LONDON • Being a musician on London's underground system is not easy. Only 100 official licences for public performers are available each year, and competition is stiff: When the authorities opened up this year's round of auditions on Friday, no fewer than 300 applicants turned up.
But although the managers of the British capital's mass transit system believe the presence of buskers brightens up the daily commute and takes away the strains of travelling, a recent opinion poll indicates that those using the underground pay little attention to the music; what they like best is simply to be left alone, with no eye contact and no hint of a noise from fellow passengers.
London's underground is the world's first transportation network of its kind, dating back to 1863. Carrying more than four million people each average working day or a staggering 1.3 billion annual passengers, the "Tube", as it is affectionately known, also remains one of the world's largest, with a network extending over 400km of track, connecting 270 stations.
Yet although anyone travelling on the system instantly notices that it operates according to its own traditions and adheres to its own sub-culture, no recent study has tried to work out what the commuters who use it every day like or hate about the network.
That gap has now been filled by a survey done by YouGov, an opinion polling company, which has come up with some surprising findings. The main conclusion from their study is that, if you like to be liked, you should avoid travelling on London's underground altogether, for Londoners seem to be at their most censorious when confined inside the aluminium shell of the Tube.
The biggest "sin" any unaware traveller can commit on London's underground is pushing one's way from the platform into the train before allowing alighting passengers a chance to get off.
TOP ANNOYING BEHAVIOURS
1. Getting on the train without giving passengers on the train a chance to get off. (90% find this annoying)
2. Not getting out of the way of others trying to get off the train. (90% find this annoying
3. Trying to push ahead while getting on the train. (88% find this annoying)
Londoners do not form orderly queues on both sides of the opening doors of incoming trains, largely because their underground system has a variety of train configurations so it is impossible to know where the doors will be on the platform when the train stops. Still, a massive two-thirds of the survey's respondents identified the practice of pushing past alighting passengers as "very annoying", with a further 29 per cent classifying this behaviour as "annoying"; no other single behaviour on the Tube attracted such intense hostility.
Yet not far behind in the hostility stakes is the refusal to give up a seat for pregnant women, the elderly or the mobility-impaired. A full 55 per cent of Londoners surveyed identified this as "very annoying", with a further 26 per cent deeming it as "fairly annoying".
The usual defence from offenders, and particularly from men caught sitting on the "priority" seats, is that they find it difficult to distinguish between a woman who may be pregnant and one who may be - how shall we put it? - just rotund, so they prefer to avoid making the choice altogether.
But Transport For London, the public company which manages the network, has removed this justification by offering to post a free "Baby on Board" badge to any expecting mother; these are now worn with pride and are ignored at one's peril. Women can also apply to get them even before their husbands or partners receive the happy news that they are about to become fathers; the Transport for London website reassuringly notes that badges are posted to mothers- to-be "in plain envelopes".
Playing music or littering in trains is also high up the lists of London commuters' pet hates. However, eating or drinking non-alcoholic beverages on the underground - both of which are permitted in London - do not attract much criticism; only half of those surveyed identified these behaviours as objectionable.
And there are interesting divisions between gender and age groups. Unsurprisingly, 70 per cent of women are likely to get irritated by people staring at them, as opposed to less than half of the men. And equally unsurprisingly, commuters older than 65 are much more likely to be annoyed by people playing loud music, compared with youngsters.
However, older people are far more lenient in their judgment of two other underground sins. Only half of those older than 65 claim to be annoyed by passengers who, instead of standing on the right on escalators as procedures require, end up standing on the left, but more than two-thirds of teenagers find this infuriating. Older people are also relaxed about another habit which annoys youngsters: that of passengers taking their time at ticket barriers.
Yet pet hates aside, what do London's Tube commuters actually like? By a large margin, trains that arrive at intervals of less than five minutes. And, by an equally large margin, they love to be left alone; less than a quarter of Tube travellers welcome the possibility of striking up a conversation with a stranger, and more than half consider it a blessing if they succeed in finishing their daily commute in complete silence.
Something which, thankfully, they can still do, since most buskers are concentrated in central London stations, and the Tube is one of the few major mass transit transport systems around the world where there is almost no phone reception.