Five Things to Know Before Riding the London Tube
From the Wall Street Journal
Tips from a Canadian expat in London:
1. Nothing is more bonding than silent disapproval.
My first evening in London, I remember sitting on the Jubilee line heading toward Canary Wharf, taken aback (and frankly impressed) at how quiet and unobtrusive everyone was. As it wasn’t a tourist-heavy route, no one talked. People sat, many in suits, and kept to themselves.
It was a jarring shift from my subway experiences in Toronto, where I grew up, and certainly from the packed trains in Hong Kong, where I’d lived more recently.
A few stops into my journey, a group of young men entered the train and shattered the silence with loud chatter. Still worse, one of the men dribbled a basketball incessantly as passengers sat in silent annoyance. Another passenger, a man who looked to be in his 40s, sat across from me. We had nothing in common, I thought. After a few long minutes of disruption, he looked up and our eyes met briefly—intentional eye contact, not something I’d ever expected to experience in London. We glanced at the basketball dribbler in mutual disapproval, then nodded quietly. He returned to his newspaper; I to killing it at Candy Crush.
It was brief, but in that moment, I was, for the first time, In On It. Fully part of London.
2. Beware of brolly problems.
Granted, rainfall in London is considerably lighter than in other parts of Britain. But as an expat, you will nonetheless need to come to grips with the fact that it often rains here, and as a result, you will have brolly problems.
Like “trolley” problems—ethical thought experiments where you are asked to decide whether to divert a trolley to a track with fewer people on it who could be hit, or let it keep running on one with more and leave the collision rate to chance—“brolly problems” are transport-related and create intractable moral dilemmas. But unlike the trolley thought experiments, they can cause you to get spiked in the eye on the Tube, especially if you’re not the tallest.
I still haven’t found an optimal protocol, but I’ve learned it’s important to recognize you have agency over your umbrella and need to be mindful of all its dimensions. Hold it close to your body, and never, ever leave a wet brolly on the seat next to you. Your umbrella isn’t, in fact, a person.
3. Danger escalates.
The night England was knocked out of the 2014 World Cup, I took the Tube home from Oxford Circus. As I rode down the escalator I suddenly found myself in a human pileup, the result of a domino-like fall that looked like it belonged in a Macaulay Culkin film. I fell forward, my knees hit the sharp edge of the escalator and my belongings—and shoes—flew out in opposite directions.
When I managed to escape the escalator’s grip, tights torn, knees bloody, I learned from bystanders that a group of us had been tackled from behind by what appeared to be an extremely intoxicated stranger.
This kind of freak accident isn’t common on the Tube, but I could have saved myself a scar had I not been wearing headphones and had the people behind me not been standing side by side.
Which brings me to my next point…
4. Pedestrians have lanes too.
Any walkway with room for more than one person has pedestrian lanes, and they are enforced with audible sighs.
If you have somewhere to be and plan to keep up with the pace of traffic, walk briskly in the left-hand lane. If you plan to walk slowly, however, walk on the right and leave a clear space to pass on your left. (And if you don’t intend to walk on escalators, stand on the right and let people walk past on the left.)
Never, ever take up two lanes unless you are completely certain that no one is behind you or that you are walking faster than anyone could ever want to walk, including people with longer legs.
Try to think of everyone walking in the London underground as a slow-moving vehicle. Avoid sudden stops and starts.
5. Heed the signs.
Fortunately, Transport for London provides Tubegoers with instructional posters. One 2013 campaign called “poetiquette” emphasized courtesy, patience and awareness. Don’t be fooled by these playful illustrations and clever rhymes into ignoring their lessons—unless you want to end up on an embarrassing Tumblr account like Women Eating on the Tube.
I’ll admit that with a Canadian accent, it took ages to sort out how the poster that said “next time I oughta take along a bottle of water” was part of a successful rhyming couplet. (Was it pronounced “otter”?) But rhymes aside, a few takeaways were clear: Don’t block the doors, don’t force the doors open, move down the carriage, and mind your music.
And while it may not work for everyone, I personally also try to abide by the golden rule of tube navigation: Never ask of a fellow passenger what you can learn from a sign or electronic device.