Tag Archives: Transport

Understanding New York’s unique formula

If you ask me – and I know you didn’t – New Yorkers must be the most accomplished numbers-oriented populace in the world. For a start, they know the price of every single slice of pizza in the city, and can calculate the cheese per cent ratio of each one by smell alone. They can generally tell you the cost of a cab journey between any two points in the city, texting you regular updates to take into account rising fares caused by minor traffic problems. And they always know exactly how many inches each person is allotted for the placement of their posterior on a subway seat, and if you exceed it, they can deliver precisely the percentage death stare necessary to ensure that you never even think about doing it again.

They are also the only group of people I’ve ever come across who can accurately time one-hundredth of a second in their own heads. That is, after all, the only way that they can manage to hit the car horn so quickly after a traffic light has turned green and the car infront of them has failed to move on within the aforementioned time period.

What has been frustrating me over the last few days is that I think natural-born New Yorkers have access to a secret mathematical formula that I just can’t quite work out. They are able to take a combination of a number of factors and combine them in such a way as to calculate whether the action they take will save them time without getting them physically assaulted or ‘accidentally’ bumped off by the people that they annoy in the process. Such factors include (but may not be limited to):

– the size of the gap that they want to squeeze into, whether as a car attempting to use every lane possible in an attempt to gain ground, or a person defying the oncoming group of fourteen people getting off a subway as he or she gets on. Note that whatever the mode of transport, the size of the gap will always be at least 50% smaller than that used by any reasonable human being.

– the amount of time that is saved by performing such a manouevremaneuver, whether three seconds by pushing ahead in a queueline for a subway turnstile, or three minutes by taking the cafe latte that was actually intended for the person who turned their back for three milliseconds. Note that any time saved will be used for swearing and cursing at random strangers.

– the irritation level of the person slighted by the action of the New Yorker, on a scale of one to ten. Level one might involve a small ‘tut’ or a roll of the eyes, while level six involves verbal intervention and a knowing look to those around them. Level ten has been responsible for at least 59 deaths in the tri-state area already this year.

– the smugness of the person carrying out the act, again on a scale of one to ten. Level one sees the perpetrator almost imperceptibly lick their lips as they perform the act, while level eight (generally reached only by men) features a visible turn towards the victim and a full-on game show host-style wink. Surely no court in the land could ever convict somebody for stabbing such an inveterate winker?

What amazes me is that New Yorkers can gauge all the variables, and work out the formula in a matter of seconds. Such speed allows them to decide against the procedure if they think they really can’t get away with it, or to reduce the smugness of their reaction in the case of the most irritating actions in order to avoid defenestration or a similar fate.

I can only assume that they’re taught it at school, and then practice it religiously for the next eighty years. We outsiders can only look on with an equal mix of horror and amazement. 

And serve our time in jail with grace and remorse.

Excuses excuses excuses

It may not have escaped your notice that America is a pretty large country. You could probably fit the UK inside New York state (if you borrowed a bit of New Jersey, perhaps?), and I’ve seen bigger aubergineseggplants than Wales. And like any large territory whose population has migrated for work and family over the years, America has developed an extensive, environmentally friendly and efficient public transport system.

OK, that last bit’s a lie. The occasional subway system and local bus network aside, most Americans’ idea of public transport is giving a neighbour an occasional liftride in their car to Walmart. The train network is woefully underdeveloped, serving only a relatively few cities. British readers will sympathise when I say that the trains here are enough to make you pine for Network South East or the West Coast Main Line.

All of that leaves the wishful traveller with predominantly two options when he or she wants to travel long distances: take the car (and experience the dubious sheet-stained delights of the American motel system), or take a plane. Not surprisingly, when faced with such a choice, most Americans put their latent environmental concerns (stop laughing at the back, please) behind them, and fly.

Domestic flights are like buses in many ways. Largely because there’ll be no planes for three hours, and suddenly four flights to Charlotte will come along at once. Delays are pretty inevitable, and the sky above La Guardia (New York’s ‘domestic’ airport) generally look like the M25Long Island Expressway on a bad day. Except with more wings.

With so many flights and connections, the logistics involved in the checked luggage system must be pretty involved. And given the (often speedy) turnaround between connecting flights, it’s amazing that suitcases and rucksacks don’t go missing more often.

Of course, that doesn’t make it any less annoying when your bag is one of exceptions. Especially if your flight has already been delayed by two hours, and you’re standing in a deserted airport with two exhausted children. Still, United Airlines promised to get it to me by 1pm the next day, so it couldn’t exactly be described as a great hardship.

