Earlier this month, WIRED ran a story with the headline, “In New York, Friendships Run Along Subway Lines.” It might sound like the name of an unreleased National song, but bear with me.
The piece was in fact based on a new paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that New Yorkers’ social connections are driven less by physical distance and more by public transport connections. According to the researchers, who studied Facebook location data from NYC users, the time it takes for two New Yorkers to travel between each other (i.e. where they are on the subway) is a better predictor of whether they’re Facebook friends than the actual distance between them.
At first, none of this seems hugely revelatory – New York’s subway system is famously shit, after all (though it does run 24 hours a day, when not crippled by construction and delays). But when you think about it, public transport has a huge effect on how, where and when we socialise. The UK’s notoriously one of the only large, developed countries where big cities suffer from low public transport infrastructure systems.
In translation: you could sit for ages on a bus, trying to see a mate in Birmingham, or struggle to even catch a bus run by one of 20 companies competing in Greater Manchester. Though well-connected, the capital city requires patience. Remember how excited Londoners became at the prospect of an all-night Overground, or the time you clicked ‘attending’ to a house party and quickly backtracked after realising it was in Stratford? All of which begs the question: in London, do friendships run along Overground lines?
In lieu of complex Facebook data analysis, my hunch is: absolutely yes. I say this as someone who recently moved six miles from east to southeast London, and now has to enact military-grade logistical planning when leaving my own borough. Many London-based millennials will have similar stories of 50 quid Ubers back from Bussey Building or friendships that withered and died because someone moved to Walthamstow. London! Is! Huge! And if you have mates who live on the other side of a bus route or tube line, seeing them can feel like a test of endurance.
Caitlin, a 23-year-old assistant music publicist, lives in Balham, southwest London. She well knows how far the north of the city can feel. “When I first moved here, it was crap in terms of socialising and seemed so far from everyone I knew. You really have to make the effort to see people when you live southwest. There are trains that run directly to Shepherd’s Bush and the northwest, but they’re only every hour or so, and if you miss that, you have to go all the way into central.” Beyond that, she has to accept "it’ll take at least an hour to get back home".
It’s the same for people who live in north London and want to go south, or get into central, which usually involves picking up the Piccadilly tube line that goes from the Haringey and Enfield area down to Kings Cross, and into the centre of the city; or taking the notoriously cursed Central line via Liverpool Street. Lucia, a student, currently lives in Islington. "I have declined invitations to events where I'll be expected to wear heels," she tells me. "Honestly, because of the pure irritation of wearing heels, especially on the Piccadilly line."
But even social events that don’t require you to wear heels or get the tube (the only kind of social events worth attending, imo) can be hard work. Aliss, 24, says she struggles to see friends who also south of the river. “I currently live in Battersea with my aunt to save money because I'm going back to school in September. All of my friends live in Peckham or New Cross," which, though both south are a mare to get to from Battersea, on the southwest. "Usually, I bite the bullet and will meet them to socialise in southeast, but it's getting very tiresome.”
To anyone who lives outside of London, travelling over 40 minutes for a casual after-work drink would be mad (It is mad). “I used to live in Bristol and if you travelled an hour to see someone, you could be part way to Birmingham by then,” Caitlin points out. “It’s quite a commitment.”
Of course, the north-south divide over the Thames has sliced through people’s social calendars for ages. As one Londoner tweeted at me when I was researching this story, “I've several mates who outright refuse invitations if they're on the other side of the river. The north vs south of the river divide is real.”
But Nick Tyler, director of the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London, says that the river is “much less of a physical barrier than people might think, really.” He points out that the Overground, whose east London line service from Dalston Junction began running in 2010, “has made a big difference because it has linked parts of London that were never really connected by public transport.”
You can see the difference they've made, too. As Tyler notes, “Those trains are always full and the benefits in both directions are clearly appreciated.”
Aliss gets that. “This weekend, I cancelled on a dinner I'd organised because the Overground was off,” she says. “No sensible person leaves the house when the Overground is off.”
That sort of reluctance to face a long journey before we’re able to see friends isn’t just down to laziness or a symptom of millennial burnout – it’s built into us as humans. Bruce Hood, a developmental psychology professor at Bristol University, agrees with my guess that we’re more likely to build strong social connections with those who live closer to us. "One of the earliest discoveries in social psychology was the ‘proximity principle’," he tells me. "This is thought to reflect the general principle that the more we meet people on a regular basis, the more we will like them – assuming they’re not annoying! If the public transport systems are efficient, then this would make regular interactions more convenient.”
Tyler agrees that public transport can impact friendships. “The ease with which we can move around is fundamental to relationships in a large city,” he says. “The greatest weakness we have [in London] in many ways is the lack of orbital routes" – train lines that encircle the city, avoiding its busy centre – "especially in the outer boroughs, which pushes people into cars in order to maintain their relationships with friends around the city.”
And in a city like London, named ‘as among the loneliest in the world’ by a 2017 Time Out survey, seeing people frequently enough to develop deep connections with them is crucial. “No one tells you or prepares you for what a lonely city London can be,” says Caitlin. “You’re surrounded by people constantly, but it’s not the social bubble the media makes it out to be. Friendships are essential to surviving here, but the city prices and travel makes it difficult to maintain them. It can be a real vicious circle.”
“The ease with which we can move around is fundamental to relationships in a large city,” Nick Tyler.
Aliss doesn’t go out during the week because it’s so hard for her to get back to Battersea at a reasonable hour. “I definitely don't bother with social stuff on weeknights anymore because it's not worth making the trip to have two pints.” Depressingly, this is probably pretty common. Millennials face the dual pressure of stunted wages and job insecurity, combined with a bombardment of aspirational rhetoric from Instagram hustlers and the have-it-all girlboss. When your professional life is precarious, who can risk being exhausted the next day at work for the sake of two pints?
For Caitlin, socialising on a weeknight is a risk worth taking. “Where I live does have an impact on my sleep as I don’t get home nearly as early as I’d like. It means that I have to spend more money on travelling and on activities, but I’d rather be tired and poor than stewing at home feeling lonely.”
Sadly, as with so many things in London, much about how we socialise comes down to money as well as proximity. Despite Mayor Sadiq Khan papering over the cracks with fare freezes and introduction of the ‘hopper’ bus ticket that lets passengers take multiple buses for the price of one fare, travel in London is among the costliest in the world. And with property prices in areas like Hackney rising each year, who knows where young renting Londoners – or, in fact, any Londoners who aren’t actual millionaires – will find themselves moving to, perhaps with even less frequent public transport routes.
It’s easy to feel negative about the effort of getting around the capital, especially when stuck in traffic on the 55, or tweeting @TfL about a dangerous lack of air conditioning on teh central line!!!. But we should also remember why we choose to live in this city – this sprawling, hard to navigate, frequently congested city that also happens to have some of the best nightlife, food and culture in the world. We could be struggling to catch the one bus from town every 45 minutes or adding some heft to our carbon footprints by driving our Vauxhall Corsas everywhere, when we learn those buses aren’t worth the hassle. But we’re not. We’re here, and so are all our mates (for now).
Besides, it could be worse. We could be in New York.