The joy of going underground - Monocolumn | Monocle


A daily bulletin of news & opinion

10 May 2012

Every now and then, usually after another weekend of engineering works on the London Underground, I decide that I’ve had it with public transport, its delays, sweaty trains and ludicrous prices, and I reacquaint myself with my bicycle, which has been gathering dust in the hallway throughout the winter.

I put on my sensible helmet and take to one of the sensible, safe cycle routes that wind through the quieter streets of London.

Cycling feels great. You get to see the world go by, you get some fresh air in your lungs and your thighs get toned. It’s so good for you and so cheap and so good for the environment and ….so… dull.

After half an hour of pedalling through the back streets I start to crave the excitement of traffic and crowds. Deliberately seeking out London’s busy roundabouts and three-lane carriageways isn’t recommended for those who love life, but I do it because I like to feel a part of the exhilarating choreography of London traffic.

A few brushes with death later, and the bike is back in the hallway and I’m back on the tube and the train. Cycling to work does have its appeal, but it tends to be something you do alone, isolated from your fellow travellers. Like many London-dwellers, I moved to the capital from the provinces in order to be both part of something big – and to be anonymous. London’s public transport manages to provide both these things.

There’s something strangely life-affirming about being crammed on to an underground train with hundreds of other people who all feel as exasperated as you do.

At its best, travelling on the underground is one of the joys of city living. Most tube trains are designed perfectly for human observation with the seats arranged so you sit opposite a row of strangers. You can check out what people are reading, try to guess where they live, what they do for a job, eavesdrop on their discussions. You’re up close and personal with all manner of life.

The recorded voice of the announcer on the Central Line and the swish of the tube doors closing remind me of the first few weeks after I arrived in the metropolis, and how exciting it felt to be in the big city.

Even when things are going badly and your journey is a Dante-esque circle of Hell you feel a peculiarly satisfying sense of stoicism. It makes you feel tougher than and, yes, a little superior to those parochial folk in their safe cars on their country roads. Navigating the transport system sharpens your wits and makes you more likely to survive in a disaster. That shared feeling of weary superiority is also about as close as it gets to having a sense of community with your fellow Londoners.

London’s transport system, of course, is in dire need of improvement and investment. It is verging on unusable and it’s understandable that so many people are opting for cars and taxis. This is a pity – and not just because London’s roads become more polluted and congested as a result. We need more people to be lured on to the tubes and trains, because the more passengers there are, the more fun is to be had.


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