Tag Archives: Northern Line

Ten things you can learn about New York City from the subway

Newton’s little-known fourth law of motion states that all city dwellers shall complain about the transport system that gets them to work in the morning. Londoners have more reason than most to moan, with a Northern Line that resembles Calcutta on a bad day, and weekend engineering work that means any trip from Leicester Square to Covent Garden has to go via Cardiff.

But when it comes down to it, underground systems are a microcosm of the city above, and if you ask me, there’s plenty we can learn about the city above by taking a look at the teeming humanity below. Just one week on the subway in New York is enough to glean some valuable lessons about New York and its itinerant population:

1. New Yorkers have an attention span that is only marginally longer than the average gnat. As a result, the majority of the city’s residents believe that there is a danger of spontaneous combustion unless they are constantly stimulated. People used to prepare for their work day by reading a newspaper; now they watch Gossip Girl on their iPod.

2. The majority of New Yorkers take up at least 47% more space than they think they do. As a result, most commuters never believe that a train is full, even after seeing documented evidence that Norris McWhirter and his fellow Guinness Book of World Records cronies have declared the train the current holder of the award for most people crammed into a confined space in a subterranean environment.

3. Most New Yorkers are hard of hearing, and have to play music at volumes only previously heard in military noise torture tests, in camps that make the Guantanamo Bay experience seem like a day out in Disneyland.

4. At least one third of all the city’s residents are homeless, and are forced to carry around all their worldly possessions in rucksacksbackpacks the size of, say, Mongolia.

5. Aggravated bodily harm is not illegal once you are thirty feet underground. If you need to use an umbrella, a fist or a good old fashioned honest-to-goodness shoulder barge to get past people, that is perfectly acceptable. If you leave your victim cowering on the floor, all the better.

6. The credit crunch means that a lot of people can no longer afford paper. All notes have to be scratched onto the subway windows as a result.

7. 95% of New York men have never seen a pregnant woman. At least that’s why I assume no-one ever seems to give up their seat when they see a gestating female clinging grimly onto a subway pole. It’s either that, or every New York man has had their fingers burned offering their seat to a woman who turned out to be less pregnant, more a big fan of cakes.

8. In Salem, they identified witches by the onset of mysterious convulsions; in New York, the outsiders are the people you see on the subway who aren’t wearing a coat manufactured by The North Face. If you are not wearing a black coat at the very least, you will be chased out of town by men brandishing pitchforks. North Face-branded pitchforks, obviously.

9. The lack of public toilets in New York was made possible by the 1932 Subway Conveniences Act, which stated that at least one subway carriagecar on every train will be required to stink of piss. Any train found to be lacking such a stench is forced to find a homeless guy with a collection of four thousand shopping bags (none of which contain soap) and place him in a carriage as a deterrent to commuters.

10. From the age of 2, all New Yorkers are trained to seek out vacant subway seats by smell alone. It is physically impossible to beat a seasoned New Yorker to a seat, even if you are given a 10 yard start. And your opponent is on crutches.

Still, these sardine cans get me to work, so I can’t really complain. I mean, obviously I will complain. But until someone coughs up for a personal chauffeur for me, it looks like I’m stuck with it so I may as well make the most of it. Now, where’s my umbrella?

City transport in “not very good” shock

If there’s one thing that unites Londoners and New Yorkers more than anything else, it’s their enthusiasm for (and indeed, full-blown devotion to) complaining about their respective subterranean rail systems. In the transportational equivalent of the playgroundschoolyard mantra of “my dad could beat up your dad”, the inhabitants of each city is convinced that their mass transit network is worse than anyone else’s, and will bitch and moan about it to anyone who will listen. As well as a good few who won’t.

In London, the legends of the Northern Line and its problems are more fantastical than anything that JK Rowling or Terry Pratchett could come up with. With trains that were apparently manufactured by contemporaries of Pliny The Elder, and a commitment to cancellation that suggests scheduling is done by an untrained monkey working flexi-time, the Northern Line is officially Far From Perfect.

Here in New York, trains run with the regularity of, say. Halley’s Comet or a Knicks NBA championship. If you ran trains with such huge gaps between them in the UK, they’d issue a timetable so that everybody could turn up at the allotted moment rather than making everyone peer into the gloom of the tunnel (more in hope than belief). It’s not just the timings either. I’m writing this from a packed train which is near-pitch black due to dodgy electrics. And if you ever see a peculiarly empty carriage car around rush hour, be aware that somebody has almost certainly thrown up in it, and only those who lost their sense of smell in an abortive ammonia-related chemistry experiment at school will be able to sit in it without retching every five seconds.

To be fair, being away from either system makes you pine for the other one. When I’m in New York, I long for the London Underground, and the knowledge that unless something’s gone badly wrong, you’re never going to have to wait more than five minutes for a train. Unless you’re on the Northern Line, obviously. And while in London, I yearn to be back in the capacious subway cars that can fit more than thirteen people without requiring you to occuipy the armpit of a burly man from Epping.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (almost as popular as Michael Phelps at a meeting of the Mark Spitz Appreciation Society at the moment, due to proposed fare hikes) actively seeks insultsfeedback with a laughably named Rider Report Card. The card asks you to rate your train according to 22 different criteria, including delays, station announcements, security, cleanliness, lack of graffiti and even “lack of scratchitti”. Sadly there’s no place to grade them on “ability to make up/perpetuate words such as scratchitti”.

While giving everyone the chance to have their say, the surveys don’t go down well with everyone. The woman opposite me on the R train into work this morning took a thick-tipped Sharpie to the report and scrawled on it in massive type “Stop giving me millions of surveys and start giving me more trains instead”. From her writing and evident over-the-top anger, I can only assume that she had left her multi-coloured crayons at home by mistake.

Meanwhile, I’ve got to fill out my report card today. I’m thinking “C+. Must try harder.”