Archive for the ‘Commuting’ Category

ASLs, cycling, scooters and a bit of empathy

October 13, 2010 3 comments

Okay, I know how passionate cyclists are about cycle lanes etc, and I’m probably going to be (virtually) lynched for saying this, but I don’t get the problem with scooters & motorbikes courteously going in cycle lanes or past the advanced stop line. I do get massively annoyed by cars/buses and lorries though, sitting happily across it without even a passing thought for other road users.

Advanced stop lines for cyclists

Here’s a reminder below for those who don’t know what an advanced stop line  is (it’s not there so that you are slowed down – it’s there to place the cyclists in  full view of the rest of the traffic, as this awareness has been proven time and  again to be the best way to improve riser safety)

In the interests of total transparency I have to state that I’ve been either a  pedestrian, scooter driver, cyclist, train commuter or car driver (or more  than one during the course of any one week) for the last 17 years in London,  and hence do try to look at road issues with a relatively objective view.


I’m well aware of the frustrations of London traffic, and how vulnerable you feel on a cycle or scooter, but I’m always a bit concerned about the apparent lack of understanding, nay sometimes hatred, between cyclists and PTWs (powered two wheelers- easier than saying ‘motorbikes or scooters’). I think we’d all get a better reception from car drivers, traffic planners and the media if we spoke as one, and shared our very similar experiences of feeling vulnerable, being verbally abused, hounded off the road and/or ignored.

Personally I am convinced that the single best way to create understanding amongst road users is to make the car driving test include a mandatory cycling proficiency test, and the CBT (compulsory basic training – all PTW drivers have to do it before they’re allowed out on the road even with L- plates).

Unlike many cyclists/PTW riders I don’t think that all car drivers are evil selfish bastards, out to kill us (although my experience out there often feels like they are); instead I think that they seriously just don’t understand what it’s like to be on a two wheeler, and we could solve the majority of the issues by just getting them to experience it from the rider’s saddle.

For good measure, it can’t hurt to make both cyclists and car drivers sit in the cab of a lorry, so that they can understand the concept of ‘blind spot’.

Before I get roundly beaten up by cyclists who say PTW riders are aggressive and dangerous- note that I did use the word ‘courteously’ for people using cycle lanes etc – it would do us all good to be aware of people more vulnerable than us (yes, cyclists, those people called pedestrians who you scare out of their skin sometimes).

Mel Mack’s abridged highway code:

  • ALWAYS be on guard for those more vulnerable than you
  • Remember not everyone has an engine and they may be going as fast as they can.
  • Car drivers
    • stop thinking of riders of any 2 wheeled vehicle as nuisances who make you set off from junctions a bit slower. It may help with context if you imagine how much worse your journey would have been if each of those people had chosen to drive a car instead.
    • use your bloody indicators- the rest of us are NOT psychic
  • Pedestrians: look carefully before crossing
    • cars take TIME to stop at zebra crossings
    • bikes may be weaving between stationary traffic
  • Everyone:
  • The more exposed your method of transport is, the more vulnerable you are, so take responsibility for your safety- assume people won’t see you, wear high vis clothing and if in doubt, don’t take chances.

Pregnant or fat – what bloody dilemma?

October 3, 2010 2 comments

I had a random conversation on Facebook recently about public transport seating, and the horrible middle-class dilemma of whether to offer your seat or not

Please give up your seat for someone less able to stand

New tube priority seating signs.

and I had to hold back from just shouting at people, especially when I read some of the comments on the BBC article about it. This one, for instance:

I will gladly offer my seat to an elderly person , I believe that you choose to get pregnant , but aging is one thing you cant avoid! I’m 31 and anyone that is obviously older than me gets offered my seat , but pregnant people … not !
Kevin, London

I hope Kevin never gets close enough to a woman to be able to make her pregnant – he has clearly forgotten/not been taught biology well enough to realise that he also is of woman born, and therefore made her back ache too at one point. Enough of misogynistic ignorant wankers, however, as their existence, though annoying, is incidental to this story.

The prevailing thought seems to be that as it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether someone’s pregnant or not (or fat, yes, just say it), there are legions of otherwise altruistic people out there who would jump at the opportunity to offer their seat to someone less able than them, but they’re traumatised at the potential of embarrassing someone by offering them a seat, as if they’re not actually pregnant, this will inadvertently be calling them fat.

To this I say utter bollocks.

I’ve stood there, heavily pregnant (and obviously so), and been looked straight through, and I’m neither surprised or offended at all by it. There’s no reason that pregnant women, old people, or anyone else should have the automatic right to a seat. Others may be suffering far more discomfort from an outwardly invisible knee injury, other illness or even, heaven forbid, an hangover.

