Monday, April 10, 2006

#20: Public Transport


I have just spent three weeks commuting by public transport in
London. Train and tube – nearly everyday. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but in fact, it’s a revelation.

The thing is, I’m here to tell you that it works. For a city like London, with such an extensive infrastructure of regularly available alternative transport, in combination with an awfully large amount of people and out of date street design, you’d have to be pretty insane to travel by car unless it was absolutely necessary. The traffic, the congestion charge, the indecipherability if you’re an out of towner, all conspire to make the car a very very awkward accessory indeed. Parking’s expensive, getting anywhere takes ages, and all the while you’re breathing in carcinogens and getting frustrated. Much better to walk to the station and hop the track, where the actions of every other vehicle using the network are at least theoretically under the strictest control – and not randomly about to cut you up, change lanes into the side of you, or pull out from a junction you couldn’t even see for the people.

You’ll notice I didn’t put the bus on my list. It’s unfair to comment coz I didn’t travel on one, but they have to suffer along with every other road user, so the chances of them getting clogged up in the same way suggests an impact upon their efficiency. I’ll ride the rails every time, given a choice.

It makes you feel good about yourself, knowing that you’re making your journey as efficiently as possible. And it’s pretty cost effective, too; for about £30 I could go anywhere in London – all week. I can imagine some people spending that much in petrol during a one-way trip to the office, especially once they get snarled up in traffic. I had a car on a couple of occasions, and it is somewhat disquieting to be stuck at a standstill with nothing better to do than watch the electronic fuel economy meter shed digits while you travel precisely no-where for minutes at a time. Somehow, sitting on a train just doesn’t feel so bad. Even when it isn’t moving.

Perhaps I was lucky. Disregarding the underground for a moment – given its regularity – my train journey was Clapham Junction to London Waterloo, which is three stops at the most. Virtually everything that leaves Waterloo stops at Clapham, meaning I was never too long from the next departure that would see me “home”. Even when there were delays (maniac lose at Wimbledon, for example. Or the more common “signal failure” situation) it was never too much of a difficulty for me to negotiate. But then, this is how a commuter system is supposed to work, isn’t it? Easy, timely, convenient. Great.

Of course, nothing every smells entirely of roses…and the smell is just one of the problems associated with overcrowding. I’ll say it again for emphasis – the system in London does work. There were posters in stations saying how some of the train companies are about to stop compensating season ticket holders for late running services because the percentage of late trains is now so small as to be a fact of life, rather than a fact of bad organisation. However, this very success is beginning to show its limitations around the edges.

I realise that people are likely to tell me that it has always been this way, but come rush hour – which I usually tried to avoid by leaving earlier or later, often paying a penalty if I snatched a few extra minutes in bed – the trains and tubes are so crowded it’s a wonder that more people don’t fit from claustrophobia. Some mornings I would let three or even four trains pass through the station before thinking enough is enough, I’ve just got to get on this one. It’s difficult to imagine how the infrastructure will cope as more and more people are driven to dabble with public transport as the price of personal transportation becomes increasingly desperate. There simply doesn’t look as if there’s any room to spare.

Public transport when it works is great – it’s a wonderful thing. And in London this does work. It really does. But it also looks definitively close to its operating parameters – what’s going to happen as a result seems to be somewhat unclear. For starters many will be put off if they have a bad first experience, as is likely with the capacity levels as full as they are. More problematic, it’s difficult as an untrained observer to see where any increases are going to come from. Double-decker trains, like they have on the continent, seems an obvious answer – but we have a large number of bridges in our network that would require some, erm, alteration. Nor would this help the underground at all.

I hope someone is working on it, because if we want to encourage more people to take a community attitude to transport, they need to fit into a solution rather than form a further part of a problem still waiting to be fixed.

Answers? I don’t have any. Put them on a postcard, and maybe send them to the Lord Mayor. We need systems that continue to work, not ones that are broken from having burst apart at the seams.

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