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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Uncertainty is the new normal: the case for resilience in infrastructure

Members of the New York Urban Search and Rescue Task Force One help evacuate people from their homes in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in September 2018. Image: Getty.

The most recent international report on climate change paints a picture of disruption to society unless there are drastic and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. And although it’s early days, some cities and municipalities are starting to recognise that past conditions can no longer serve as reasonable proxies for the future.

This is particularly true for America’s infrastructure. Highways, water treatment facilities and the power grid are at increasing risk to extreme weather events and other effects of a changing climate.

The problem is that most infrastructure projects, including the Trump administration’s infrastructure revitalisation plan, typically ignore the risks of climate change.

In our work researching sustainability and infrastructure, we encourage and are starting to shift toward designing man-made infrastructure systems with adaptability in mind.

Designing for the past

Infrastructure systems are the front line of defense against flooding, heat, wildfires, hurricanes and other disasters. City planners and citizens often assume that what is built today will continue to function in the face of these hazards, allowing services to continue and to protect us as they have done so in the past. But these systems are designed based on histories of extreme events.

Pumps, for example, are sized based on historical precipitation events. Transmission lines are designed within limits of how much power they can move while maintaining safe operating conditions relative to air temperatures. Bridges are designed to be able to withstand certain flow rates in the rivers they cross. Infrastructure and the environment are intimately connected.

Now, however, the country is more frequently exceeding these historical conditions and is expected to see more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Said another way, because of climate change, natural systems are now changing faster than infrastructure.

How can infrastructure systems adapt? First let’s consider the reasons infrastructure systems fail at extremes:

  • The hazard exceeds design tolerances. This was the case of Interstate 10 flooding in Phoenix in fall 2014, where the intensity of the rainfall exceeded design conditions.

  • During these times there is less extra capacity across the system: When something goes wrong there are fewer options for managing the stressor, such as rerouting flows, whether it’s water, electricity or even traffic.

  • We often demand the most from our infrastructure during extreme events, pushing systems at a time when there is little extra capacity.

Gradual change also presents serious problems, partly because there is no distinguishing event that spurs a call to action. This type of situation can be especially troublesome in the context of maintenance backlogs and budget shortfalls which currently plague many infrastructure systems. Will cities and towns be lulled into complacency only to find that their long-lifetime infrastructure are no longer operating like they should?

Currently the default seems to be securing funding to build more of what we’ve had for the past century. But infrastructure managers should take a step back and ask what our infrastructure systems need to do for us into the future.


Agile and flexible by design

Fundamentally new approaches are needed to meet the challenges not only of a changing climate, but also of disruptive technologies.

These include increasing integration of information and communication technologies, which raises the risk of cyberattacks. Other emerging technologies include autonomous vehicles and drones as well as intermittent renewable energy and battery storage in the place of conventional power systems. Also, digitally connected technologies fundamentally alter individuals’ cognition of the world around us: consider how our mobile devices can now reroute us in ways that we don’t fully understand based on our own travel behavior and traffic across a region.

Yet our current infrastructure design paradigms emphasise large centralized systems intended to last for decades and that can withstand environmental hazards to a preselected level of risk. The problem is that the level of risk is now uncertain because the climate is changing, sometimes in ways that are not very well-understood. As such, extreme events forecasts may be a little or a lot worse.

Given this uncertainty, agility and flexibility should be central to our infrastructure design. In our research, we’ve seen how a number of cities have adopted principles to advance these goals already, and the benefits they provide.

A ‘smart’ tunnel in Kuala Lumpur is designed to supplement the city’s stormwater drainage system. Image: David Boey/creative commons.

In Kuala Lampur, traffic tunnels are able to transition to stormwater management during intense precipitation events, an example of multifunctionality.

Across the U.S., citizen-based smartphone technologies are beginning to provide real-time insights. For instance, the CrowdHydrology project uses flooding data submitted by citizens that the limited conventional sensors cannot collect.

Infrastructure designers and managers in a number of U.S. locations, including New York, Portland, Miami and Southeast Florida, and Chicago, are now required to plan for this uncertain future – a process called roadmapping. For example, Miami has developed a $500m plan to upgrade infrastructure, including installing new pumping capacity and raising roads to protect at-risk oceanfront property.

These competencies align with resilience-based thinking and move the country away from our default approaches of simply building bigger, stronger or more redundant.

Planning for uncertainty

Because there is now more uncertainty with regard to hazards, resilience instead of risk should be central to infrastructure design and operation in the future. Resilience means systems can withstand extreme weather events and come back into operation quickly.

Microgrid technology allows individual buildings to operate in the event of a broader power outage and is one way to make the electricity system more resilient. Image: Amy Vaughn/U.S. Department of Energy/creative commons.

This means infrastructure planners cannot simply change their design parameter – for example, building to withstand a 1,000-year event instead of a 100-year event. Even if we could accurately predict what these new risk levels should be for the coming century, is it technically, financially or politically feasible to build these more robust systems?

This is why resilience-based approaches are needed that emphasise the capacity to adapt. Conventional approaches emphasise robustness, such as building a levee that is able to withstand a certain amount of sea level rise. These approaches are necessary but given the uncertainty in risk we need other strategies in our arsenal.

For example, providing infrastructure services through alternative means when our primary infrastructure fail, such as deploying microgrids ahead of hurricanes. Or, planners can design infrastructure systems such that when they fail, the consequences to human life and the economy are minimised.

The Netherlands has changed its system of dykes and flood management in certain areas to better sustain flooding.

This is a practice recently implemented in the Netherlands, where the Rhine delta rivers are allowed to flood but people are not allowed to live in the flood plain and farmers are compensated when their crops are lost.

Uncertainty is the new normal, and reliability hinges on positioning infrastructure to operate in and adapt to this uncertainty. If the country continues to commit to building last century’s infrastructure, we can continue to expect failures of these critical systems, and the losses that come along with them.

The Conversation

Mikhail Chester, Associate Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering, Arizona State University; Braden Allenby, President's Professor and Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University, and Samuel Markolf, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, Arizona State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.