What I am saying is that this fake guilt to cover up the fact that none of us really want to give up our seat, is exactly that – fake.

I’ve been commuting in London for 17 years and it’s a war out there – nobody enjoys the squeeze of the tube or the rush hour trains & buses, it’s thoroughly unpleasant, and I daresay we are all sometimes guilty of “I thought I could get away with it and hoped they wouldn’t notice me looking shiftily away.”

It’s not surprising that involuntary close contact with hundreds of strangers makes us guard our personal space so carefully. One of the methods we use is to have a book to read, or studiously avoiding eye contact – not surprising then that we sometimes miss the tell-tale signs of someone else’s greater need than ours.

That said, I am amazed when the occasional man tells me a story of a woman who has rudely refused an offer on the basis that it’s old fashioned/patronising – both at the woman that supposedly threw the offer back in their faces (sister, what are you doing??!!) and the man for taking this as a sign that all women will henceforward be like that. Is it ungenerous to suspect they’re slightly relieved to have an excuse never to offer again? 😉

My feminist sisterhood hackles are also raised by women who remain glued to their seat (older women are actually the worst offenders) in the face of a pregnant woman in obvious discomfort.

In reality we just have to accept that it’s supremely arrogant of us to expect anyone/everyone else in the same carriage/bus to a) notice us or b) care.

I know only too well that it’s hard to think of anything else when you’re pregnant, and it does sometimes feel like the entire planet wants to queue up and coo, guess the gender and stroke the bump, uninvited; but there remains a huge percentage of the population who are untouched by your own personal miracle, and just want to get to work on time without interacting with anyone too rude or smelly.

Baby on Board BadgeSo, take responsibility for yourselves, ladies. For a start you can now pick up from any underground station, a badge that says “Baby On Board. That takes away any excuses of those that do actually look at you.

For the people who don’t notice/hope someone else will stand up, there is always the tried and tested way that I used – walk up to a set of 4 or 6 seats (giving yourself the best chance by not putting just one person on the spot) and say “Excuse me, I’m heavily pregnant and uncomfortable, would anyone mind me sitting down?”. Not once did this fail me, and was usually met this choruses of “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t notice.” True or not, they have an excuse, and you now have a seat. Win:win 🙂

For those who still have a slight quandary, just bloody well offer your seat will you – if you’re really that bothered by it, why not offer your seat and not make it obvious why? A simple “Would you like to sit down?” doesn’t bear any social stigma for anyone, and will spare you the non-existent cringe factor.

Two wheels good?

August 22, 2010 1 comment

I write this in my third week of using the new London hire bikes, and must say I’m hugely impressed.

Trying to get rid of the post baby fat hasn’t been easy due to mad timing schedules whilst commuting and working, so this seems like a great way to fit the exercise around a trip I have to do anyway.

For those who haven’t given them a go yet, this is the scoop:

  • At the moment it’s open to “Pioneer” (beta) members – anyone over 18 who has a UK registered credit card and an address to receive the key fobs can register, but it’s worth remembering that it’s still the trial period so a little patience is needed – it’s not perfect yet.
  • Members pay for three things:
  1. £3 deposit for the key fob (like you do for an oyster card)
  2. Access fee. This ranges from £1/day, to £5/week or £45/year. These can be set to automatically refresh, so what I did before I was convinced I’d use it that much was sign up for the £1/day membership on auto renew. The 24 hours starts when you first put your fob in the cycle dock. I’ve now used it so much that I’ve upgraded to annual membership already.
  3. Hire charge: This is free for the first 30 minutes, and you’ll find that this is more than adequate most inner London rides. £1 for 30 mins-an hour, then £4 for up to an hour and a half. They’re clearly setting the charges like this purposely to encourage short hops rather than longer journeys/stops on the way, and I haven’t had to pay a hire charge yet.
  • Once you’ve paid the deposit & access fee, you can use the bike as many times as you like within that period, so if you do three journeys in a day, each 30 mins or less, they’re still all free of hire fees, so all you pay is your access fee of £1 (or equivalent of less if you’ve signed up for a week/year).
  • In a few weeks/once issues have been ironed out it’ll be open to casual members; who will be able to swipe their credit card at the docking station.
  • There are loads of docking stations around central London, although there seems to be a huge gap around Covent Garden. It seems that the locals have dreamt up ridiculous nimby-ish excuses for not wanting the docks nearby, but I’m hoping this will change.
  • There are no locks or helmets provided, so you need to take a helmet with you if you want to wear one, and make sure you dock the bike in a docking station rather than leave it somewhere while you have a coffee.
  • If you’re not a confident London rider then take your time planning your route and stay on back roads. There are tons of them and it’s actually really pleasant to discover lots of lovely leafy Georgian squares and residential streets, 2 mins from a heaving multitude.
  • Free maps of docking stations can be found here.
  • There’s also a free iPhone app, which shows you where the docking stations are, but also how many are full/free in realtime.
  • If you arrive at a docking station and there are no bikes left, or no docking stations free to park your bike, you can find out the closest other docking stations on the info screen on the dock. If you arrive and can’t dock your bike your access period is also extended by 15 mins so that you’re not paying extra because you couldn’t find a dock in time.
  • Until the usage trends and logistics are learned and understood, there will inevitably be docks near train stations emptying with commuters, and those near offices filling up to bursting, meaning bikes won’t always be where they’re wanted at any one time. There are little lorries with trailers going around the docks specifically to redistribute them as necessary, but it’s going to take some time until they have it totally smooth.