At 4pm, three hours after the deadline, I took my life into my own hands and called the United helpline. After a few abortive attempts at getting through the voice recognition system (see the comments on my last post for more insight), I finally got through to the dreaded call centreer.

The man I spoke to could not have been more friendly, and at absolute pains to insist that he was sorry for my inconvenience and woud be doing everything to resolve the situation. Given that he was in India, he’d even been given phrases to ensure that he connected with me on a more colloquial level. Admittedly I didn’t necessarily need to visualisze him ‘bending over backwards’ to help me, but it was a nice try.

Talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk is quite another. I was put on hold while he called the delivery company who would be bringing my bag back, and after a short while he returned to say that he had been unable to reach them, and that – as a result – I would just have to sit and wait for a little while longer, and hope that my bag turned up.

After a little pressing on my part, and ‘polite’ enquiries into why I couldn’t get more information, I was finally given what I believe to be the greatest excuse ever given by a call center operative. Ever.

“I’m sorry sir. I really wanted to help you with this, but the delivery company is really busy and so I was placed on hold. But the hold music was so irritating that I couldn’t wait any more.”

And with that he was gone.

Interestingly, my bag turned up an hour or so later with this tag on it. I believe the phrase is “you couldn’t make it up”.

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Ready, steady….

There are many things I’ll miss about London life, but there’s one irrational and wholly inconsequential behavioural trait that I’ll be glad to kiss goodbye to – Oystercard Unreadiness Syndrome.

Maybe you’ve not heard of this disease that’s currently rampaging through our capital city, but you’ve almost certainly seen it. It predominates in women, although is not exclusively confined to them, and its frequency tends to increase on occasions when those around the victim are running late to get somewhere. There is a simple cure, but education is still necessary to ensure that we stamp out this terrible illness.

Picture the scene. You’re on the bus. You’re late for a job interview/first date/goddaughter’s birthday party. You’re making good progress through the busy London roads, and all is looking fine. And then it strikes when you’re least expecting it.

The bus stops to allow a fairly lengthy line of passengers to get on. From the size of the line, they’ve been waiting there for, ooh, fifteen minutes. During that time, each passenger has no doubt been consumed with their own thoughts – "What do I need to buy in Tesco’s?", "I wonder why he isn’t answering?" or "Man alive, look at the legs on her", maybe? But each member of the ever-lengthening queue knows one indisputable thing – once the bus finally arrives, they’re going to get on, pay the fare, and (hopefully) sit down. It’s quite simply the law of the (transportation) land.

Most people get on the bus as expected, the beep of the ticket machine registering the successful acceptance of the validity of their Oystercard payment. But then comes our poor OUS sufferer. Identification is generally possible by the handbag she’s swinging from her shoulder. If it’s conceivably large enough to conceal, say, Liechtenstein, then it’s probable that she’s at the very least a carrier of the disease. She makes the short step up onto the bus, and then, confronted with the familiar yellow glow of the Oystercard reader, she makes the grim realisation that she has to offer some form of payment for the journey. Does she have her Oystercard ready, having known for the last quarter of hour that she was going to need it? Sadly not.

No matter how many times they get on a bus, OUS victims are crippled by an inability to remember to have their payment out and ready to use. And not only is it not ready, it’s hidden within the murky depths of that handbag, no doubt nestling cosily beneath the severed heads of three ex-boyfriends and seventeen copies of the latest Harry Potter blockbuster.

And so the hunt begins. Our hapless victim rifles through the bag in search of the ticket she never even knew she needed. Her mission unearths all manner of treasures. Marlboro Lights (six packets)? Check. Picture of her and closest mate on the slopes at Val D’Isere? Check. Small surface-to-air missile (collapsible)? Check check check.

Only after a complete dismantling of the bag and the laying out of all its contents on the floor, does the victim find the means to pay. With a cheerful ignorance of the villainous stares of the disgruntled fellow passengers who’ve been kept waiting for ten minutes, she walks to an empty seat and settles down to listen to David Gray on her iPod.

Victims in advance stages of the disease can find that after taking every single item out of their bag, the Oystercard was actually in their pocket all along. Variants of the disease include Credit Card Ill-Preparedness Complex (generally witnessed in long supermarket queues) and Fast Food Indecisionitis (where the level of indecisiveness increases in direct inverse correlation to the number of items on the menu).

We need to act urgently if we are to banish this world of the terrifying impact of this degenerative disease. Please do give generously, and help those that are unable to help themselves. Thank you.

PS In the United States, I can only assume that if somebody waits until they get on the bus to get out their payment, security marshalls will operate on a shoot-to-kill basis. Zero tolerance – it’s the only way forward.