Fat-Friendly London: Double Decker Buses

Note: To see my physical stats, visit the Flying While Fat article. They’re listed at the top and can help you to determine if these tips are applicable to you. I can only speak for folks who are generally my size and proportion and/or those who are smaller. For those with different shapes, larger bodies or differing abilities – YMMV.

Anxiety can be a big hurdle for folks who are trying to make their way in a world that isn’t necessarily built for them. I know that, in the past, I have avoided trying new restaurants for fear that I won’t find comfortable seating, have worried about hair salons, dentist chairs, doctors, clubs and performance venues/movie theaters. I have avoided certain modes of transportation (again, see my flying tips for more information on that) and in general, have come at the world from a place of fear — letting the worry of an awkward moment (for example, having to ask for a different chair or having to ask friends to move to a different restaurant entirely) stop me from exploring.

This is a really natural reaction to a genuinely unjust situation and if any of you are struggling with similar thoughts and feelings, I have no intention of telling you to just “get over it” and “get out there” anyway. There is absolutely no shame in being impacted by challenges presented to those whose bodies fall outside the (subjective and arbitrary) social norm. I want to honor how much of a reality this ongoing discomfort and general anxiety is for fat folks, for people with differing levels of mobility and/or for anyone whose body, for any reason, requires more detailed consideration and mindfulness when navigating the world. That said–though I won’t lie and say that it’s easy to take risks every day where both my emotional well-being and my physical comfort are concerned–I do feel more connected and engaged with the world around me when I venture outside the places I already know. To aid those who may have similar struggles, I want to start a series of blogs in which the purpose is twofold:

First, I intend to demystify the little bits of London I travel in my daily life and to slowly create a fat-friendly guide to London that might be helpful to both folks who live here and folks who might consider traveling to visit. Second, to show, via realistic portrayal of my own experience, that often the rewards of exploration are greater than the discomfort. I’ll be making posts, with photos where possible, that combine honest, first-person accounts with any helpful tips I’m able to gather in my adventures.

To wit: London Transport!

Public transport is the great equalizer. Everyone begrudgingly grabs the same germ-laden railings, everyone wishes that kid would STOP CRYING, and nobody really wants to be there. While public transport is no one’s favorite pastime, it is especially the bugbear of the fatty. That feeling of being picked last for a grade school dodgeball team is omnipresent on a bus or train ride. When every possible seat on the entire bus fills before the one next to you, or when you see that look of resignation or annoyance on the faces of folks you opt to sit next to, it’s hard to not take that personally. I used to squish myself up against the wall, making myself as small as possible, just in hopes of avoiding that scenario. When someone chose to sit next to me (especially when there were other available seats) it felt like some little bit of normalcy that I’d so often been denied was finally granted. I craved that weird togetherness, the (literally) uncomfortable camaraderie of strangers forced to share space.

With time, I’ve gotten over wanting anything other than a seat to myself. I put my bag down in the seat next to me. I cross my legs and spread out. After spending at least 2 hours a day on public transport for several months now, I consider the general hesitance to share a seat with a fat person to be more a gift than an annoyance. And it’s been a good experiment in challenging my tendency to care what total strangers think of me. Some Pollyanna part of me will always wish for shared experience. It’s in my nature to appreciate that. But it’s now also in my nature to appreciate not having to sit next to that weird guy who won’t stop whistling.

Double Decker Buses

These are fun to ride! Well, as fun as public transport can be. First, you’re in a Double Decker Bus! Like the one on the postcards! The novelty of that doesn’t wear off for a while. Second, if you’re ok with stairs, sitting on the upper deck gives you an amazing view of the city as you travel and that’s always a bonus.

Tips & Hints:

Lower Level: This level fills up fast so you will rarely get a seat to yourself, even in off-peak hours. On some buses, there is a single seat just as you step inside the door that requires one step up and that’s a good option as it’s slightly wider than a single seat but not wide enough to share. This is listed as a Priority Seat, however, and should be offered up to anyone whose mobility may be less than yours – which means you could find yourself displaced.

