1. Something strange is going on at the bus stop on Southgate Road

    Posted October 30, 2014 in London, transport  |  2 Comments so far

    Every now and again I get the bus down to Moorgate. This involves going to a stop on Southgate Road where three suitable buses regularly turn up.

    It’s an unremarkable bus stop by Islington standards. There’s no Countdown machine—these are being phased out now that we all have direct synaptic links to TfL’s data feeds—but it does have a roof, and a thin red bench, and the nearest overpriced delicatessen is just fifteen seconds away.

    So far, so normal. But if you come to this bus stop during rush hour on a rainy weekday morning, you will see something very strange indeed.

    A bus queue. In London. In 2014.

    A bus queue. In London. In 2014.

    London is a place where the bus queue died out long ago. It got replaced by a new system for deciding who boards first. It’s a system that we all understand but could never describe. One thing we do know about it, however, is that it doesn’t involve what is shown in that picture.

    What is shown in that picture—a single-file queue that takes up an alarming length of the pavement—is what I’d expect to see in the event of a tube line being shut down, a nuclear strike on the capital, or a sudden influx of zombies. It’s crisis behaviour.

    When I first saw it, my first thought was that something terrible must have happened. I considered walking, or getting a taxi, or just running away as fast as I could. But curiosity overcame fear and I took my place in the queue. And you know what? It worked pretty well.

    The first bus was so busy we couldn’t get on. Stress levels rose. The second bus was stern, keeping its front doors shut until a few passengers had stumbled out, at which point the queue was able to shuffle forward a bit. That felt better. Then the third bus turned up practically empty and we were on so quickly I could barely get my Oyster card out in time.

    Now, when I arrive at the bus stop and see that the single-file queue has formed, I am eminently relaxed about it. I can’t say the same for the new people who, seeing it for the first time, stare open-mouthed in shock and devastation, just as I did. But they’ll get over it.


  2. The gap is growing between London house prices and what you might call reality

    Posted February 26, 2014 in London, visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    During lunchtime, for a laugh, I downloaded this spreadsheet and made a chart from it.

    The data in the spreadsheet shows the house-price to earnings ratio for all London boroughs, from 1997 to 2013. This number tells us how affordable local property is for people who live and work in a particular area.

    In an ideal world you’d want it to be relatively stable—if property is expensive in one high-income area and cheap in another low-income area they might still have similar house-price/earnings ratios. And over time, you would want salaries and house prices to go up or down more or less together—if you wanted the affordability of property to remain constant, that is.

    Anyway, here’s the chart. You’ll need to click on it to see the full-size version.

    House price to earnings ratio in inner London boroughs

    House price to earnings ratio in inner London boroughs

    The biggest surprise for me upon making this was not so much that this ratio has grown over the years, or the fact that this growth has occurred in every borough. It’s more that the gap between boroughs has become so vast.


  3. I finally made it to the Milliennium Dome

    Posted October 28, 2013 in Diary, London  |  No Comments so far

    I finally went to the Millennium Dome yesterday.

    I didn’t want to. The plan was to head east with our toddler and cross the Thames on the Emirates cable car. A bit of wind was blowing, however, so the cable cars had been mothballed by the time we arrived. The resulting toddler rage meant we needed to go somewhere else to mollify him, and as he’d shown an interest in the Dome upon passing it earlier, we decided to go there.

    The Dome

    The Dome. A building once so synonymous with costly failure that it could have been rebranded as “The White Elephant” and few would have noticed. In fact it exemplified that idiom so much that many people, when talking about wasteful follies, referred not to white elephants but to the Dome instead. Despite doing better as a metaphor than as a tourist attraction, I had lots of friends who popped down there to see the Millennium Experience exhibition even though their expectations were rock-bottom. I thought about going too – this was the Age of Irony after all – but while an afternoon of cringing at high-budget naffness sounded appealing, it was never quite appealing enough, so I didn’t bother.

    Eventually the exhibition shut down and the Dome spent years in planning limbo. Would it become a sports arena? A cinema? A metaphor? No-one knew. The uncertainty dragged on for so long that the whole story became boring and everyone forgot about it. Then the Dome popped up again, rebranded as the O2 Arena. If Bruce Springsteen or Cher were going to play in London there was a good chance they’d play there. There were restaurants and bars in there too. That’s all I ever picked up about it though – like nearly everybody else, I’d lost interest. And I still thought of it as the Dome, not the O2, whenever I thought of it at all.

    So back to today, and to our unscheduled visit to the Dome. We didn’t have a clue what we’d find in there. And while our toddler seemed keen enough when it was a distant spectacle on the horizon, his enthusiasm faded as we reached the door, shouting “other way!” as he tried to run back outside. After some cajoling, he finally entered.