I’m chuffed to bits – have done loads more exercise, turned up quicker (if a bit sweaty) to most appointments and enjoyed the process rather than cursing on the tube.

Give it a try!

Catford to Watford – only one letter but worlds apart

July 31, 2010 5 comments

This time last year we lived in Catford, south east London. Given that Jules had lived in that house for 20 years, I’d been there for 10, and it was plenty big enough to bring up a whole parade of children in, there’s been a fair amount of curiosity about why we moved house, and how on earth we decided on Watford, of all places. We’re 52 miles away from where we were, at the total opposite side of London and it’s definitely made it more difficult to see the friends we left behind – but believe me, there were a raft of very good reasons.

Firstly, our daughter Eleanor is now two, and even last summer we were (or rather I was) thinking about the future in terms of where we wanted to bring her up, and how we were going to deal with London’s famous supply/demand issues with decent state schools.

It may seem slightly forward to be worrying about schools before she’d even turned two, but during the previous couple of years I had been occasionally checking into our catchment area and what the future might look like, and it sent shivers down my spine. Seriously.

Most local primary schools were relatively OK, and this wasn’t the issue – my worry about schools is more about secondary level. Hormones can turn any normal teenager into a sullen freak, so they really need as much help as they can get to not go off the rails if at all possible (or just maintain it to slightly off the rails and keeping a vague hold on their education.) On checking the Ofsted website I found out two things:

1) The nearest excellent state secondary school was Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College in New Cross. 3rd best 16+ exam results in London – OK, sounds good. We also seemed to be in the official catchment area, so we could be looking good ……. or then again it could have

“the distinction of being the most over-subscribed state school in the country, with on average 2,500 applications for its annual intake of approximately 200 year 7 students

source: Wikipedia


2) Our closest secondary, Catford Girls School (now mixed sex, and also renamed after what the system calls “Special Measures” which sounds ominous enough) left a lot to be desired.
To give some context, on average 47% of state school leavers achieve 5+ A-Cs at GCSE level.
Catford school managed 19%. 19%!

Call me judgemental (I was the last year of O-levels after all), but I don’t see GCSEs as being the most stretching of exams, so in my book that means 81% of the schools’ 16 year olds are near functionally illiterate. Puberty is hard enough without dealing with a school that’s struggling, for whatever reason, and yes, I know that I am contributing to the unfair situation by emulating middle class flight and leaving the poor sods who don’t have the choice to suffer. In all conscience I just can’t risk my daughter’s future to make a stand for the ideal of a truly socially representative comprehensive system.

[Note: If you’re wondering how to get information on local schools yourself, I use Upmystreet, you just put in your postcode, it tells you what the neighbourhood’s, like, schools, your local shops etc – even whether you’re likely to be Guardian reader and own shares (From Mosaic and ACORN data – the marketers amongst you will recognise this, but for those who don’t – yes, big brother knows, or assumes a lot about you and your consumption habits – sorry!).]

So, the choice was – go private or move house to try to be closer to a good secondary school.

Now I’m a state school girl and am proud of it. We definitely had the view growing up that only thick people needed to pay for school (probably because the only person I knew who left our middle school to go to Leeds Girls High wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box). It’s been a painful realisation that it’s totally different in London, so I’ve had to be more open minded about the concept of private schooling, whilst still underneath being thoroughly uncomfortable with Eleanor potentially experiencing an education that ensures she never meets a poor person.

