When I moved to London aged 18, I felt alone. Wasting hours on public transport made it feel like home

Baker Street station. Image: Getty.

I love the London transport system. At 9.30am, when I can’t get on three Central line trains because they’re too full, I remember why I love it so much. I’ve even got over the dust, which I’ve been told comes from the brakes, coating anything it touches. 

I credit London transport for curing my homesickness, when I felt like I had absolutely no idea where I was. It helped me stick my head above the water, and see things a little more clearly. 

I moved to London for a job aged just 18 – a bit too young for it to be entirely comfortable. I didn’t have the security blanket of university halls or people my own age. I’m not naturally adventurous, yet wasn’t that worried about moving. I thought I was very grown up; but looking back, I was just a naive child.

I realised fast I felt like I was drowning: anxious and tired and confused by the volume of Prets. My northern accent was a constant source of hilarity, the house I shared had a mouse problem, and one of my housemates is still assigned in my memory as ‘Weird Cameron’. I didn’t want to be in my room at home thinking about these problems. 

And so, to waste time, I started extending my commute – deliberately missing my stops to spend a bit longer on the train, or even getting the wrong line to travel three sides of the square. I already paid for the ticket, so why not?

The part of the north I grew up in still has pacer trains, which were meant to break down years ago, yet still connect most of the region’s cities. Apparently, they are getting new ones, but this feels somehow very far away. Power sockets, on Northern trains? Absolutely spoiling us. I like the pacer trains despite their terribleness. But it’s the underground and buses that I really love.

The DLR in the mist. Image: Getty.

Living near Morden, at the bottom of the Northern line in south west London, facilitated the start of this journey fairly well. I began taking the tube up to Angel or even right to the end of the line, just for something to do. 

There are endless good things to see underground, in my humble opinion. Highlights from my journeys included the trips in the lovely Bakerloo line carriages which always made me feel like I’m in the 1970s (the trains date from that era). It’s a bonus if you get to sit in one of the little booths.

Or Mile End station, where all the tube lines and tracks sit next to each other – Central line, District line, District line, Central line. This means you can see sub surface trains and deep level trains all at once, which is pretty exciting. 

I got on the Piccadilly Line and went to Heathrow, just to shuttle through west London suburbs and get an idea of where I was, watching the planes get lower and lower until I eventually reached the airport. I took the Victoria line from Brixton right up to Blackhorse Road, then the Overground to Gospel Oak and home again: I liked just seeing where I was. I’d get the Jubilee line to Stratford and back after I’d finished my shift, safe in the knowledge I was underground for an hour or so, so didn’t have to deal with cooking or lost keys or washing, all the things that no 18 year old wants to deal with. 


My love soon extended to buses too, and trams, and the DLR. I discovered the route 44 from Victoria to Tooting, taking over an hour in rush hour traffic, but driving over Chelsea Bridge lit up beautifully on a dark evening.

Later, when I moved to East London, I’d take the 205 up to Paddington and back again, going through Shoreditch after knowing it was the cool place to be, always getting a sense of what the cross section of London looked like.

The DLR to Woolwich Arsenal, going past the Tate and Lyle sugar and golden syrup factories which seem like a relic against the modern skyline now. Elbowing kids out of the way to get to the front.

The N73 bus once saved my life when, during a brief period of living in another city, I ended up missing my coach home, with no battery and nowhere to stay. (I slept on the bus until the first train back.) The night bus from Vauxhall to Liverpool Street which I boarded at 3am in Vauxhall, fell asleep, and woke up at 4am, back in Vauxhall again.

I realised it was TfL that truly made me feel at home when I was looking at another overpriced room in another house, when the current tenant told me the District line ran past the window. It did: it was the best part of living there. Another bit of track at the end of the garden also meant that C2C trains to Essex sometimes ran directly past my window, too, which made me feel like I was in this with other people.

London buses in the snow last February. Image: Getty.

This habit of extending my commute, deliberately going the wrong way or spending a Saturday on the sweet Metropolitan line to Watford and back again, gave me a sense of resilience I don’t think I would have got otherwise. It started off as something to fill time, and make me anonymous, but I ended up getting a far better sense of where I actually lived. When I met someone from Watford, I could tell them I’d been there (we became friends – my first, in the city). And slowly, I felt less like I was visiting, and more like I had stuff I could be doing or people I could be seeing. 

I am a terrible navigator and timekeeper – ask any of my friends. I’m well known for walking the wrong way even while staring at Google Maps. But I know the Tube and bus networks better than I ever knew the transport systems at home, and it’s given me the kind of resilience I needed to feel like I could call London home.

It, weirdly, hasn’t stopped at London, either. Some of my nicest memories on holiday in New York were getting the train into the city from Brooklyn, and seeing the skyline in the distance. Falling asleep and ending up very briefly in Coney Island. Trying to navigate station closures and route changes (something virtually impossible in NYC).

I live in a slightly nicer flat now, I actually have friends who want to make plans with me – but sometimes I still like getting on the Central line, and just seeing where I end up. It might seem like a big waste of time – and that’s exactly what it is.

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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