A Walk Through London: What happens when one infrastructure breaks down?

Can infrastructures ever be neutral? Politicians often say: ‘just create infrastructures then businesses can take care of the rest’. This implies that infrastructures are neutral, and has become a common neoliberal trope.

In this blog I argue, as have other anthropologists, that infrastructures are rarely neutral (Winner 1980, Taussig 1997, Anand 2011, Larkin, 2013, Harvey and Knox 2015). I propose infrastructures are onion-like. Scratch a layer and another infrastructure, or ten, is invariably affected!

To illustrate I use the January 9th 2017 tube strike as an example. The strike was timed to disrupt the first big commuting day of the year and occurred on the first day of term. Keen not to miss lectures, I walked from Brixton to Warren Street and along the way encountered the effects of suprastate, state, transport, consumer, and N.G.O infrastructures.

The walk wasn’t pleasant. Evoking Anand’s literal and metaphorical concept of infrastructural pressure (Anand 2011, 558), thousands of commuters were forced above ground to fight for space on pavements and roads. Anand’s concept of hydraulic citizenship in Mumbai shows how social and economic status determines access to water supply and decent water pressure. Seeing suited commuters hiking in their work clothes and crammed onto busses, brought to mind different inequalities. The tube is at least four times more expensive than the bus, and during rush hour at least four times faster, a partisan rapid transit citizenship perhaps?

hourney times

Speed might be seen as a form of high pressure needed to keep an efficient economy working. Alternatively it could be seen as an exclusive, politicised infrastructure (Winner 1980). Inevitably figures were published quantifying how the strike damaged the economy, along side arguments for and against the legitimate right to strike. Neutral infrastructures? Hmmm!

I realised that pavements are efficient at transporting moderate flows of people from homes to tube stations or high streets, but are ill-suited infrastructures for flows of thousands of simultaneous commuting pedestrians. Transport infrastructures are often judged on their speed and connectivity (Harvey and Knox 2015). Traffic lights and pedestrian crossings soon interrupt the joys of uninterrupted walking. Whilst pavements clog up with pedestrian commuters, the roads are choked with private cars, and lines of idling busses emitting diesel fumes, which contributed to pollution emissions exceeding a year’s legal limit in five days.

In turn pollution targets reveal additional infrastructural layers. Local authorities, Transport for London, the Greater London Authority and various NGOs, monitor pollution targets. This data is used to monitor whether the London Low Emission Zone adheres to EU emission standards. Here we can see layers of local and supranational infrastructures all competing and failing in their intentions. (Larkin 2015) Regarding London pollution targets where does power reside? It is dispersed between national, local government, supranational and other infrastructures?

This walk also revealed a domino effect on other infrastructures. Public toilets were closed because attendants couldn’t get into work. Today the toilets at Pret-a-Manager provided access to London’s sewage system.

The concept of pressure is vital to urban infrastructures. As Michael Taussig had argued: Even if infrastructures are not intentionally political, over time people, citizens, and social ties will ,’enitfy and give life’ and agency to infrastructures. (Taussig 1997:3). So when one infrastructure shuts down, pressures between people and infrastructures produce cascades of intended and unintended effects.

Tags: State, Transport, Pressure, Pollution, Speed, Inequality


Anand, N. (2011). Pressure: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai. Cultural Anthropology, 26(4), pp.542-564.

Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities. 1st ed. London: Verso.

Harvey, P. and Knox, H. (2015). Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise. 1st ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Taussig, M. (1997). The magic of the State. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.

Winner, L. (1980). Do Artifacts Have Politics?. Daedalus, Vol. 109(No. 1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter, 1980), pp.121-136.


One thought on “A Walk Through London: What happens when one infrastructure breaks down?

  1. Really interesting blog post. I think that your point about infrastructures and their relationship to inequality is fascinating! It is only when strikes like this occur that we can gain an insightful perspective into London’s transport inequality gap. Also, I think that pavements provide fascinating ‘contact zones’ during transport strikes. This idea of countless people from different walks of life crammed onto one path is quite striking. Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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