There are two things that without exception will throw me into a state of near panic. The first is being caught outside my home or workplace without keys, credentials, a means of communication, or money (and on one memorable occasion, without shoes.) The second is being far from home without a clear idea of the route back or an easy way of determining one.
Every time we have a fire drill at work when I’m away from my desk, it always makes me think I should start carrying my important stuff (wallet, keys, phone) around with me instead of leaving everything stashed in my bag at my desk all day. What if there were a real fire? I wouldn’t be able to get in my house without keys. I couldn’t call anyone to let me in without my phone. Cue panic stations! Rationally I know that if I did lose my keys, wallet and phone forever, it would be a real hassle to get everything replaced but it is all replaceable. It’s an inconvenience rather than an actual danger. That rational thought doesn’t stop a tiny flame of terror from bursting into light in my heart every time it happens, though. (I tried hunting down more information on people who have an irrational fear of getting locked out and it turns out that loads of people have phobias of getting locked or shut in, but seemingly few have a serious fear of getting locked out. Well, don’t I feel special?)
Locking myself out (or getting caught outside without my stuff) is pretty rare. But because of London’s absurd night transportation arrangements, the second scenario happens to me on a reasonably regular basis (which you may already know from reading my previous post about this very issue). I’ll be out of an evening having a good time, then notice that it’s drawing near when I know the Overground will be stopping, so I’ll try to use my phone to figure out when the last train is and to plan a different route home if needed. But I can’t figure out when the last train is from the nearest station, only when the next train will be. And I can’t figure out which buses run all night and which ones will be stopping shortly after the Overground stops. And my phone’s running low on battery, so I can’t use the last-resort option and call a taxi. Red alert! Danger, Will Robinson! All hands on deck!
It’s not so bad if I’m out in central London or somewhere in East London like Shoreditch. Generally I know the routes home from there, and if all else really failed, I could probably walk. (Hey, I’m panicking, okay? When you’re panicking, that sort of thing seems like it might be a sensible option.) But if I’m way out of my usual comfort zone–say, Brixton or Peckham, something like that–there’s the added looming knowledge that I can’t just walk myself home because a) footpads and brigands stalk the highways and byways of London in the dead of night, waiting for susceptible victims upon which to prey (they’re probably wearing those robber masks and carrying a suspicious-looking sack, like the Hamburglar) and b) there’s this great big river in the way, and there are only so many bridges over that thing. I have an abject horror of getting caught in Canada Water after the last Overground train has gone and having to make my way home from there. What am I going to do, walk home through Blackwall Tunnel? I could write a whole epic ballad about the Terrors of Canada Water. Just thinking about it makes me want to breathe into a paper bag. And all the while this panic-chatter is flowing through my head my phone battery is failing, so I better sort out something soon.
What all this boils down to is that come about 10:30, I find myself in an increasing state of agitation about finding a a route home before I get trapped in the clutches of the sinister night. (The Overground stops stupidly early, guys. I told you the night transportation arrangements were absurd.) But it’s not very easy finding the last possible route home. (That is, the last possible one that doesn’t involve a convoluted sojourn taking three buses, each of which take an hour.)
The advice on the TFL page for students about getting home safely at night says one way to increase travel safety is “planning your journey in advance.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I find it really difficult to tell from the TFL journey planner which routes are 24 hour routes. My friend and stalwart Wapping/East End blogger Paul pointed out that the bus route maps you can download over here show all the day and night routes across London.
While this is useful, what I really want isn’t the live journey planner, which tells you what the best routes are if you leave at a specified time, nor a map, which is unwieldy and difficult to access on my phone. What I really want is an answer to the question “If I leave from here between the hours of 10:30 PM and 2 AM, what are the possible routes, and when does each of those possibilities stop for the night?” The TFL journey planner is useful for answering questions about a single specific point in time but it’s not very good for looking at time ranges. The information pages for bus routes show you maps, order of stops, possible connections from each stop, and live departure and arrival information, but not general hours of route operation. For the Overground I can find out what time the last train leaves its point of origin, but it’s difficult to find out what time the last train at a stop along the way will be. What I really want, and neither TFL nor the much-beloved CityMapper app currently gives me, is a very simple “Last bus/train from this stop for where you want to go is at [00:00]. After that, we hope you have some good walking shoes. And possibly a snorkel.”
Again, my rational mind knows that this fear is no more reasonable than the previous one. For goodness sakes, people have been getting around London without phones and journey planner apps for centuries. I mean, Marco Polo traveled all the way from Venice across Asia and back and I don’t think he even had a map. Heck, before there even WERE maps people used to walk across the land bridge over what is now the Bering Strait from Asia to America. Surely if they could do that then I can get across London. And yet, without fail, every time I’m away from home and not sure how to get back, I can feel a blaze of fear igniting within me, ready to consume all my rational thoughts and billow into an inferno of blind terror.
So in conclusion, until the Overground starts running all night or somebody introduces a “Last Train/Bus is This One” feature, I’ll just be over here memorizing all the London night bus routes and their hours. Just call me the accidental bus savant.