DLR and buses) and the tube station came along much later.

Equally, where crime takes place is interesting, as is how to prevent it. Again I suspect the poor are getting a worse deal.

goodhardrant said...

I was in London for a week in early December and thought the Tube had gone a bit mad too. There was incredible congestion at some stations where you were herded cheek-by-groin through the barriers, onto platforms already heaving with commuters to await trains stuffed with bodies. Still very grateful for my oyster card, which makes everything much more bearable. Coming from somewhere where public transport simply doesn't operate in such an efficient fashion (yes, I said it), and is eschewed by most of the population, the tube always strikes me as one of those marvels of human existence. I could stare at the people on it for hours. I'm pleased you got to enjoy the new V&A galleries, though. I thought they were amazing: three hours spent completely absorbed for free. The V&A is consistently excellent, too, eschewing the flakey bullshit and reliance on architectural 'wow' that Tate Modern can be guilty of, and without the limit of focus you find in other London museums. Its exhibitions are almost always well-conceived and put together, with labels that are informative and scholarly. I saw this the same time last year and it's become a bit of an annual visit. I just wish it were more frequent.

Jenny Muir said...

I'm a tube fan too, although it's a shame that the circle line isn't any more - I can see myself getting really confused next time I go. And yes, the V&A is amazing, and the only problem I usually have is not having enough time to see as much as I'd like.

And of course, use of public transport for a change means it's possible to drink when out!