1. The secret strategies of commuting: now up at the Guardian

    Posted October 12, 2011 in transport  |  No Comments so far

    My post about getting a seat on the Overground has got more attention than I had expected. Earlier today I wrote another piece about it which is live on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site and has triggered a bit of a debate already.

    Let me begin with a confession: I’m no good at getting seats on trains. I’m often the only person standing in the carriage, outwitted by my fellow passengers who sit smugly while I’m left to wonder just what it is they know that I don’t.

    It was during one such journey that I started thinking about the dynamics behind the daily struggle for seats. Why do some succeed while others fail? Can it be mastered with subtlety and grace – or does it just come down to being pushy and inconsiderate…

    You can read the full article and join the discussion here: Commuting: the seat acquisition game.

  2. Even in war, there are rules: the Geneva Convention of public transport

    Posted October 10, 2011 in transport  |  13 Comments so far

    Most commenters on last week’s Overground seat-acquisition strategy post shared nefarious techniques of their own – many of which made me feel like a bit of a novice.

    But some questioned whether it was right to engage in this conflict at all when there are elderly people, pregnant women, and other travellers less able to cope with the stresses of modern commuting. Mat of Kilburnia went as far as suggesting the unthinkable:

    Please tell me you’re not one of these awful creatures who get on trains whilst people are still getting off.

    As if! Everyone who knows their way around an Overground or Tube carriage understands that this is a cardinal rule, fundamental to the code of conduct. It’s shocking that anyone would even consider that.

    You see, even in war there are rules and ethics – and in this respect the strategic space of the train carriage is no different from any other modern theatre of conflict. And although there’s no International Criminal Court of public transport, there’s certainly a Geneva Convention. Here are three of its basic rules.

    1. Let people get off the train first

    It’s a beautiful thing when a load of commuters get off a train. No, seriously. Like herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the Serengeti or flocks of starlings rippling across the sky (this is a murmuration, fact fans), a crowd of Tube travellers surging on to the platform is a magical moment, particularly for those of us left behind who can finally breathe. So why try to stop it?

    Getting off the tube at St Johns Mackerel

    Anything goes with these people, as long as you don’t aim to kill

    It’s amazing that people still do this. You’d have thought that by now it’d be a forgotten social aberration, like bear-baiting or smoking in kindergarten. Maybe it’s tourists who do it? Or people on a combination of PCP and Special Brew? You’d have to be on something not to see that this causes problems for everyone, yourself included.

    The punishment: Transgressors can expect to be shoulder-barged or roughly pushed aside.

    2. Don’t send conflicting signals about leaving

    This is a bit more obscure but I think it’s ingrained in the subconscious of most commuters. I’ll let a picture do the talking:


    You’re getting near your stop so think about getting off. Will you make it through the crowd?


    OK, that person between you and the door seems interested in the exit. You’ll just be able to coast in his wake.


    The train stops, the doors open, and people stream out. But this person doesn’t move! You’ve been deceived and must now resort to violence (or maybe loud tutting) check for the Rockstarz Limousine & Party Bus website for more transportation options.

    People who do this can spark off weird, instinctive responses in others. When we think we’re trapped, we’re like caged animals who stop at nothing to fight our way out, as if the next stop was Reading West rather than the tube station a bit further up the road.

    Still, it’s best to avoid triggering this primal rage, so don’t make people think you’re getting off when you’re not.

    The punishment: I’ve seen grown men scream swearwords at one another in situations like this.

    3. Protect those less able to cope

    The Paris Metro has a surprisingly detailed set of rules that govern who should get a seat. Wounded soldiers are top of the list, and I’m not sure who sits at the bottom but it’s probably people who are pretty steady on their feet like gymnasts, ninjas or Shaolin monks. Everyone knows their place in the pecking order.

    But in London the rules aren’t as clear. The vague guidance is “people less able to stand”, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation and can cause problems. Some spritely senior citizens don’t take well to being treated like invalids by well-meaning youngsters, for example, and let’s not even get into the consequences of mistaking obesity for pregnancy. You need to strike the right balance between helpfulness and condescension.

