Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Assignment Three – Design Safari (London Underground)

In assignment three, I was asked to ‘people watch’ and to observe the behaviour, rules and rituals they follow.

Where better to observe people than on a study trip to London to visit the Ecobuild Exhibition. The London Underground carries on average Three million passengers every day. During our stay in London, we travelled by the London Underground at different times of the day and on different lines. We travelled at both rush hours, which appears to be between 07:00 – 09:00 and 17:00-19:00, and at quieter times during the day. The rush hour is when people are travelling to and from work. This is a very functional service carrying passengers from point A to B.

The trains are very busy and crowded at rush hour. Everyone is very focussed and determined to get on the first available train and no one seems prepared to wait a few minutes in the hope of travelling when it is quieter. On the platform people eagerly watch the signs displaying the time of the next train. Time in London is very precious.

When a train arrives on the platform, everyone seems to be standing in an orderly fashion at the point where the doors will open eager to board the train. The accepted ritual is to allow passengers off the train before boarding in a businesslike manner. People move down the carriage to ensure that all available space is used. There are signs above some seats saying ‘Priority seating for elderly, disabled or pregnant passengers’. The passengers did not seem to pay any attention to the signs and only thought about themselves. No one appeared to be willing to give up a seat, but at rush hour there was no evidence of the elderly, disabled or pregnant women travelling. When the train arrives at a station, everyone moves aside to let people off whilst eyeing up and manoeuvring themselves for the next available seat. People sit very neatly; keeping arms, legs and belongings confined to a well-defined space. Small bags and handbags are placed on laps or behind legs when seated. People boarding the trains at rush hour with luggage are frowned upon. There was little or no evidence of small children or babies on the underground at busy times.

There is very little interaction and only visitors and tourist talk on the underground. The unwritten etiquette is that you do not even make eye contact. The general rules of personal space seem to be abandoned on rush hour trains with people squashed in together. Most people seem to cope with this by withdrawing into themselves and internalising their space. This is achieved by listening to ipods, reading books, newspapers; fiddling with mobiles (which have no signal) and reading the well placed overhead ads. A person holding on to the grab rail will avoid physical hand contact with another passenger even though they are crushed up beside them and should this happen they will withdraw their hand and nod an apology.

The only written rule appears to be on the escalators where it clearly indicated ‘Please stand to the right’. This is obeyed.

For a group of Dundee students with little experience of London, the underground seemed a very foreign and daunting environment. Everyone appeared to know how to behave. Imagine joining a motorway for the first time if you have only driven on country roads. It is amazing how quickly we all adapt and pick up the rules.

What is your experience of travelling by underground in other parts of the world?

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