On the Tube

The concept of a complex subterranean network of trains beneath a densely populated metropolis still seems radical and futuristic despite its Victorian roots. On one level the tube is a rational solution to a logistical problem. But it has interesting effects on the ways we experience and interact with the city and other people.

Rather than seeing the cityscape evolve and change gradually as you move through it by bike or car, we pop-up like moles in distinct urban pockets with particular architectural styles and cultural vibes. Camden is distinct from Covent Garden, which is distinct from Kensington. Travelling between them underground augments the individuality of these areas, obscuring the continuity of the city above ground.

On the tube different biographies intersect for a few minutes between places like Oxford Circus and Holborn before dispersing throughout the city. This creates interesting juxtapositions of particular types of humans, forcing total strangers into strangely intimate configurations. A city banker in a pin-striped suit will stand buttock to hip with a bearded homebound traveller. A moody teenager will be forced face first into the chest of an old lady. Ironically, however, the closer people get physically, the more vigorously they signal a sense of distance. Social interaction on the tube is characterised by a complex language of social disconnection. Arms hanging from a pole serve as the urban hedge, marking out personal space and respecting others’. Lines of sight form powerful vectors that are carefully controlled so as to not bump into people, particularly others’ eyes.

The mood however can change at different times of the day and in different locations. On Monday mornings, people seem ghost like, coming and going sullenly, like disconnected half-lives seemingly destined to wander the city alone. At South Kensington at the weekend, however, the feeling is buoyant. Good intra-group feelings often spill out, cross fertilising other groups and travellers, generating an almost tangible shift in the collective mood of the whole carriage. Occasionally at these times the rules of disconnection are often fluid or break. Two strangers laugh about something trivial. A kid makes faces at a friendly teenager. Humanity flows in the veins of the city.

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