I’ve been living in London for just over a year, but I’ve got to be honest: I feel like a bit of a fraud.
This is because I don’t worship the underground system that dominates the capital’s transport network. In fact, I think it’s a bit rubbish, really.
Don’t get me wrong – I know how useful the tube is. I’ve always been in awe of the technology that allows us to step into a carriage and zip across the city in next to no time.
But taking certain forms of transport can have a long-term impact on mental health that overshadows the short term convenience. And if there’s one thing that is guaranteed to have no positive effect on those with depression, it’s standing in a dark tunnel on a tube, pressed up against a guy who badly needs to shower, as you cling on for dear life.
The logic is fairly simple: if you spend a chunk of time during each working day stood in cramped, dark conditions, you’re more likely to generally feel down. Spare a thought for the people stuck down there, operating the tubes for hours at a time: in March, City AM reported that Tube drivers were the largest group of staff referred to counselling for stress, anxiety and depression in the 2015-16 period. As Finn Brennan, from the Aslef rail union, said:
“Tube drivers spend eight hours a day working in a small metal box deep underground while coping with the pressure of a demanding job... It’s not surprising that some suffer from stress or depression occasionally.”
“Small metal box” is exactly how I’d started to feel about the underground every time I stepped onto a carriage. After a few months of near-daily tube usage, it became hard to muster the energy to get out of bed in the morning, as the prospect of spending half an hour in a sardine tin on the Central line made me want to slap my alarm off, roll over and throw the duvet over my head.
One afternoon, I finished work to discover that my usual tube station was out of action, and realised I’d need to take a bus instead.
And, taking a seat on the top deck, I was struck by how different I felt. I didn’t feel like I was in a rush. There were no hordes of arrogant people pushing their way past me to get on first. And I could actually sit down, instead of resigning myself to a corner of the carriage that had just about enough room for me to breathe.
After I’d spent some time on the bus watching London speed by, I felt a strange sense of calm. I was reminded of long car journeys as a child, where I’d plug in my Walkman, switch off and stare out of the window at the scenes around me.
An hour later, and my usual feelings of lethargy and listlessness had lifted. Not eradicated, of course: a single bus journey is not a miracle cure. But I definitely didn’t walk into my flat feeling like my only option was to get in bed and refuse to leave until it was time to climb back into a metal box.
Over the last three months, I’ve been shunning the tube wherever I can and taking the bus instead. Now that I’m spending less time rushing to jump onto a metal box, and dedicating more of each day to chill-out time during my commute, my energy levels have risen and the feelings of general sadness don’t crop up as often.
The impact of living in crowded spaces has long been known to have a negative impact on mental health. During an Anxiety UK summit on mental health and transport, Alastair Campbell commented that, “The world of public transport can be an intensely... anxiety-provoking experience.” So many of us feel we have to rush onto crowded carriages each day, often suffering with feelings of melancholy or stress as a result.
Increasing your commute time may not seem like a great prospect, with many Londoners feeling they don’t have time to do anything but dash around – but if you’re generally feeling down and can’t pinpoint why, it’s possible that rushed and cramped travel that’s getting to you.
So take it down a notch: make extra time in the morning to get on a bus instead. Standing outside and breathing in fresh air while you wait, then being almost guaranteed a seat where you can take in your surroundings as you’re driven through London, is a reminder that the city is actually quite pretty.
That’s much better than standing in a box, being hurtled through the dark, then rushing into the office.