28 May 2024

The Evolution of Tube Etiquette

The ongoing project to prove mobile phone coverage across the Tube network is continuing apace; about a quarter of London’s Tube line currently have mobile phone signal, with plans to provide coverage across the entire system by the end of 2025. This latest innovation will undoubtedly provide an unprecedented challenge to painstakingly constructed codes of Tube etiquette, which have gradually evolved since the first trains began to run on the Metropolitan railway in 1863.

How Underground Behaviour was Codified

The arrival of the tube heralded great changes in society, reflected in new manners and etiquette. The underground facilitated the movement of unchaperoned women around the city, and this caused many social challenges. People of all classes and backgrounds were forced into proximity in crowded stations. When the service was first launched underground carriages were categorised into first, second and third classes, with first class passengers enjoying spacious padded seats and carpets, while third class carriages offered wooden benches. Signs on platforms indicated where passengers should wait for their correct class carriage, but it soon became apparent that distinctions were being ignored in the great rush to board. In 1900 the class distinctions were abandoned. All classes of society, as well as mixed genders, now jostled together in uncomfortably close quarters as they hurtled at unprecedented speeds under the city of London. How would they behave?

The lack of outside distractions (in fact the first, claustrophobic, carriages to run on the system did not even have windows) provided new challenges to passengers, who became more acutely aware of themselves and their fellow passengers. There was, of course, always the risk that a passenger would catch a fellow-traveller’s eye, causing social embarrassment, or that male passengers would stare insolently and appraisingly at ladies. The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette (1875) advised ladies to “lower your veil and turn from him”, reassuring its readers that “a dignified modest reserve is the surest way to repel impertinence” and insisting that “nothing will rebuke incivility in another so surely as perfect courtesy in your own manner”.

As illumination within the carriages improved, passengers increasingly focused on reading, which was an effective way of minimising staring at fellow passengers and “minding one’s own business”. Striking up conversations was in any case impossible, as early tube travel was inordinately loud, so silent travel became the norm. As one writer to The Times explained, the early Underground was so loud that it “imposed a certain measure of silence upon its passengers, so that it is small exaggeration to rank the Underground train with libraries in West End clubs and the British Museum Reading Room as one of the few places where a newspaper may be read in comparative peace.”

Thus, two essential tenets of behaviour on the London Underground – silence and not interacting – were established early in the tube’s history. Other increasingly recognisable codes of etiquette evolved more gradually and were encouraged and disseminated by the consolidation of myriad independent railway lines into one transport authority, with its own instantly recognisable corporate branding, typography, signage, station architecture, and graphic design. Posters instructing passengers how to behave on the Underground covered a range of topics: how to enter a crowded carriage; how to disembark; where to stand inside the carriage; how to dispose of litter; how to stand on the escalators; where to wait on the platform. All these instructional posters promoted good manners, proper social conduct and consideration as a way of ensuring the efficiency of the transport system. Stations were over-croweded and trains were running at capacity, and it was argued that the orderly behaviour of passengers would ease these pressures on the network.

New Challenges on the Underground

As far back as the 1980s, London Transport posters were pleading with passengers to wear headphones and ensure that personal stereos did not disturb fellow travellers. This campaign was the harbinger of much more serious tests to come: the era of the mobile phone.

For the last 30 years, passengers have carried mobile phones on the Underground and gradually phones have replaced books and newspapers when it comes to providing entertainment and distraction. For the most part, passengers use headphones and earbuds and do not violate the notion that tube carriages are essentially quiet places. Inevitably, listening to music or podcasts on a mobile phone allows the user to look around them, which has perhaps contributed to a new problem: the fixed stare. In 2022 TfL launched a poster against “Intrusive staring of a sexual nature” on Underground trains, part of a campaign against “common forms” of sexual harassment (upskirting, pressing, touching).

In the wake of the pandemic and the impact it had on the Underground, when essential workers found themselves travelling in nearly empty carriages, behaviour has been undergoing a gradual change, as has been happening on all forms of public transport. People have become noisier and less preoccupied about their spatial impact. A growing number of passengers are listening to messages or music on their phones without headphones, broadcasting to packed carriages of unwilling eavesdroppers. It appears that notions of the boundary between public and private space have broken down and feelings of self-consciousness and inhibition about violating that boundary are dissipating.

New-found access to a reliable mobile system on the network is only going to exacerbate these problems, and we may find ourselves subjected to an escalating cacophony of TikToks, tv shows and – worst of all – no-holds barred FaceTime calls and phone conversations, many of them taking place without the benefit of headphones. In addition, the increasing lack of barriers and inability to distinguish between public and private behaviour may mean that people are publicly viewing material on their phones that fellow-passengers might find offensive or intimidating.

No doubt, TfL – with its long history of moderating and guiding Underground behaviour – will be rolling out a series of poster campaigns addressing this very issue. But in the meantime, it is worthwhile reiterating that under no circumstances should mobile phones be used in public spaces without headphones or earbuds.

It is also vital to note that you are using your phone in an enclosed and densely populated space, where you will be observed by complete strangers. Private conversations, confidential information, inflammatory or degrading remarks or X-rated viewing does not have its place in an Underground carriage and subjecting your fellow passengers to this behaviour is not only inconsiderate, it is provocative.


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