Massively aware that I sound like a pompous rich bitch for saying all this – I have a full appreciation of how spawny we are to even be able to consider it. In case there’s any suspicion that this was ever thus, it wasn’t. I was the first member of my family to ever stay on at school for A-levels, never mind get a degree, so we are far from being the tabloid’s hated self-perpetuating middle classes.

The reality was that it was probably going to cost us an extra £1,000 a month on mortgage or school fees one way or the other, so with a bit of pressure from me (I’m definitely reverting to suburban type now I’m a mum) we plumped for moving house. That way we would *all* get the benefit of a nicer area, rather than Eleanor being the only kid from our street at that school/feeling embarrassed to bring her friends home.

So where on earth to live? When we first had Eleanor we had a core of friends who lived close by, including my brother Lee and sister-in-law Nic (with handy nephew only two months older than Eleanor) but this local gang was gradually reducing in size as people moved away/made plans to do so for similar reasons as us, so we embarked on researching a pretty wide potential area, with the following criteria:

1) Commuting distance to central London, and easy access to train station.
The plan was to have a train journey of 30 mins or less, and to be within 10 mins walk/drive of the station so that the door to door journey would be an hour-ish. This is dictated not by our desire to sleep in, but the fact that most nurseries/childminders open around 7.30am and close by 6.30pm at the latest, so the drop off/pick up rush was going to be a factor even with a relatively short commute.

2) Within the catchment area of good/excellent secondary school that we had a sporting chance of getting into.
There are clearly lots of decent schools out there, but judging by the over-subscription rates of most within the inner London boroughs, it seemed you would have to be practically next door in order to be guaranteed a place.

3) Within budget.
We are very lucky in that we had a lot of equity in our Catford house, so were able to stretch a lot further than many people at this stage in their lives, but in usual London style, it was looking like the going rate for a family sized house near a decent school was getting on for £750,000!!. This was *way* more than anyone without some independent means/help/a silly salary could ever expect, so we clearly had to find another solution.

Schools, commute and money- we were in competition with every other family with London commuter parents, and without an unlimited budget- No pressure then 🙂

Priority 1 – schools.
Since this is what had kicked off the whole search, this was the bit we had to get right. You can find out about your local schools in various ways (Dept for Children, schools & families, Oftsed) but if you don’t have a specific search area then something like the Good Schools Guide is the best bet. Predominantly about independent schools, it does cover good state schools also, and you can do a wider county-level search to give you a general idea of where to look. £35 for a year’s access, but I signed up for a month online at £9.99. Bargain.

I searched across all London boroughs, plus the Home Counties, for good secondary schools. There were about 17, as I remember, so then began the process of checking each of these for catchment area, and how over-subscribed they were. Some were just pointless even looking at – The Tiffin School in Kingston, for instance (10:1 applications to places ratio).

While I was at it, I made a point of checking that the nearest primary schools were also good or excellent, and the shortlist began to take shape.

This I then cross referenced with house prices (aaargh). The shortlist got ever smaller.. Being near to a decent school obviously impacts house prices (estimates are from 5 to 15% of the value, depending on the area), and since we were looking for a house to live in for the next 20 years (otherwise why bother with the secondary school yet?) we were aiming for a nice big pad. 4 bed detached, of preference – greedy yes, but we thought we may as well go all out as we wanted to stay put – this was to be our forever house – or as near as possible to it.

Where I grew up (in a relatively nice bit of Leeds) I had a lot of the same friends throughout my school career, and a couple of them are very close friends still, so I was hoping for a house that would see us through Eleanor’s entire school years and possibly beyond. I’ve also come to appreciate the benefits of nice neighbours who say hello and feed your cat when you’re away on holiday.

So, the dwindling shortlist of where we could afford was further cross checked for train times, and after all of this, there remained two possibilities at the opposite sides of London- Orpington in Kent (south east) and Watford, Hertfordshire (north west).

Both have lots in common in terms of being commuter towns and close to the M25, and the thing that probably kept them both vaguely within financial reach was the fact that the schools involved were partially selective – which means that there wasn’t a total guarantee of your child getting in no matter how rich you were.

Orpington was much closer to where we lived, being a few miles further south east of London- and is coincidentally where Jules grew up, but his family no longer lived anywhere close, and in fact were now clustered around Cheltenham, around 100 miles west.

Add to this the fact that my extended family were still in Leeds (north, for anyone who didn’t already know that); my dad by now lived in Chesham, Buckinghamshire (north west, 20 mins from Watford) and Lee was planning to move away from south east London as soon as finances allowed, the decision became a lot easier.

