Whether you’re travelling to London for the first time or for the first time in a long while (and need a refresher), following these rules for using the London Underground will make your visit a more pleasant one (and make the approximate 3 million daily riders very happy!)
5 Rules for Using the London Underground
1. Be Quiet
If you’re travelling on the London Underground, please don’t talk or keep your conversation down to a dull roar if you can’t seem to help it (this rule also applies if travelling on an Overground train or by bus.) My first morning commute found myself in a carriage with 152 of my fellow Londoners. You could hear a pin drop in there. The silence was deafening. Eyes fixed to newspapers or books, ear buds plugged in, or the London stare conveying that sense of “I’m not really aware, so leave me alone”. Thirty minutes on this funeral carriage and I found myself uncomfortable at the level of silence.
Trying to strike up a conversation with anyone over anything, confessing dark secrets to a stranger in some sort of cultural cathartic ritual, and speaking at a decibel level sure to be heard 100 yards away are counter to most everything that is English, and Londoners can’t bear those who break the rules of silence. When in London, please assimilate and be quiet.
2. Keep to yourself
In most of the US, and most of England itself, even a bit of eye contact and a polite nod is welcome in recognizing your fellow human being who is nearby. In London, the “London stare” is a practiced way of getting on with the drudgery of living in a sea of humanity and keeping to yourself. I have stood next to close friends and have had to break their concentration of looking at nothing with a tap on the shoulder. This always surprises them as if I magically appeared. It’s a personal space defence mechanism that’s easily acquired.
If you insist on bringing that backpack or rucksack with you, please carry it at your side. When it’s on your back it takes up enough space for another person to stand behind you. You can’t see where it’s swinging (maybe in the face of someone shorter than you) and you shouldn’t be leaving it out there for a pickpocket to rifle through it either.
During rush hours, which also occur outside of work days, there’s really no such thing as personal space. But, please don’t touch your fellow passengers. Learn the nuanced art of gripping the pole about your head and keeping at least 2 mm (yes, that’s metric) from your hand and the hands to either side of yours. Don’t touch.
3. Stand on the right, walk on the left
This is the greatest rule of life on earth today. Tourists have this amazing cultural thing about an escalator: they get on them and stand, waiting for the magic metal beast to convey them up, or down, because they long ago forgot that they are moving staircases.
If you want to stand on the escalator in London, stand on the right or get ready to be told off with a “tut tut”, a big cough in the severest of tones, or a very condescending “SORRY!” that indicates “I’m sorry that you’re too stupid not to stand on the right side of the escalator.” We’re moving fast in London and walking down, or up, the left with no obstructions is a God-given right. Disregard this rule at your own peril.
I would like to add when exiting the escalator, please do not come to a dead stop to pop-up the handle on your roller bag or look at a Tube map. Please move to the right or left, out of the way of traffic before doing so. Remember, people are trying to exit the escalator behind you! – Melissa
4. Get an Oyster Card
So, you want to get on to the public transport so that you can cease conversation and keep to yourself? Get an Oyster card. This is not just a ticket, it’s about speed. Sure, you can put money on it and pay for your journeys, but it’s not about you – it’s about me and a need for speed.
The contactless near-field communication Oyster card is not about reducing ticket trash, it’s about speed through the barriers. Your inner Tube sensei is telling you to “Tap in, tap out”. “Tap in” and the barrier opens and you flow through it. “Tap out” and you’re off to the other side. As you approach the barrier, put the card in your hand and extend it towards the yellow touch pad and keep moving forward. Pull your arm and card from behind you as the barrier opens and you move effortlessly and smoothly forward. Learn this, and do it.
5. Get a map or an app
You’re lost? Use a map or an app to help you out or ask one of the public transport workers available, but don’t bother talking to me. I live here. I already have an app, or three, and need to shut up, keep my hands to myself, and keep moving forward.
Yes, I’ve only listed five here but if you’re visiting London for the first time and all you do is follow these rules, you’ll do well.
Do you have any rules you that would like to add to this list? If so, please leave a comment below.
Philip is an American, and European. He has adopted London, but must share it with 8 million residents and 16 million visitors each year. Philip lives in the Royal Borough of Greenwich ( Zone 3) with his wife and their child, the only one in the family actually born in London. Having grown up on the beaches of Southern California, London is penance for having perfect weather most of his life. No one ever moves to London for the weather.