OPINION
20/07/2019 06:30 BST

4G On The Tube: Thanks But No Thanks

It is hard to be gracious about money being funnelled towards a pointless resource when my face is melting off, writes Poorna Bell.

Press Association

When it comes to announcements about technological advancements, there tends to be an even split between Winnie The Poohs (everything is great) and the Eeyores (why is this happening?).

I’m definitely an Eeyore, and so the news that the Tube will have mobile phone signal across its network next year was received with a ‘thanks but no thanks’. 

First, let’s talk about money. 

You know these people aren’t going to be using their newfound 4G access to save lives.

Contractors have estimated that the distribution system of it may cost TfL up to £40m. TfL are apparently covering the cost of the initial trial on the Jubilee line – it’s unclear whether this will be on top of distribution costs. The rest of the cabling, which is estimated to be around 2,000km, will be undertaken and paid for by a private contractor. 

It is hard to be gracious about money being funnelled towards a pointless resource when it is summer in London, and your face has melted onto your lap. I know there are restrictions on air conditioning and ventilation due to the fact that parts of the Tube were built in the late 19th century. But I refuse to believe that we have to just resign ourselves till the end of days to using a mode of transportation that operates at temperatures that are illegal to transport pigs and cows at.

And yes, I said pointless. 

The Tube is one of the last havens – if not the only haven in the city – that provides a shred of digital detox.

You know these people aren’t going to be using their newfound 4G access to save lives: this is to facilitate conversations about what they’re having for dinner, conversations with their boss, and apologising/lying about why they’re running late. 

Second, the Tube is one of the last havens – if not the only haven in the city – that provides a shred of digital detox. Give or take the odd patch of WiFi, it is the one place where people can’t get hold of you. Plus, it is the only place, apart from a dead zone in my own apartment, where I don’t feel the grip of my most stressful app. I’m talking about WhatsApp, its interminable blue ticks and the fact that people use it to have real-time conversations when I’m old-fashioned AF and like to use it like how I use text.

In this hyper-connected world, it’s not always possible to not use your phone, and sometimes it’s nice to have the option taken away from you.

When I voiced how much WhatsApp stressed me out, I was promptly knighted a snowflake and told to get over it. Deleting the app isn’t an option since everyone I know uses it as a primary method of communication, and toggling the privacy settings doesn’t really help much either.

Maybe I should be more strict about when I use my mobile phone, and create my own version of a digital detox. But I also know that in this hyper-connected world, it’s not always possible and sometimes it’s nice to have the option taken away from you. Surely I can’t be the only one who feels like this?

When I went to Nepal for two weeks and there was no phone access whatsoever, it began as the most unsettling 24 hours and then progressed into 13 days of absolute freedom. When my broadband packed up for two days and I ran out of data last week, it was incredible.

I’ve travelled enough on overground trains to know that while most people know the etiquette of mobile phone use, a significant portion don’t care.

Last, but not least – the Tube is a stressful place. Perhaps it wasn’t back in 1863 – but they had a different set of problems. Pollution was a biggie and men were encouraged to grow beards to act as an “air filter”.

No one ever describes travelling on the Tube as relaxing. It is not the place you go to chill out. It is overcrowded, passengers numbers are overwhelming, and any journey on it barring the DLR involves making your way through this crush.

Then there are the micro-aggressions. I actually have a Tube bingo of these, which includes someone rolling their trolley bag over a foot, someone barging past you at the barriers, pushing onto the train before letting people out, not moving down the middle of the train, someone deciding their handbag needs the seat more than you, standing on the left, not giving up seats, someone being a creep, not being able to get on the train because it’s too packed… I could go on. 

This is yet another example of our obsession as a society that every development, from transport to healthcare, has to have some invisible push to make us more economically productive.

Adding more noise into the mix – I don’t see how that’s a good thing. I’ve travelled enough on overground trains to know that while most people know the etiquette of mobile phone use, a significant portion don’t care.

Plus, I’m hard pushed to see the incentive. Much was made of the fact that with the arrival of 4G, people could get work done, while on the Tube. And that to me is problematic because really, what this comes down to isn’t making things more efficient to make people’s lives happier or well.

It’s about this obsession we have as a society, that every development from transport to healthcare, has to have some invisible push to make us more economically productive. Given that every study on the subject of smartphones points towards the mental benefits of decreasing our use of it, not increasing it, I’m not convinced.

Cynical? Perhaps. But then again, I am an Eeyore.

Poorna Bell is an award-winning author and journalist