So Watford it was. It took all sorts of further effort to choose and find the best area, find the house and then compete to get our offer accepted (7 offers in one day, of which at least 2 were over the asking price – what housing bust?) but we did it, we’re in, and it’s everything we hoped for.

I just hope Eleanor doesn’t spend her teenage years saying it’s boring and she wishes she lived somewhere more urban and cool. 😉

Recession? Sorted.

July 20, 2010 2 comments

If I said that I could, in one fell swoop

  • improve work/life balance for those people who’d like it
  • reduce congestion at rush hour
  • prevent layoffs
  • decrease the need for dependents to be farmed out to childcare/old people’s homes
  • increase staff loyalty & reduce churn
  • make it easier to retain experienced staff nearing retirement age

would you be interested in finding out how?

The answer is simple – flexible working, offered to all – men and women, parents or not, at all ages.

I know I’m biased, due to having a toddler, and also about to be made redundant due to financial issues, but I do think if we reconsider the 9-6 commuter presentee-ism rat race there are many benefits that people would appreciate, and would often be more than happy to sacrifice a portion of their salary for.

Many people during the recession have been offered the chance of /coerced into working shorter hours in order to save the company money – often on the premise that this is a way to retain the jobs’ existence. I’d be really interested to hear if this has been met with enthusiasm where it’s been offered. I know that when I returned after maternity leave on 3 days a week, then increased to 4 days a week, many people – not just fellow parents were envious of this flexibility.

Add to this the man hours lost to rush hour traffic, the difficulty in juggling school opening times and holidays, the fact that many jobs can be done sitting at a computer almost anywhere rather than having to be in an office in an urban centre, and there are clear reasons that it should be considered, not just for parents (yes, of both sexes) but for all employed people.

Many people have outside interests, education, social commitments, transport issues that would make working a full 40 hour week difficult or impossible, or frankly – just not worth the constant juggling. If we’re all going to have to work till we’re 70 anyway then why not make as much of it bearable as you can, and prevent ourselves burning out.

I’d be mad to not see the difficulties of course – there would need to be a massive shift in the lack of trust and presentee-ism attitude amongst some employers, that assumes that staff are shirking if they’re not under a watchful eye. Also the logistics of ensuring coverage for clients/critical issues may be hard, but no harder than organising the rota of a supermarket with a few hundred staff with differing hours, surely? A bit of give and take can solve most problems I’m sure.

Some jobs require face to face meetings, and for staff to be contactable at expected hours – all this is possible within a flexible framework; and even jobs that would be difficult to fulfill in a short week can be shared between more than one person, with the understanding that they work together to make sure the job is done, and flex around each others’ needs if necessary.

Most worries about staff performance can surely be addressed with a combination of performance/delivery based targets and guidelines; and management who are willing to delegate responsibility to the employee themselves to get the job done, within a reasonable limit.

Please let me know if you’ve come across this in your workplace – I’m intrigued to see if I’m being over-optimistic (which I am wont to be) or not.

I propose a medal for..

July 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Whoever decided to put a nursery in the train station at Watford Junction.
After moving to Watford from south London (about which more later) I had a few days panic of figuring out the childcare/commuting question.

The formulas most working mums have to juggle are:

  • long working hours + long commute ≠ most nurseries closing at 6.30pm at the latest
  • availability of childcare near home or availability of childcare near work = quandary of being near enough to get there in emergency, or having a day off and having to commute anyway
  • getting child to nursery (in car or pushchair) + expensive/no parking at station = add (journey home to pick up car + to nursery to pick up child + commute)  deduct this from 6.30pm to see what time you have to leave work (hoping for amenable boss/flexible working times/reliable train operator)

Once you bear in mind train times, not getting out of long meetings on time and the added issue of if your child is ill/the nursery is closed for training for the odd day, then you have a jigsaw with ill fitting pieces and the thing that has to give is your stress levels, and often, sadly, your career.

My saving grace currently is Buffer Bear nursery in the (ample) car park at Watford Junction train station. Mornings involve a 7.30 departure, a 5 minute drive, followed by dropping Eleanor at nursery – slip through the (genius) swipe card door to the platform to catch the 7.44 to Euston (20 minutes – more genius) and be easily be at work before 8.45am. Hometime is the other way around – I leave work at 5.30pm on the dot, catch the 5.51 from Euston and arrive at WFJ at 6.11. There is a swipe card door from the platform (repeated as it’s too good to miss the first time around) to the nursery, where I can pick Eleanor up at around 6.15, and be home for 6.30pm. Milk and a biscuit, some cuddle and playtime before bed and calm is resumed, wine in hand, by 7.30.

Medals all round.