the psycho-geography of public transport
- Posted by Nazima Kadir
An Amsterdam-based friend who happens to be in London wants to re-connect. Amsterdam is a culinary desert, and knowing her taste, I arrange for us to have lunch in a South Indian restaurant on Ealing Road. Ealing Road is known as “the Asian Jewel,” a South Asian neighborhood in Wembley. “It’s overwhelmingly Brown here,” she remarks, ” I love it. Do you live nearby?” I often refer to Wembley as a landmark for Londoners to identify where I live geographically. But is “nearby” the relevant point of reference?
For those of us who reside in mega-cities with extensive public transport, distance is not as relevant as travel time and ease/convenience of transport options. These factors are mediated by cost and a myriad of access issues.
I live in Northwest London, approximately 2 minutes walk from the Jubilee line of the London Underground, aka, the tube (rapid transit) and multiple bus lines. By cycling 2 miles or via a bus/tube transfer, I can also use the Overground (London’s above ground, inner city rail service that primarily connects the outer boroughs), and the Thameslink, another rail line that connects people from London to towns within the commuter ring of an hour outside the city.
The Jubilee line is one of the fastest tube lines. Distance wise, l reside 7-10 miles outside of Central London. Public transport wise, it’s 20 minutes to Baker Street, the first Central London station, 30 minutes to the rest of the Central London Jubilee line stations, and incomprehensibly, about 40 minutes or less to arrive in Canary Wharf, a financial services district in the Southeast. Canary Wharf is approximately 13.5 miles away (I’ve cycled it, so I know), and yet travel time mysteriously lasts only 40 minutes.
On the flip side, ‘neighboring areas’ are often difficult to reach due to the lack of transport links and the mode of transport. Brent Cross is a shopping mall that is between 2 and 3 miles away, and should potentially be within walking distance from my house. Due to the spaghetti of highways surrounding the mall, getting there is amazingly unpleasant and takes a minimum 40 minutes along with multiple bus transfers. It’s easier to travel 7 miles in 20 minutes to central London via the Jubilee line.
Thus, the complexity of my ex-friend’s question in the South Indian restaurant, “Do you live nearby?” Wembley and Willesden (my neighborhood) are in the same psycho-geography of Northwest London. But the South Indian restaurant requires a tube and a bus transfer. Taking the bus always presents a risk of traffic standstills, so 4 miles can easily take an hour or more to traverse. But the dosas are worth it.
What I’ve just described speaks to my privileges. I am able bodied and relatively physically fit so cycling, navigating tube stations’ narrow and extensive staircases, and transferring between underground, overground, and rail lines are easy for me (now….). A disability, physical impairment, or a stroller would make the tube, overground, and rail impossible due to the number of staircases and general lack of accessibility. For folks who are disabled or with a stroller then, the bus, despite being slower due to sharing the road with cars and the resulting delays, is far more comfortable and less stressful.
Moreover, residing 2 minutes walking away from a tube line is a privilege that the majority of Londoners lack. Generally, the closer to a tube station, the more expensive the housing. Public transport, like everything in the UK, reflects deep, historical class divisions and class reproduction. Relative to London incomes, the cost of tube travel is fairly expensive. It’s unclear to me if the costliness is designed to limit the tube’s use to those with middle and higher incomes. Due to my professional income, I have the privilege to not worry about the cost of public transport. The majority who struggle to makes ends meet in this city and must use public transport constantly weigh the costs of each mode of transport versus the time and convenience of travel.
In contrast, the bus is much more affordable. In areas where the bus serves the same routes as the tube, bus users diverge towards those who:
- have lower incomes, mobility constraints, or more time
- want to save on the fare, enjoy the bus’s scenic derives, or dislike the tube particularly during rush hour
The Overground is relatively new and revolutionary since it disrupts the ‘hub and spokes’ logic of the overall London public transport structure to connect Central London to the Outer boroughs. For example, direct travel between neighboring boroughs, such as Brent (where I live) and Camden, requires taking a bus or Overground but not the tube. Taking the tube means traveling to Central London, transferring and then going outwards in a different direction. While time-wise, this may be more efficient, psychologically, I find it unbearable.
Which brings me back to psycho-geography. Having just interrogated the notion of being ‘nearby’ as the result of distance, most of us need some idea of local to make a section of our mega-cities our own.
In my personal psycho-geography, I consider Northwest London my home. This was especially the case pre-pandemic, when I commuted daily. During the weekends, I wanted to rest from my job and commuting’s micro-corrosive effects. Staying local means spending time in the neighborhoods of Willesden (where I live), and Kilburn and West Hampstead, both of which are about 5-8 minutes away by tube. On the other hand, Wembley, also 5 minutes away by tube, is outside of my conception of local. This is partially because Wembley Park is in the midst of a massive redevelopment and the neighborhood feels a bit too planned for comfort. It’s also due to the difficulty to travel to Wembley via foot or bicycle due to the highways surrounding it as well as the aggressive driving that prevails in that area.
The pandemic has challenged me to re-evaluate my understanding of local. During the lockdowns, we were discouraged from using public transport so that cycling became the only mode of transport for me. I found that the only people I saw regularly were those who were within 3 miles of my apartment. A spontaneous visit in which I could cycle to see a friend within 30 minutes meant that I saw these ‘local’ friends more frequently than we would have seen each other pre-lockdowns.
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