If you prefer to stand, there is often open space toward the middle of the bus for those who use wheelchairs or for prams (strollers) and those with luggage. Providing there is room, this is an ideal place to stand as you can be tucked away from the major throughway. Again, however, you may be displaced if the space is needed for any of the above purposes.

Note also that there is slightly less room for your knees on the seats between the first and last row in the rear section of the bus. Avoid these if you are long-of-leg.

Upper Level: The upper level is fantastic if you are comfortable with stairs. It took me a few trips to learn how to properly navigate the stairs while the bus was in motion but I did get the hang of it eventually. It’s generally less populated than the lower level of the bus as people tend to fill seats from the bottom up. This means your chances are better of getting your own seat.

There are two areas of the bus that I prefer for seating, the first row and the row just behind the stairs.

The First Row:
A photo showing the first row of the upper deck of a double decker bus in London

On both sides of the bus there are two seats that directly face the window. Upsides: There’s a tad bit of extra leg room and you don’t have to stare at the back of anyone’s head. It’s beautiful, uninterrupted scenery and a little bit of an oasis from shared space if you’re feeling more private – especially on the right-hand side which offers no one sitting either in front of or behind you. Downsides: You do have a slightly higher likelihood of having to share seating here as folks tend to plop down in the front if they’re not feeling up for scooting down the aisle. Also, if you have a high center of gravity, this can be a bumpy ride as you’ll feel every pothole in the road being directly over the front tires.

The Seats Behind the Stairs
A photo showing two seats directly behind the stairs on the upper level of a double decker bus in London

These are my favorite seats on the bus. Extra leg room and slightly less sway than in the front of the bus. Also, no one in front of you to eat smelly food or make you listen vicariously to craptastic pop music that’s been auto-tuned within an inch of its life. Also, in the summer when things heat up, you’re in the direct line of the air conditioning, which is a blessed, blessed thing. The only downside is having to watch people almost fall down the stairs. This could be an upside if you’re a sadist.

The Dismount:

Speaking of stairs, it’s common courtesy for the bus driver and fellow passengers to already be down (or on the way down) the stairs when the bus arrives at its stop. This means folks don’t have to wait as long at each stop. This also means moving around the bus while it’s in motion. I’ve learned that the trick to the dismount is to try to get down the stairs while the bus is in motion, but not accelerating or decelerating. Easier said than done but if you can manage it, it’s smooth sailing. If not, just hold on and do your best. It’s not graceful for anyone.

Next time – The Overground!

(Double Decker Bus exterior photo courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/discopalace/ via Creative Commons)

12 Comments
  1. As usual you give a great repoet, your writitng actually lets me see myself in that situation. You also realize that everyone people conosider fat, is not a size 14, but many of us are what I once heard someone refer to as “Oh my God Molly, did you see THAT one.?” We are all different siZes and shapes. Fat fills us in differently. Thanks for being you, you are great!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Susie. :) And yep – “shape privilege” definitely plays a part in all of this!

  2. With time, I’ve gotten over wanting anything other than a seat to myself. I put my bag down in the seat next to me. I cross my legs and spread out. After spending at least 2 hours a day on public transport for several months now, I consider the general hesitance to share a seat with a fat person to be more a gift than an annoyance. And it’s been a good experiment in challenging my tendency to care what total strangers think of me. Some Pollyanna part of me will always wish for shared experience. It’s in my nature to appreciate that. But it’s now also in my nature to appreciate not having to sit next to that weird guy who won’t stop whistling.

    As a New Yorker who rides the subway every day, there’s a lot in this post that I find incredibly familiar when it comes to getting around on public transit (though we don’t have double decker buses *sob*), but I wanted to respond to a few things that you said. First — having a seat to yourself is definitely to be cherished, but from what I can tell fat people aren’t the only people who get a wide berth — I’ve noticed both racial prejudice and percieved class prejudice when it comes to where people sit as well. Which isn’t said to devalue your point, just point out that othering happens to several groups, not just one.

