Justin Bieber has just released Purpose. I’m on the tube going to a uni lecture, listening to the album for a second time, when a man pulls out one of my earphones. “Can I get your number?” he asks. I panic, then tell him a lie about a boyfriend I don’t have. For reasons unknown, he asks what my boyfriend’s name is. We’re both silent for a little too long. The only sound is the screeching noise of the Bakerloo line and a tinny rendition of “What Do You Mean?” spilling out of my earphone and into the carriage. I look down at my phone. “Justin,” I say. The man’s eyes dart between my phone and my weak smile. He goes back to reading his book.
Since that moment, I have acquired over-the-ear headphones and a firm belief that chirpsing on public transport should be illegal.
Many other people, however, seem to like the idea of meeting the love of their life on the Number 12 bus. According to a 2019 dating survey by Fullscreen, over 76 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds want to meet someone organically, as opposed to dating apps or speed dating events. Last year, the Telegraph put public transport top in a list of the best places to meet women. (The list also included “pheromone parties”, so it should probably be taken with a pinch of salt.)
Henry, a 26-year-old living in London, doesn’t like dating apps, but regularly moves to people on public transport. “I don’t use apps or anything and to be honest, I would much rather meet someone on transport than online,” he tells me. “But there are so many times I’ve made eye contact with someone, not said anything then regretted it.”
I ask Henry if he has any advice for hitting on someone on the train. “I like to make sure it’s subtle, so people don’t feel like they're being hit on,” he says. “The best icebreaker is if something is going on around you – a train delay, directions or someone else on the carriage. But by the time you or they get off, you just have to cut to the chase. You don’t really have the luxury of being shy or anything because your time with that person is so limited. It’s now or never. I’ll say, ‘I’ll follow you on Instagram’ or, ‘Maybe we should get a drink some time’.”
Martyna, a 21-year-old also living in London, agrees that flirting on public transport is all about seizing the opportunity. When she started exchanging looks with a man on the tube last year, they went on their first date to the cinema that same evening. “We made eye contact on the tube, through the rush hour crowd. I tried reading to distract myself and not be a weirdo,” she says. “We kept glancing up at each other. I was nervous. There’s a big gap between smiling at someone and actually talking to them. I’m glad he said something because I’m not sure I would have.”
Francisca, however, decided to make the first move to a man she saw on the train. “I was on the train to York, and a man got on I think somewhere in the Midlands,” the 21-year-old says. “I immediately texted my friend saying, ‘The most beautiful man has just sat next to me ’ and she replied: ‘Say something.’”
Despite successfully exchanging contact details with the "beautiful man", things soon turned sour. “After three dates, he ignored me for a week and then said he wasn’t over his ex. I know for a fact that he didn’t like that I paid for the first date,” Francisca says. “My confidence has been knocked down slightly. But maybe I don’t want to meet a complete stranger. I’d rather someone who has more in common with me.” She says that she would never try to meet someone in public again.
The risk of being rejected in a public forum is perhaps the most nerve-wracking part of approaching someone while travelling. Amber*, 27, experienced it firsthand. She had seen the same man on the tube every day on her way home from university. One day, she complimented his tattoos, and the next week, his trainers, before he finally complimented her back on her bag. With encouragement from her friends, she shot her shot. “The following Tuesday, I asked if he wanted to grab a coffee sometime. He looked like I’d asked him to sell me an organ. The shock and horror on his face still makes me cringe.”
Just like Francisca, Amber says she wouldn’t do it again. “It’s not a story I’ve gotten over,” she says. “For the following four months, I waited an extra 30 minutes longer at uni so that I missed that train on purpose and didn’t have to see him. Boys have always asked me! Since we met on the train platform, [I thought] he might not know I like him. It’s an unconventional setting, so I thought, ‘Why not ask him myself?’”
None of the people I speak to who swapped numbers on public transport ended up with relationships that lasted more than a few dates. This might not be surprising, since it's not an all that common a meeting place. According to a 2017 US study, over the past decade, compared to the 19 percent of couples who connected through online dating, only 2 percent met in a public place. But then I find B, who says he met his girlfriend on the subway in New York.
Three years ago, 31-year-old B rode out the end of an acid trip on the subway from Coney Island to Union Square, where he met the woman who would become his girlfriend. He describes her as standoffish at first, but says, “I definitely would have spoken to her anyway [without taking acid], it might have made it smoother too. I’m the type to play the long game. I started talking to her friend, who was naturally very talkative. To open up the conversation to [my girlfriend], I moved next to her, but she didn’t speak to me for another 45 minutes.”
Eventually, they did end up speaking. The subway trip turned into a one-night-and-six-hour long date – including kissing and dancing. B says that he and his girlfriend are still going strong. “We still love each other with immeasurable respect,” he says, before sending me a photo of the two of them from last Christmas. They’re beaming in front of a tree and holding the nine-month-old Havanese puppy they adopted together. I shed a tear.
So, maybe it is possible to find love on the train. But please, just don’t touch anyone’s headphones.
*Name has been changed.