diamond geezer

 Monday, October 13, 2014

Somewhere at TfL Towers is a desk where you are the enemy. That's you the humble tube passenger who insists on taking the train all the way to your intended destination via the quickest route. In particular that's you if your final destination is Covent Garden, because a lot of problems could be solved if you got off one stop early and walked. They've been trying for years to get people to do it, and now, with two of the lifts out of action for repairs, they have a brand new tactic.

Covent Garden's long been a bottleneck station. It's one of the few deep tube stations in London where escalators have never been installed, necessitating the use of a bank of lifts or a challenging flight of almost 200 steps. And that was fine when the nearest big thing was a flower market, but as Covent Garden has evolved into tourist central so congestion at the station has become worse. People see the name on the tube map and assume the Piccadilly line is the only way to get there, never thinking it might be possible to walk from nearby.

TfL have tried all sorts of things to persuade people to travel differently. They're run a campaign entitled "Don't Follow The Crowd" to ward people off arriving here. They've pointed out that Leicester Square is only 300 yards away, making this the closest pair of stations anywhere on the network. They've added directional signs at street level to try to shepherd visitors from Leicester Square via an above ground route. They've even made Covent Garden station exit only at weekends so that the lifts only clog in one direction and passenger throughput is maximised. And now they've spotted another class of passenger they can divert, and are attempting to nudge them into changing their behaviour too.

Holborn station is the penultimate stop for many travellers heading to Covent Garden, in particular those changing from the Central line to the Piccadilly. They alight from one train, follow a lengthy subterranean trek to reach the next platform, and then take a one minute ride to their destination. What if, someone thought, what if these people could be persuaded to complete their journey on foot. Stop them from getting on the Piccadilly line train in the first place, ease congestion at Covent Garden, make life better for everyone. And so fairly recently this sticker has appeared.

Those exiting the Central line platforms see this black rectangle as they approach the foot of the stairs. There's no context, not unless they happen to have been fortunate enough to hear the relevant recorded announcement that's played out every ten minutes across the loudspeakers. This starts by explaining that Covent Garden is currently exit only, which may be true but is entirely irrelevant for those travelling towards the station. And then it goes on to say that at weekends westbound trains aren't stopping at Covent Garden, which is extremely relevant, and is the reason why you ought to leave the station now. None of this important backstory is evident on the black sign.

Another black sign appears at the foot of the main escalator, this time pointing upwards. It's been positioned at the entrance to the Piccadilly line portal, so you can't miss it, along with a map to show the suggested walking route. A red line shows which way to go (down Kingsway, then right into Great Queen Street and keep going), should you have the opportunity to take it all in. But to view the map you have to stand in the path of passengers descending from the ticket hall as they pour off the escalator, so hanging around long enough to memorise the route isn't really an option.

Ignore the black sign and you can carry on down to the Piccadilly line. On a weekday you could be at Covent Garden station in a couple of minutes, perhaps to join the queues for the lifts, but you're still going to get to the surface quicker than the 10 minute walk TfL are suggesting. On a weekday the black sign is best ignored. But at the weekend, at least until mid-November, you'd be best advised to take heed. Westbound trains aren't stopping at Covent Garden, remember, so you'd end up overshooting and having to come back, or getting out at Leicester Square and walking, and that's ten minutes plus.

Let's assume you do decide to follow TfL's black diversion sign out of the station. What happens at the top of the escalators? Well, here another black sign directs you left out of the ticket hall, but that's the sole extent of TfL's street level signage. There's no map, not up here, so if you didn't check the route earlier bad luck. There is one long-standing poster frame containing written directions to Covent Garden, but you'd never spot it, it's on the wrong side of the exit and faces incoming passengers only, so essentially you're on your own.

And there are no special signs along the walking route either. You might expect the occasional temporary fingerpost to point the way, but no. Instead you have to spot "Covent Garden ↑" and "Covent Garden →" on the black enamelled maps that now grace our streets. They're very good, if you notice them, and are present at all relevant points along the journey... except one. The offending junction is at Drury Lane, where the red line on the map said go straight on, remember, but visitors to our city aren't likely to be so certain and might well get lost.

I reached Covent Garden from Holborn station after an eight minute walk, not ten, because I know what I'm doing. That's still slower than taking the train would have been if it was stopping, except it wasn't, because it's the weekend, and sorry, see how complicated this whole mess is? But TfL's black signs admit no such complications, they just want to bump you out of the system at Holborn and abandon you to find the rest of the way yourself.

A more nuanced information campaign would provide different recorded announcements on weekdays to weekends. A more nuanced information campaign would state that the black diversion was important on Saturdays and Sundays so you didn't catch a non-stopping train by accident. A more nuanced information campaign would cover over the black diversion sign on weekdays because it's unnecessary. But this isn't a nuanced information campaign, it's a blunt tool to nudge behaviour, introduced barely five weeks before the ten month lift replacement programme is completed.

And if you haven't bothered to read most of that, because it was a bit technical, sorry, simply know this. Somewhere at TfL Towers is a desk where you are the enemy. A desk where someone loves to misdirect you around the system, for example sending you all round the houses at King's Cross or taking the long way to Covent Garden, to make the system run better overall. And they don't do nuanced, they don't do time-specific, they just slap up signs in the hope you'll do what you're told. Your sacrifice is very much appreciated.

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