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.