    This particular rule has implications for the seat-fancier: securing the seat nearest the door can be a pyrrhic victory, because you might need to give it up again at the next stop. You need to go deeper.

    Safe, but for how long?

    Go deeper – the better seats are further down the carriage

    The punishment: Severe passive-aggressive disapproval from other travellers, loss of soul.


    The melee of the daily commute can seem like a lawless ungoverned space, but in reality all strategic machinations are underpinned by laws like the ones described here. And while there’s no International Criminal Court – no formal way to capture or charge transgressors, no lengthy trials in The Hague – one thing acts as a barrier between controlled warfare and outright savagery, a thin line between dignity and chaos.

    That thing, that barrier, is our intense fear of public embarrassment. Let’s cling on to it, because if we don’t, all is lost.

  3. Do you want to sit down on the Overground during rush hour? Then prepare for war

    Posted October 4, 2011 in transport  |  98 Comments so far

    A few days ago, on an Overground train from Highbury to Kensington, I had a shocking experience – I failed to get a seat.

    If you know how crowded the Overground can get at rush hour, this might not sound all that surprising. Believe me, though, I was good at getting seats. I’d learnt the ropes and tend to overanalyse behaviour on public transport, so it had never been a problem. But I’d been away for a few weeks and my seat-acquisition skills had gone beyond rusty – they were useless.

    Empty Overground train

    Overground trains never look like this during rush hour

    So, as a form of therapy, I decided to try to work out the “rules” of the seat-acquisition game on the Overground. Here they are, in illustrated form.

    The theatre of conflict

    The Overground train arrives and dazed commuters spill on to the platform. Everyone stands aside to let them pass. But this act of kindness is the exception, not the rule. Once you all step into the carriage the competition for seats begins. You are now in a theatre of war.

    The theatre of war

    The strategic theatre where war is waged

    Know your enemies

    You share the strategic space of the carriage with many other players. Here’s a brief rundown of who they are:

    • Aspirants – People standing who want to sit down. This includes you.
    • Civilians – People standing who don’t want to sit down, maybe because they’re not going far.
    • Occupants – People currently sitting down. Don’t be fooled though: they’re still in the game.

    In a typical combat situation (or “rush hour”) here’s how the players might be distributed across the theatre of conflict.

    Populated Overground carriage

    Stepping into the arena

    Civilians linger near the doors while Aspirants occupy strategic positions nearer the seats. I’ll come to these later. First, here’s an ill-advised opening move that could undermine your whole campaign.

    Don’t take the wrong turn

    When you first get on the train you might turn towards the divide in between two carriages. Don’t! This is an unforgiving quagmire. Much like Napoleon in Russia, your campaign will come to a crushing, drawn-out end if you venture here.

    Here be dragons

    There are few seats here so chances of victory are slim. On one side you’re bordered by the crowded doorway, on the other you’re hemmed in by the barren, seatless inter-carriage zone, so withdrawing to another region could prove impossible. Stay well away.

    Get into position – but act casual

    Get yourself into the long aisle, where the seats are most abundant. This is the fertile valley of the Overground carriage.

    But don’t push past people to get here. Try to act casual, like you don’t really want to sit down anyway. As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception“. Seem too predatory and you’ll raise the suspicions of other Aspirants, losing the element of surprise. Let them think you’re a disinterested Civilian.

    Finding your spot

    Find a good place to lurk, but don't appear too keen

    A well-chosen spot gives you a tactical advantage over three, maybe four, seats. Take care when picking your spot, and check for things like:

    • Have the seat occupants only just sat down? If so it might be a while before they get off.
    • Can you guess where their occupants might be heading to? For example you can spot BBC people easily (branded building passes, reading Ariel, cooking up ways to irritate the Daily Mail). They’re going all the way to Shepherd’s Bush, so find a new spot.
    • Who else lurks in the same area? If there are pregnant or infirm Aspirants you should move elsewhere – unless, of course, the Overground has completely erased your sense of ethics.
    • Are the Occupants checking the station name or folding up their newspaper? If so then they may be close to departure.