    I could understand his reluctance: it’s a bleak space. The curved walkways around its inner walls are lined with the sorts of tourist-trap bars and restaurants that are rarely seen concentrated together so densely. If Angus Steak House applied for a slot here I imagine they’d be turned down for being “too authentic”.

    Dome Couture

    Makes Leicester Square seem like a foody-bohemian paradise

    Another thing that struck me about the Dome was how confused and disjointed it was. The interior and exterior are not reconciled at all. Yes, you can see the ceiling and that gives you the sense of being inside the Dome, but most other things inside it look like they were designed for somewhere else and ended up here by accident. It was how I imagine a big film studio, a vast warehouse-like space cluttered up with unrelated bits of fake buildings and props and scenery. All of the interior objects looked out of place. Although the wall in the photo below would look daft anywhere.

    Stupid wall

    I really don’t like this stupid bit of wall. What’s it trying to be?

    But most of all, the Dome feels like an earlier, failed, version of the experiments that would eventually produce that whole wave of shiny, branded spaces that make up the new east London: Westfield Stratford, the Olympic site, the new Overground stations, and so on. When you visit Westfield you might not enjoy yourself but you have to acknowledge it succeeds on its own terms, and it also makes those terms quite clear, with visitors being left in no doubt what Westfield Stratford was created to do.

    It’s the opposite with the Dome. Even though it’s now a functioning music & comedy venue, the sense of purposeless it was so notorious for in the early 2000s still lingers in the air beneath its canopy, and will probably never dissipate. Next time I visit that area I really hope the cable car is running.


  4. How I Turned Out To Be Wrong About Self-Checkout Machines

    Posted November 6, 2012 in Diary, London  |  No Comments so far

    I can still remember my first encounter with self-checkout machines, at the Sainsbury’s near Angel. I thought they were great, that they’d change the world. And they did, I guess – just not in a good way.

    Back then this Sainsbury’s was the only serious supermarket in the area so it got pretty busy. Weekday evenings were so crowded that shoppers unable to cope with the queues would dump their baskets and storm out enraged to the point of tears, while a large clock on the wall reminded the rest of us just how much of our lives were being wasted there beneath the bright supermarket lights. It was hard to handle.

    Maybe the horror of shopping at this branch was why it became a trial site for self-service checkout machines. Initially, though, they seemed to make matters worse. Shoppers feared these new devices so piled into the other lanes, making the existing queues longer. Sainsbury’s responded by forming a kind of evangelism team who would lure people away from the queue and into the glorious new world of the self-checkout. Gradually they chipped away at our resistance to change.

    Me, I didn’t take much convincing. After my first try I was hooked. I particularly loved how they repelled other shoppers. For some time the self-checkout machines, untroubled by the masses, offered we who understood them an opportunity to escape Sainsbury’s early and enjoy our lives.

    Eventually the appeal of the self-checkout machines spread beyond the early adopters. The Sainsbury’s evangelists spent less time frogmarching shoppers to the machines and adopted a peacetime role offering support to willing users. The machines had been accepted; they had gone mainstream, which meant they had their own queues and no longer represented a queue-free exit from supermarkets. The golden age was at an end.

    One major benefit remained, however: the avoidance of conversation. Londoners famously like to minimise interactions with strangers. Think how rare it is for anyone to greet bus drivers nowadays: the only interaction is between our proffered cards and the businesslike beep of the Oyster machine. The self-checkout appeals to the same tendency. It avoids conversation about what we’re buying, the weather, not wanting a bag for that single item in our basket. Like the Oyster reader, the self-checkout wants nothing from us but a proffered object and gives nothing back but a businesslike beep. It satisfies our yearning for the impersonal.

    Along with many others I embraced the alienating aspect of the experience. Even in empty supermarkets with vacant manned tills I would veer towards the machine rather than the human. I was glad for the choice and thought it was the way of the future. But I now realise I was wrong.

    I recently moved house and now live near a Tesco and a Sainsbury’s where the self-checkout has become central to the routine of shopping rather than an auxiliary exit lane for the anti-social and technically adept. Adoption is so widespread there that the early days of the technology seem like a distant era; the fear and confusion with which we once approached those machines is a behavioural relic, like the firm-jawed way Victorians once posed for photographs.

    No-one needs help any more, apart from when the machine actually breaks. Grandmothers and schoolkids alike process their shopping like seasoned professionals. The dwindling human staff linger unoccupied, a legacy technology, needed only for fetching cigarettes or to green-light alcohol purchases.

