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.

8 comments so far.  Post a comment

  1. May 25, 2010 at 1:35 pm [ Permalink

    Someone pointed out that people linger near the doors when their stop is near. I get on the Moorgate train two stops from its destination, so might be seeing a kind of “endgame” with everyone focused on their imminent arrival and looking to remain near the doors…

  2. Ky
    May 25, 2010 at 5:00 pm [ Permalink

    What’s even more interesting is that the behaviour of commuters on FCC coming from south london is to disperse into the carriages away from the doors, and if necessary they will respond to a ‘Move down the carriage, please’ appeal.

  3. Chris Pea
    May 25, 2010 at 5:22 pm [ Permalink

    The Moorgate commuter train has only two major destinations – Moorgate and Old Street. Everyone wants to be first off to avoid the queues getting out of the station. The Overground has many destinations, so although there are still door-huggers, they come and go. Maybe this continuous emptying and refilling of the vestibule gives the move-downers confidence that getting off the train will be easy, as they can slip through the temporarily emptied vestibule.

    PS: I think you can also see this behaviour split between Metropolitan (coming in from the suburbs and beyond) and Circle (multi-destination) line trains…

  4. October 19, 2011 at 12:34 pm [ Permalink

    There is also a design angle to this behaviour. The aisles on the Overground are wider, facilitating movement inwards regardless of people already standing there. With narrower aisles, the Tube makes it harder to move down the carriage without shoving or kicking someone’s leg.

  5. Matt
    December 24, 2011 at 11:46 pm [ Permalink

    Bit late on this one, but you say these FCC trains are the same as the Overground ones? Which route in particular is this? Would be interesting to see as I’ve only ever seen these on the Overground!

  6. December 31, 2011 at 9:10 am [ Permalink


    Those trains can still be found on the FCC routes into Moorgate, the ones that go past Highbury and Essex Road and so on. They used to be on the Overground too but not any more – over the last year or so the new orange-striped trains have replaced them all, and they’ve gone to the great train yard in the sky, which was probably for the best.

  7. […] explains how norms emerge among commuters on the same route due to their repeated interactions: People who […]

  8. jaso
    May 8, 2014 at 7:30 am [ Permalink

    This is not true. I go in to old street every day and if it’s busy, there will always be a woman in hEr mid forties, probably divorced, definitely upset with life, screaming move down . And this is at 07:12

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