    Second, is that, on NYC subways at least, space is often at a premium and taking up more space than you need — not in terms of body size but in terms of placing bags beside you, spreading legs, holding on to both the overhead rail and the pole in the middle of the car, etc — aren’t benign behaviors but instead are incredibly privledged behavoirs that often impact those around you in significant ways. Again, my experience is with crowded NYC trains, so if the top deck of the bus is never crowded enough that you have to stand with people around you on all sides then this probably doesn’t apply to you. But if it does then I implore you to stop treating spreading out as a harmless bonus. If there is no one else around that’s one thing, but I’ve seen people spread out when it is absolutely inappropriate to do so, blocking people’s access to a safe standing position/grip on a pole to keep from falling over when the train is in motion, preventing parents with small children or strollers from having a place to safely stand or sit, forcing others with bags or large items to stand in awkard and unsafe positions with their items. Not to mention people with invisible disabilities or illness: poor feet, vertigo, motion sickness, migraines, etc. You can’t assume that they will have the spoons to ask for what they need, ie a seat, when they might feel too ill to deal with a potential confrontation.

    Sooooo yeah. You just hit a huge issue I have with people of all sizes (and it really is ALL sizes, this behavior isn’t associated with any body type, gender, race, or class) assuming that all the space on the trains is theirs and theirs alone. When you purposefully use more space than you need — like putting a bag beside you instead of placing it on your lap or in front of you — then you are purposefully infringing on public space and the right others have to safe transportation.

    Again, this seems like such a minor issue when buses and trains are empty ,and if they are when you ride then I’m sorry for jumping on you, but when they are packed full this minor issue becomes a major one with potentially major effects.

    • S.H. – Thanks for your wonderful comment! You bring up really valid points (not that I need to tell you that!) To clarify, when I referenced spreading out it was in contrast to my older behavior of squishing up against the wall even when the bus was mostly empty. What I was looking for previously was a choice to sit next to me when there were other options available. The validation inherent in that was especially important to me. Now, if there are plenty of empty seats, I don’t sweat it. But yes, if there are very few seats, I always sit politely with my bag in my lap for exactly the reasons you mention. Have you seen the Facebook group someone in NY started specifically regarding men sitting with their legs spread apart on the subways?

  3. Oh my gosh I HATE when men spread their legs apart on subways. I was going to mention it but the comment was long enough already.

    And I’m glad you do the polite thing when there are limited seats! I didn’t want to assume you didn’t, but public transit ettique is something that I think about more than I really should so I wanted to say something.

    I’m glad you don’t feel like you have to squish up against the wall anymore — honestly while I think that prejudice does play a role in how some people pick seats, I also think that there’s a lot of rote behavior as well, so I’m glad you don’t sweat it anymore since someone choosing a different seat could be anything from prejudice to autopilot to wanting a seat to themselves!

  4. Wow this is EXCELLENT! Thank you so much for this info. I am planning a trip to London next month with some family and all that you mention here is my concern since it will be my first time visiting. I am just so concerned my plus sized self will not enjoy all the there is to see but this puts my mind at ease. I really appreacite all the info and will keep checking back for me until my trip!

    • That’s great news, Robin! You’ll have a blast here. It’s a beautiful, beautiful city! Feel free to email me directly (via the contact page) if you have any specific questions and I’ll do my best to answer. :)

  5. Thanks so much! As I get closer to my trip I will e-mail you, you rock!

  6. I smiled when I imagined watching people almost fall down the stairs. Guess that makes me a sadist.

  7. I am a very big man and am going to the UK & Ireland this summer — would love to hear what to expect for the very big and very tall when using a Black Cab in London?

    • Hi there — Black Cabs are pretty great. They’re very roomy. They have bench seating at the back and then there are two fold-down seats that are attached to the wall that separates the cabin from the driver’s compartment. I’ve sat on the fold-down seats and they work for me but if you’re nervous, stick to the bench seating. There’s one step up into the cab so if you have mobility issues, be sure you are able to do that. There are grab bars inside to help.

Leave a Reply