    Having found your spot you’re now engaged in a tactical skirmish with other nearby Aspirants. This will play out in a smaller and more manageable space.

    Tactical scenario

    What it all comes down to - hold your position to capture the flag

    Things might seem straightforward from now on – someone will get up, you’ll sit down, mission accomplished. But it’s still too soon for complacency.

    Entering end game

    This might be the end of your campaign if earlier strategic decisions were sound and luck’s on your side. Other passengers, however, play by their own rules, so there could be some surprises ahead. Here are some end-game scenarios and how to handle them.

    1. The Occupant’s Deceit

    The Occupant of a contested seat puts their book away. Suddenly you’re interested in nothing else, watching them like a hawk to be sure you’ll bag their seat.

    Occupant's deceit

    Don't be misled by someone putting their book in their bag. They're not leaving the train - they're just messing with your mind

    Distracted, you fail to notice a seat that is legitimately yours becoming empty. An opportunistic Aspirant sneaks in to grab it. Then, to compound your error, the Occupant you’re eyeballing just sits there looking like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth and you’re stuck on your feet. You lose this round.

    Don’t let any single Occupant claim your undivided attention – sometimes people put their books away because they’re bored of reading, they want to sleep, or they simply enjoy messing with your mind.

    2. 360-degree Combat

    It’s easy to get a kind of tunnel vision when staring at the same three or four people for so long. You can easily forget that there’s a whole other row of seats immediately behind you.

    360 degrees

    Overground veterans develop 360-degree perception of their surroundings, much like chameleons

    So when a seat behind you becomes vacant, will you be quick to notice? If not then it’s a lost opportunity. The trick here is to somehow know what’s going on behind you without overtly gawping – remember your Sun Tzu. As always on the Overground, subtlety is essential.

    Edit: A few people commenting after this was posted mentioned that they look in the window to see the reflections of people behind them. I didn’t know this trick. No wonder I’ve been spending so much time standing

    3. The Art of Misdirection

    Imagine two Aspirants have equal claim to a seat and the Occupant gets up. Who wins? Sometimes it’s about who acts smartest, not who acts first.


    The Occupant's direction of departure can be influenced to your advantage

    The departing Occupant decides which door to head towards. Sometimes it’s the nearest door, but on a crowded Overground carriage they’ll usually choose the path of least resistance.

    Exploit this to your advantage by shifting your position to create an easy route for them. As they move past, do that “orbiting” kind of motion that people do in busy spaces, spinning around them so you switch places while gracefully intruding between the seat and your thwarted enemy.

    Get it right and you’ll effortlessly drop into their seat while looking like a helpful and polite person, and not the scheming and conniving seat-fancier you are.

    A final note – and a confession

    This guide should help you achieve comfort on the Overground, but I must confess that my last few journeys have been spent standing up, so maybe I’m not the best teacher. Maybe I’ve lost the hunger, the brutality, the sharpness of wit that’s needed to compete on these trains. The truth is that I don’t need that hunger any more – my company is moving next weekend, to an office 20 minutes’ walk from my house. I’m pretty happy about this.

    So while my days as an Overground commuter are over, yours may be only just beginning. If so, be careful out there – and don’t let the war for seats escalate any more than it has to. Enough blood has been shed.

    Edit: There’s now a follow-up to this post, about the Geneva Convention of public transport – the sacrosanct, unspoken rules that we all must obey

  4. Overheard during the tube strike

    Posted October 5, 2010 in ephemera  |  1 Comment so far

    Yesterday was one of the semi-regular days of chaos on London’s travel system. A strike by the RMT and the TSSA unions left many stations closed and almost all lines operating a skeleton service. The blank October sky glowered down on us as, in our millions, we battled our way across a suddenly inhospitable city.

    On my packed Overground train there was a moment of levity when, in a tunnel between two stations, the driver fired up the intercom to make an announcement.

    “As you know there is industrial action on the underground today so we’re a lot busier than usual. To make it easier on everyone, can you please let passengers get off the train before boarding.”

