An all-out London tube strike seems to be quite a rare thing these days. While individual lines can be affected, or a percentage of services disrupted, the full network doesn’t go down all that often.
But today is one of those days when nearly the entire network has stopped working.
For many it’s a question of whether or not they actually need to be in the office. “WFH” or Working From Home is much more common these days, with many able to work one or more days away from their workplace on a regular basis. A laptop, mobile and internet connection, and you’re all set.
It certainly felt that many must be doing this when I started my commute on a Great Northern train. Aware that people who might otherwise use a tube may travel over to use the national rail service, I was prepared for crowds. But in fact the carriage felt slightly emptier than usual.
The train did fill up though, and by the time we reached Finsbury Park – where hundreds usually disembark – we were instead joined by locals who were looking for a train onwards to King’s Cross. Ordinarily my trains would head underground from here, by way of Drayton Park, and into Moorgate. But those are all shared Underground stations, and therefore they were shut. So trains were all redirected to King’s Cross.
This had the knock-on effect of our train becoming a bit like planes circling Heathrow in a landing pattern at a busy time, patiently awaiting a slot. There are 12 platforms at King’s Cross (Platforms 1-11 and, of course, Platform 0), and they’re ordinarily pretty full. Adding dozens of local commuter services into the mix isn’t easy to manage.
From King’s Cross it was more chaotic. I calmly unfolded my Brompton and then had to navigate hundreds of nomadic commuters, looking lost in an unfamiliar place, and with their noses buried into Google Maps on their smartphones as they worked out their onwards routes.
If you’re a black cab, mini-cab or Uber driver, you’re on duty today, and the roads outside King’s Cross were jammed up with cabs. A long queue of people snaked back at the taxi rank, but it was the weight of traffic rather than lack of cabs that kept the line stationary.
Crossing the Euston Road from King’s Cross without using the underpass is pretty fraught at the best of times. But with the tube station shut it appeared that the underpass was closed as well. Crossing the road means navigating as many as four sets of traffic lights – all separately. Cars have the priority here, not people. My fellow cyclists and I had to use the combined might of all our bells to stop people walking into the road when the lights turned red for pedestrians and ours green.
Many may have hoped to use hire bikes. TFL have upped the number of docks around King’s Cross of late, but they were all empty when I passed, all the spares kept in a nearby warehouse having been hired out. There were still a few bikes temptingly sat in their docks, but as you got nearer, a tell-tale red light showed that they were damaged in some way and not working.
The back streets of Bloomsbury are well suited to cycling, but wayward pedestrians meant there was a constant requirement to “keep your wits about you” as then Mayor Boris Johnson once said untruly of Elephant and Castle.
Walking whilst simultaneously reading your phone is a bad mix at the best of times.
Cars and other motor traffic were less of a problem, for the most part because they were all stationary. I would imagine that for the most part walking rather than taking a bus or car would have been the better bet today.
Some people still took a few too many risks – either because they didn’t usually cycle, or were impatient and late for work. That doesn’t really excuse playing chicken with a car when you’re on a bike. There’s only ever one winner in that game. And nipping behind a reversing lorry, as I saw several do, isn’t too smart either.
If you had managed to pick up a hire bike, you had one further issue – full docks in central London.
Broadly speaking, bike hire commuters come in from a ring around outer London, and dock their bikes near their workplaces in the middle of town. The reverse then happens in the evening. TFL try to manage this by shifting bikes around and freeing up spaces as necessary, but there’s a natural equilibrium usually reached – just enough central docks to manage the commuters. On a day like today, everything is disrupted. I was seeing people looking lost and confused at full docks, vainly attempting to find somewhere with space. A colleague had to travel to Regent’s Park, a good half an hour away, to find somewhere to dock his bike.
At work, talk was about how people “beat” the strike. Walking, for the most part. Someone mentioned their partner paying 4.8x “Surge pricing” on Uber. I bet most of that trip was spent stationary too.
BBC London posted a video that perhaps showed why driving around London doesn’t work:
The population of London increases by 10,000 every single month.
(It’s at 8.7m up 469,000 in four years.)
That explains why we need increased and greater diversity in our transport. Roads get clogged instantly with motor traffic, so that doesn’t work. Cycle lanes do work, and there’s scope for a massive increase in the number of cyclists on the roads. But we could also do with more secure parking facilities.
That’s also why Crossrail is essential, and we need to get a move on with Crossrail 2.
It also means that petty squabbles over who runs London’s transport are ridiculous. One organisation – TFL – needs to be in charge of as much of it as possible, whatever our cyclist-hitting Transport Secretary thinks.
Days like today remind Londoners how much transport is on something of a knife edge in keeping the city working.