    I don’t like it. It wasn’t so bad when only a few people used self-checkout, but when everyone does it feels faintly dystopian, like airport security or Argos. In the queue we don’t know where to look. We certainly can’t rest our gaze on the bored staff – they inspire too much guilt, because deep down we all know that by choosing the self-checkout lane we’re telling them they aren’t needed. We’re all dehumanised. The worst thing about it is the broken contract, the polluted relationship between customers and staff, how we now occupy the same space but have nothing to do with one another.

    So every now and again, when given the choice, I opt for the checkout with the human being behind it. The self-checkout still has its place if we want to leave a supermarket quickly – but if we want to change the world, let’s do something else instead.


  5. Coping with rudeness in London

    Posted August 8, 2012 in London  |  No Comments so far

    There are lots of great things about living in London. If there weren’t, why would we stick around? For the weather?

    But life in a city as big as this has its challenges, not least of which is the sheer number of people here. With millions of Londoners trying to go about their busy lives, we rely on the politeness of others to keep us sane. And when this politeness breaks down – when fellow Londoners cross the line into outright rudeness – it can make even the most patient of us lose our cool pretty quickly.

    Rudeness in London can take many forms. Failing to stand aside to let others leave the tube. Talking loudly on the phone in restaurants or cafés. Showing scant regard for the (admittedly archaic) rules of the bus queue. Nearly everyone who lives in London has a personal bugbear, a rude behaviour that winds them up beyond belief.

    Getting wound up is one way to respond to rudeness, but it’s not the best: life’s stressful enough already so why let more tension into our lives? We need to handle rudeness differently, to keep our stress levels down and those grey hairs at bay. And there are three options: to Flee, to Fudge, or to Fight.

    1 – Flee

    The more people there are, the ruder they get

    Do you hate rudeness so much that you just want it out of your life for good? Then Flee might be the strategy for you. Taking drastic steps now can significantly reduce the levels of rudeness you’re exposed to. We’re not talking about moving out of London here – let’s not be silly. We’re talking about changing your daily routine so that when rudeness is on the cards, you’re out of sight.

    What makes people rude? Lots of things, from bad weather to bad coffee, but one thing that’s guaranteed to make people behave rudely is other people. Especially when there are lots of other people. Ever felt snappy and irritable when standing alone on sun-drenched shore? No, me neither.

    Learn the times and places where your routine will bring you into contact with rude people, and avoid them. This is the essence of the Flee strategy. Some ideas for how you could put it into practise:

    • Seek obscurity – London is a huge city with lots to offer. So why do so many of insist on frequenting the same jam-packed bars and restaurants as everyone else, when we’re just going to encounter stress and rudeness? Do some research online and find the hidden gems in your area, where there will no doubt be lots of pleasant, quiet places. Heading off the beaten track will get you away from the crowds and you’ll find that people are politer.
    • Early bird – The morning rush hour reaches its height at around 8.30am. This is when the tube is busiest and commuters become the most brutal. Because this is when most of us are trying to get to work, we end up experiencing a lot of rudeness – in fact it can take nearly all day to unwind from the stress of the morning commute. So why not try to adjust your daily routine to start the day earlier and leave work earlier? London is a nicer place when the streets are quiet.
    • Walk a bit further to the quieter stop, trading a bit of time for a rudeness-free journey

      One stop ahead – Another Flee tactic is to think about the bus stops and tube stations you use. Maybe you’re exposing yourself to unnecessary rudeness levels by getting on at busier stops. If so, consider using stops a bit further back on your route even if it means walking slightly further. Getting on buses or trains when they’re quieter might take more time, but if rudeness is seriously getting you down, it might be worth your while.

    If Flee is the right strategy for you, you’ll no doubt have lots of other ideas about how to adapt it to your own lifestyle or routine. You might even discover a calm, hidden side of London that no-one else knows about. If you do, please tell me about it.

    2 – Fudge

    The British are globally renowned for their passive aggressiveness. It helps us make others know how we feel, without committing the grave faux pas of making a scene in public.

    The only problem is that passive aggressiveness is only effective when it’s understood, like a language. All the passive aggressiveness in the world won’t have an effect on someone who’s oblivious to its signals. This is why tourists often persist in having a good time in London despite our pointed stares and aggravated tuts – they’re completely oblivious to them.

