A look into the underground – London’s Networks

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 We decided to examine the fast, efficient and invisible on street level tube networks of the London underground. This network has become crucial for the activity and transportation of Londoners in their everyday life. However what is it that differentiates the common tube journey to that of the iconic red bus or the overground network? 

Once you step on a bus you are greeted by the human interaction of the bus driver, either a smile or a polite nod as you swipe your oyster card. As you move down the bus people make way for you, offer to help with suitcases and sometimes you may even find yourself in conversation with the person next to you. The overground, from my personal experiences is a less intimate public setting, however the train conductors / hands are always on their toes and willing to help out a lost and confused passenger. Once you board the overground you often notice groups of people or friends in conversation, their chatter along with the occasional babies yells or drunken football supporters chants fill the carriage.

The tube on the other hand seems to be a black-hole of socialisation, or human interaction. Once you enter the underground it as if your individuality is stripped, and replaced with the sheep syndrome (everyone conforming to the same or similar behaviours) as people don’t move independently but as schools of tinned sardines in the tube carriages. The structure of the tube network dictates the quick in one side and out the other mentality, no-one stops for conversation, everyone is in a rush, and just one second of shared eye-contact can cause deep unsettlement on the tube. 

Kim, Juliette and I ventured out to record and explore the tube networks, with special attention to how the environment of the tube affects peoples behaviours. We observed and recorded the publics activity and behaviours on a number of tube lines (Hammersmith & City, Cirlcle, District and Central lines)  in London. We recorded out data in the form of photographs of the tube environment and of people (as shown below). It becomes noticeable that the use of non-verbal communication, such as eye contact, body language and gestures, has been important in our project, as we have observed passengers in public transportation.

Human behaviour on the tube mainly involves walking and avoiding collision with other people.

When exiting the carriage, you might have to cross between a small crowd of strangers and therefore possibly cross people’s physical boundaries occur. This is where you might accidentally cross into someone’s private sphere.


‘Boundary markers’ or ‘shields’ determine the space around you that is your personal space.

People often use a personal effect to create your personal space : holding on to the bag while it is placed on the empty seat next to you, put your headphones one to avoid people talking to you.


These shields create a barrier between passengers and to ‘protect yourself’ against an oncoming passenger: If you put your bag on the empty seat next to you towards the aisle and another passenger enters and wishes to sit down, they might not sit until you move the bag yourself. It would be considered crossing into your personal space even though that seat is not technically yours. Same for headphones, one would not disturb a passengers listening to music and cutting itself from the rest of the tube as this would entering this person’s privacy.


The word ‘qualia’ (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia/) can be use for the impression that one makes within the public transportation system . These impressions lead to social behaviours as they affect individual behaviours. People use thedesign of the public transports and their personal belongings in order to a create personal space and to maintain a level of privacy. (Bertelsen, P. (2005). Free Will, Consciousness and Self. Oxford, New York)

Although, as you descend the elevators into London’s underground sometimes you become aware of music. A pleasant sound amongst the bustling white noise, licensed buskers play their instruments or sing. Their music travels throughout the tube stations and is a pleasant note to the quiet drone-like commute. However, on the topic of personal space, it is important to note that even buskers have their ‘space’ marked out for them (see photo below).


As our travels on the tube drew to an end we decided to conduct a social experiment. I was nominated to be the annoying tube passenger, attempting to cross the norms of the ingrained tube behaviour and see the reactions of my surrounding passengers. As I sat down I began to take off my coat, entering the ‘personal space’ of the passengers either side of me, crossed my legs to take up more room in the aisle and then started adjusting my hair, which didn’t only annoy the passengers next to me but also gained a few disapproving looks from the passengers opposite. (INSERT HYPERLINK)

Our experiment was rather tame compared to other social experiments on the tube such as Dave Matters who screams on tubes to see how people react (click here)

However it was an interesting exploration into the social norms (or lack of) in the public environment of the tube and the accompanying behaviours of the underground passengers.

The experiments carried out highlight the obsession many people have with following tube etiquette.

The London underground system and its map are both very iconic and go some way in defining London as a city; it is constantly moving and progressing. It is interesting to look at people and their behaviour when travelling on the tube as it seems prescribed and people seem to be conforming to a certain etiquette of; moving very quickly, not getting in other people’s way and avoiding social contact with other people. This reflects the fast pace of the city and also perhaps the coldness and harshness of the urban environment. However it seems that this changes at different times of the day. Rush hour in the early morning and evening are when this supposed tube etiquette is most exaggerated and weekends and later evenings tend to be livelier with more tourists travelling by tubes and Londoners going out or meeting friends. So perhaps it is the type of person travelling that defines the behaviour and etiquette people employ when travelling on the underground.



One comment

  1. Hello, My name is Michal Derhy-Vieman, I am an urban experience designer and a writer in the online magazine “Street Language”, published in Hebrew.
    The magazine engages with cities and urbanism from various perspectives, including urban planning and design, policy, culture, social activism, technology and urban innovation.
    We wrote a post about Buskers and would like to attach a picture from this article.
    The post will be published on “Street language” – http://www.stlanguage.com
    and ” Xnet” – http://www.xnet.co.il

    We would like your official permission to use the attached image and if we can – we’ll need this file in a higher resolution.

    Please do let me know if you have any more questions. We would be happy to send you a link to the article once it’s published.

    Thank you in advance,

    Sincerely yours,
    Michal Derhy-Vieman
    “Street Language”

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