    And this is when we were nowhere near a station, in the middle of a tunnel. For a beat there was silence, then a wave of gentle laughter passed through the carriage.

    The humourous mood soon lifted. We arrived at Willesden Junction and a near-riot ensued when nearly a thousand people tried to force their way on to the train. I guess they didn’t hear the announcement.

  5. Behavioural patterns in commuter communities

    Posted May 22, 2010 in transport  |  8 Comments so far

    To get to work I usually take the London Overground train from Highbury to Kensington. It’s part of a rail line that orbits central London around four miles out, allowing people to move around the city while remaining within urban areas and steering clear of the centre. It spares me the ordeal of travelling through central London at rush hour, so I’m really glad it exists.

    The section of London Overground I travel on

    People who share a regular journey eventually form communities based around shared patterns of group behaviour rather than personal relationships. A well-known example from the Tube can be seen when people boarding the train stand aside to let others get off first – that’s a behavioural pattern that Tube travellers follow, and new travellers quickly learn. Lots of these little patterns exist among commuter communities which, despite being only temporary rush-hour formations, are communities nonetheless.

    Most people only take one regular route, so may not notice the behavioural patterns that fleetingly bond them to their fellow travellers. But I’ve recently started taking another regular route, down to the City of London, which has got me thinking a lot more about this.

    It’s a far shorter commute for me, only two stops. It’s also a more conventional “spoke-to-hub” commute: the route begins outside London and bores its way inwards to stop at Moorgate, in the city’s central zone. This is in stark distinction to the radial nature of the Overground route.

    Over time I’ve started to notice how the patterns of the City community differ from those of the Overground. The most significant difference relates to overcrowding.

    On Overground trains an unspoken rule is, “move down the carriage”. Travellers follow this rule silently – as space appears further down the carriage, people move up to leave space nearer the doors. When the rule is ignored and an unnecessary crush develops, the offenders are loudly admonished – “can you move down please!” – and things soon right themselves.

    How the Overground deals with overcrowding

    How the Overground handles overcrowding

    But on the City commute things are different. A train pulls into the platform and there’s lots of space. But then you look at the  doorways, and it’s jammed solid – everyone has bunched up near the doors. You think, that’s not a problem; people will move. But this isn’t the Overground. The people in the doorways, already uncomfortably compressed, simply inhale sharply as you wedge yourself in next to them. The train is silent. No-one moves, and no-one is asked to move.

    This community seems to have a different rule – “don’t rock the boat”. Shouting into the sheer silence would mark you as a lunatic. It’s a powerful rule: I’ve seen people abandon their attempts to board the train, choosing to wait ten minutes for the next one rather than cause a fuss by telling people to move into the empty space.

    The doorway culture of the City community

    Suburbanites heading to the City stay in the doorways

    How has the City community formed such different behavioural patterns than the Overground community? The routes use exactly the same trains, so it’s not carriage layout. And it’s not the suburban nature of the passengers – I’m an urbanite and I end up adhering to the pattern, as do others who get on at my stop. Some possible reasons are:

    • The City community arrives at Moorgate, within walking distance of any office in the City, so many might never have to use the Tube. On the Tube, the authorities run frequent poster campaigns about how to behave – if they didn’t, the Tube (with its mixture of commuters, shoppers and tourists) would be sheer chaos. The Overground community is exposed to these campaigns but the City community, spared the ordeal of Tube travel, isn’t.
    • My stretch of the City commute is underground so people don’t use mobile phones. This contributes to the oppressive silence: speaking aloud marks you out as a lunatic. But on the Overground, there’s a constant background babble of phone chat, which means it feels less strange to call out to other travellers.
    • Everyone on the Overground is moving from one urban district to another, so most people have an “urban” rather than a suburban approach to personal space and group behaviour. They’re accustomed to being told to move on, get out of the way, budge up and so on.

    These are only part of the story however. What these two communities have in common is that they exist only at rush hour, have highly transient memberships, and revolve around simple, unspoken rules of personal conduct. But they diverge from one another when it comes to behavioural patterns, for reasons that are numerous, complex and hard to fathom.