    This doesn’t mean that passive aggressiveness can’t be a solution to Londoners’ rudeness problems, however. It’s worked for generations of Londoners so why can’t it work for us? Here’s how we can respond to rudeness by simply fudging it:

    • Non-verbal disapproval – Tuts, exhalations. Younger Londoners might want to try sucking air through their teeth, but if you’re over 25 don’t try this, you’ll look and sound daft. (Make sure you don’t do it too loudly though, otherwise people might think you’re mad)
    • Silent venting – Experienced rudeness? Venting can help. Maintain your cool, get out your smartphone, and share a snarky update with the world via Facebook or Twitter (or if you’re old-fashioned about these things, text your best pal). Lots of people do this: search Twitter for “on the bus” and you’ll see a stream of commuters venting about the inconsiderate, unsanitary and downright rude behaviour of bus passengers the world over. It might not send a message to the rude person but at least you get to air your frustration to the world at large.
    • The secret posse – rudeness is easier to cope with if we feel like we’re getting other people involved, and there are ways to do this without causing an unsightly public confrontation. The technique to master is eye contact. By making the right sort of eye contact with other victims of the rudeness – disapprovingly raised eyebrows, subtle head-shakes, rolling your eyes to the sky – you send the signal that you’ve noticed the rudeness and that you don’t approve. If you get eye contact in acknowledgement, congratulations: you have a secret posse! Your distaste at the rudeness is shared with fellow Londoners and you will all feel much better for it.

    Use eye contact to recruit a secret posse. You’ll feel better without making a scene

    But this strategy is only useful because it makes us feel better. We end up thinking we’ve done something about rude behaviour through passive aggressiveness, but because rude people don’t understand passive aggressiveness they’re completely oblivious.

    If you want to really get the message across to rude people, you have to do better than fudge: you have to Fight.

    3 – Fight

    It would be great if rude people were challenged in public about their behaviour. Before too long they’d be shamed into being better citizens and life would be easier for the rest of us.

    But this isn’t New York – this is London, where people hate making a scene in public so don’t like to confront rudeness openly. This means that the third strategy, Fight, is a tricky one for Londoners to adopt and needs to be carefully calibrated if it’s going to work.

    Imagine you’re queuing for tube tickets and someone with a rucksack and camera appears to be pushing in. Maybe they’re doing it on purpose, maybe they aren’t: well-meaning tourists often get these things wrong and tube stations can be confusing. Even still, you’re thinking that something needs to be said.

    Just as you’re clearing your throat to correct this errant individual, a man behind you loses his patience and shrieks in rage. His outburst has something uncontrolled, frantic, almost animal about it, and although largely incomprehensible there was definitely a swearword in there. Rather than rallying around this unwanted hero, everyone in the queue averts their gaze, embarrassed on his behalf. He is now the social pariah and the tourist’s transgression is forgotten.

    This is an example of how fighting rudeness can misfire and cast you, not the rude person, as the villain. To prevent this happening you must follow the three cardinal rules of the Fight strategy:

    • No fudging! Clearly register your disapproval with the rude person
    • No hysterics! Establish yourself as the most socially adjusted person in the situation
    • Take the lead! Make sure others are aware of what you’re doing

    Each of these points is as important as the other. You must make sure that the rude person is aware of your challenge – if they aren’t you’re simply Fudging, which is something else entirely. You can’t get too angry or hysterical and you have to know when to stop – if you seem unhinged or furious the rude person could turn this to his or her advantage. And you have to make your challenge public – don’t just take the rude person aside, they have to get the impression that it’s not just you who is offended by the behaviour.

    All this sounds difficult, but there is a weapon we all have up our sleeves that can help: humour.

    Being funny and assertive: the best way to fight rudeness without being rude

    As this diagram shows, it’s sometimes possible when fighting rudeness to actually be rude yourself. On the other end of the scale though you can be assertive, you can be funny, or – best of all – you can be both assertive and funny. This is the best way to fight rudeness.

    Being funny can get a laugh from everyone around you, making the confrontation public; it establishes you as the socially adjusted person, rather than a scarily intense vigilante; and it makes the rude person get the message without feeling like you’re picking a fight.

    So let’s go back to our example of the tube ticket queue, where someone has pushed in. Rather than losing his rag and screaming, the vigilante could have used humour in his response:

    • Gesturing at the queue and saying, “Not so fast! Suffer with the rest of us” – this works because it includes everyone else through body language and directs the blame towards the general chaos of the station, not the queue-jumper
    • Ironically praising the queue-jumper’s enthusiasm for getting to work
    • Directly telling the person that they need to queue, then saying to everyone else “We’re obviously not queuing hard enough!” – again, this involves the others but still gets the message across to the rude person

    You have to be concise, otherwise people won’t understand what you’re saying; avoid condescension, so you don’t come across like a snob; try to work in a sardonic reference to your circumstances, to create a bond between you and everyone within earshot; and don’t be too self-deprecatory as this can take you into passive-aggressive territory.

    Of course this is easier said than done! But practise makes perfect.
    And don’t worry if you don’t feel up to fighting rudeness – you can always Fudge or Flee, and your fellow Londoners won’t think any less of you for it.