Tag Archives: overcrowding

On The Tube, Again

There was a fight on my Tube train the other day. At 8.30 in the morning. “Stop f-ing pushing me!” “Don’t swear at me!” No actual fisticuffs, though, because the train was too crowded for anyone to raise their hands.

Someone had got on and perforce invaded someone else’s personal space. Happens all the time, except generally without the swearing. Generally. There was a time when Londoners endured the daily commute with a degree of stoicism, even good humour.

My impression is that the mood is getting darker. Hence those unwilling to relinquish their seats to someone less able to stand, as I have written before. People’s patience is running out, because it is getting just too bad to be humorous about.

There was a crush at Stratford station the other week, and some commuters reportedly trampled. In such cases it is hard for the authorities to know what to do – keep the station open and let people leave and enter, or close it and trap them if there are no trains to board.

Stations are increasingly having to be closed because of dangerous overcrowding anyway. At mine, passengers’ entry through the barriers is rigorously rationed to prevent them piling up on the platform.

My fear, and it is a genuine one, is that there will one day soon be some awful Heysel Stadium-type disaster, which will leave the authorities with some difficult decisions.

In the early Noughties, there were a series of overground rail crashes, the latest at Potters Bar, after which it was apparent much of the network was not safe. There was weeks of disruption, but at least the problems could be fixed. Not true on the Tube, because we have been adding passenger numbers by about 3 per cent a year without increasing capacity. Like London’s insane property market, this cannot go on forever.

The only solution is more rigorous control of station entry, which means your journey, in the words of those regular warning announcements, “may take a little longer than usual”. As you queue outside in your hundreds.

All this is down to the belief, on the part of Boris Johnson and others, that every person persuaded to come to London to work is a testament to the capital’s economic vibrancy and growth. To which I would point out that some of the most vibrant, fast-growing cities on earth are known for a dismal quality of life and transport problems beyond even our imagining. Think of the polluted, traffic choked megalopolises of China and India.

I suspect there are plenty of Londoners who would swap a small degree of that vibrancy for a bit more space on the Tube and slightly less insane house prices. I suspect there are plenty of parts of the country that would settle for the same bargain in reverse.

I just don’t see how this can happen.


The NHS, And Population Density

We read that such is the crisis in the NHS that a dozen or so large hospitals have put themselves into special measures, declaring that because of the huge numbers of people piling up at their A&E departments, routine operations are being suspended.

There is one odd fact that seems to have been missed. The hospitals affected are in some of the more prosperous parts of the country. Cheltenham. Guildford, one I know rather too well. Cambridge. Croydon. Brighton. Other bits of Surrey.

These are not sink hospitals in desperately poor parts of the inner cities overwhelmed by an avalanche of migrants, as the stereotype might have it. They are in some of the parts of the country, I would suggest, most affected by the housebuilding boom that kicked off in 1997 and has continued, financial crisis notwithstanding, in such areas ever since.

There are other factors, the changes in the hours of GPs that make it difficult to find anyone at weekends, untrained staff, as my own paper has reported, on the 111 helpline who automatically send callers to A&E rather than risk a tragedy. If your child is running a raging fever, there is no one available at your local health centre, and the 111 staff are unable to advise, what else do you do?

I live in one of the more prosperous parts of the capital. Walk around my local area, and you notice that large chunks of the housing stock, mainly flats, have been built in the last 15 years. Offices in the town centre have been converted to six storey blocks, any light industrial space on the market, however unattractively sited by a main road or a railway, is replaced by flats.

My local football ground is now a vast mini-village, conveniently located for fine views of the electricity pylons and the scrapyard.

The reason for this is that in the boom years of the 1990s and Noughties, it was almost impossible to lose money buying land in such areas, turning it into flats and, in many cases, passing it on to buy-to-let landlords who, funded by freely available mortgages, let it out to those who could not afford to buy.

At the end of my road, an old Victorian house, somewhat run down, came up for sale. It was bulldozed, and turned into nine flats. A population density of four or five became, potentially, nine couples.

Extend that across the borough. The council loves it – one rateable property becomes nine. Planning permission is not a problem.

Over the two decades I have lived there, the population density has rocketed. Each year there are more queuing at the local bus stop, more crowding onto the same number of trains. And it is more and more difficult to get through to the same surgery we have used all the while for an appointment.

I have been doing some research. The population of my borough, according to the Office for National Statistics, a scrupulously reliable source, was 191,100 in 2001. By that time the building boom was well under way.

In 2012 it was 202,200. The ONS estimates it in 2014 at 215,000. That’s a 12.5 per cent increase, nine people where 13 years before there were eight. That may not sound much, but the arrivals are likely to be young, mobile and placing more pressure on transport. And, on producing children, more pressure on the health services.

Meanwhile those already living there are getting older. Ditto, more pressure on health.

By 2020 the ONS forecasts the population of my borough will be 239,600. A 25 per cent increase in less than two decades. Greater London Authority estimates are lower, for some reason, but are still talking about a 12 per cent increase. These numbers are unsupportable, unless you add to services. Which isn’t going to happen, is it?

On London, And Behavioural Sink

I have been out of London, for longer or shorter periods, three times in the past couple of months. Every time I am struck how generally pleasant, courteous and cheerful most people who live outside the capital are. Each time I have returned I have been met, within hours, with acts of gratuitous unpleasantness and aggression from complete strangers.

In addition, twice over the past week or so, I have been sitting on a crowded Tube train and an obviously pregnant woman has boarded. In each case, the row of seated twenty-somethings have ignored the woman and left her to stand. In each case it has been me, twice their age, who has had to get up.

I can say with absolute certainty that, had this happened on a bus, say, in any of the three places outside London I have visited, the woman would have got a seat immediately. Any number of people would have got up. In London, they don’t.

(In one instance, one of those who remained seated was wearing full soccer kit and had obviously been from, or was going to, a game. He could hardly plead lack of fitness.)

I have been wondering why this is. In 1962 a piece of research appeared in the Scientific American which coined the phrase “behavioural sink”. Rats were placed in a cage and their number was steadily increased. Above a given population density, their behaviour deteriorated.

They displayed symptoms of stress, violence, hostility, parental incompetence and other aberrant behaviour, including cannibalism and frequent miscarriages. They were either frenetically overactive, or they retreated into a state of pathological withdrawal, only emerging to eat and drink when others were not around.

Remind you of anywhere? Apart from the cannibalism, that is. So far. (Irony alert.) Much was made at the time of the read-across to what were seen as our overcrowded cities, because rats’ social behaviour is quite like our own. Those cities are now much more overcrowded.

Everyone in London has in most public places someone else a few inches away, in their face, invading their personal space. People respond with aggression – “MOVE DOWN THE CARRIAGE!” “STOP PUSHING ME!” Or, like my encounter on a bus on returning to the capital, the complete stranger who snarled at me because I didn’t get out of the way quickly enough.

We read that, by 2030, the population of London will have grown by another two million. That isn’t that far off. Go back the same space of time and you are in 1998. The Lewinsky affair. The Northern Ireland peace agreement. Sixteen years is not a long time.

So in 16 years, for every four people now on the streets of London, there will be five. It is almost impossible, passing through one of the city’s busiest transport terminuses at rush hour, to imagine what it will look like. Where will they all live? Will we even be able to walk down the street?

Behavioural sink.