London Underground: Quirky ideas to shake up London transport in favour of travellers, from free champagne to station jingles
When it was built in the 19th century, the London Underground was a marvel not just for engineering, but for equality too. The designers thought not just about how the trains could function best – but how the system would work for travellers. It sounds like common sense, but sadly common sense seems in short supply when you consider that there are more than 55 million fares active in the UK. That’s not a typo.
You will have seen the unique designs on each station on the Victoria line: the image of the Queen herself at the eponymous station was a sign for illiterate travellers who couldn’t read the words ‘Victoria’. The iconic tube map itself was an innovation – many previous maps insisted on featuring the contours and twists that didn’t really matter once you were in the carriage. Draughtsman Harry Beck got rid of that.
In their recent book, Transport for Humans, behavioural scientists Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland set out other simple ideas that have transformed locals’ travelling experiences across the world – and could improve dreary journeys in the capital. Let’s look at a few.
READ MORE:London Underground: TfL says mask-wearing on the tube to end as government rolls back rules
The power of announcements
Too many of us (guilty, here) have got on the tube only to realise 10 minutes later you’re going the wrong direction. That’s not so easy to do in Moscow – you can tell by the announcers’ voice. Trains going into the centre use a male voice, and outbound ones use a female voice.
Japan has gone further. Each station has its own unique arrival jingle, meaning it doesn’t matter if you’ve zoned out from the robotic announcer: you’ll soon learn to identify your station stop by tune alone.
For more than a decade now, fuel duty has been frozen – meaning billions of pounds a year in lost revenue. Imagine if fuel duty had gone up with inflation, with that money put back into making public transport cheaper? If it feels a little like crying over spilled milk now, it’s going to be an urgent consideration in the years to come as we try to reach net zero. God knows our train fares have gone up by more than the tax on petrol.
Rethinking travel time
Transport planners tend to obsess with shedding minutes off journey time. But what if more of that energy was used to make travelling a more pleasurable experience? You might not mind your minor train delay getting into Paddington so much if there was good free WiFi on the way. As Sutherland and Dyson write: “The greatest fallacy is that travel time is wasted time.”
In a tongue-in-cheek conference speech, Rory Sutherland comes up with a novel way of spending a billion: “A question was given to a bunch of engineers about 15 years ago: How do we make the [Eurostar] journey to Paris better? They came up with a very good engineering solution, which was to spend €6 billion building completely new tracks from London to the coast and knocking about forty minutes off the 3.5 hour journey time. It strikes me as a slightly unimaginative way of improving a train journey to merely make it shorter. Now, what is the hedonistic opportunity cost of spending £6 billion pounds on railway tracks?”
He went on: “What you could do is employ the world’s top male and female supermodels, pay them to walk the length of the train handing out free Château Pétrus for the entire duration of the journey. At which point you’ll still have about £5 billion left in change, and people will ask for the trains to be slowed down.”
Perhaps one to think about for Crossrail 2. On that, why not just ensure all south London buses have good air conditioning, reclining seats, and phone chargers? It could save £32 billion. Time flies when you’re having fun. But it’s a proper drag when you’re cold, out of battery and moving at a snail’s pace from Brixton to Peckham.
Trains as a workspace
The authors point to the billions spent on London’s Thameslink programme. To shave a few minutes off some journeys, designers got rid of fold-down tables on the trains. “Adding this feature would have been insignificant in terms of the cost of the overall project, but in terms of the passenger experience it might well have been transformative,” the academics write in Transport for Humans.
Install more bike hangars
This isn’t a particularly radical one, but one of the biggest barriers to having and using a bike in London is the fact that thousands are stolen here every year – and it’s tricky to find safe places to store them.
Last year the Centre for London found that on-street parking in the capital takes up over 14km2 – equivalent to 10 Hyde Parks completely covered by cars. Why not replace 10 per cent with secure, flexible bike storage, that you can open with an app? You can fit about 12 bikes in the space of one car space. Given that cars are only used about 15 per cent of the time, councils and communities would get their money’s worth.
And since about half of journeys could plausibly be taken by e-bike, why not put chargers in the hangars, too? London is going to need a step change in its approach to e-bikes if Sadiq Khan is to get a quarter of cars off the road by the end of the decade, as he plans.
Trains with a view
Once you’ve read it, you might find this annoying from now on. Isn’t it unfair that on your packed, sweltering train, those with seats not only have somewhere to sit, they also hog the view? Why not flip it on its head: put the seats in the middle, and have grab bars on the outside with a view? It would level the playing field for those unlucky souls who couldn’t snatch a seat.
Move car parking out of residential areas
A study of Londoners’ travel habits found that just four per cent of drivers give serious thought to the mode of travel they use when they make a journey. You pick up your keys and get straight into the vehicle. What would happen if you had to walk for a minute or two? You might consider taking the bus that’s next to the car park instead.
Bear with me on this last one. When strike action shut down the Underground in 2014, there was a small upside: one in twenty people permanently changed their route to work. Their habits had been disrupted, and they’d found a better way. Just something to think about the next time the RMT walk out.
The Norwegians and Danes have a slightly less disruptive way of creating these changes in habits: they make public transport free on your birthday or National Book Day. Who doesn’t look a comfortable journey with some good reading? Perhaps someone at Transport for London is taking notes.
Josiah joined MyLondon as the outlet’s first City Hall Editor in October 2021, reporting on the Mayor, the London Assembly, the Met police, Transport for London, and wider London politics.
He moved to South London from Brussels in 2015, working in communications for the Electoral Reform Society, and covering Westminster politics as a freelance journalist. Originally from Cornwall, he is now also a proud Londoner. Josiah has appeared on BBC Radio 4, Times Radio, LBC and other outlets to discuss current affairs and general political chaos.
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