All aboard the Boris-Bus to Nowhere
I can still remember the reaction when I took my mother on a Routemaster bus for the first time.
It was of surprise, slightly of bemusement and much of wonder. “This is like buses used to be when I was a child” was along the lines of what she said as we sat on the top deck in 2001.
I love the Routemaster too, despite being far too young to ever remember such a bus in service anywhere other than London. The bus of my childhood was not coloured red, nor did it feature an open platform. It was actually brown, orange and white and was a Leyland Atlantean. Not until I arrived in London in 1999 did I discover the old-style delights of a bus first introduced in the capital in 1956.
It looked like something from another world. Which is because, in many ways, it was. Bus design in the 1950s was very different to now. For starters, buses which had the entrance at the front of the vehicle had still not made it to the mass market – it would take until the 1960s before they really took off (along with the cost savings that went with them, thanks to the requirement for a conductor being on board disappearing).
From the minute I appeared in London, I loved the Routemaster for that reason. Sod the fact that the seats were too small and there wasn’t enough legroom. That was always unimportant when you consider the wonderfulness of the fact that you were traveling on a piece of history. You were stepping back in time and it was bloody great.
The trouble is with a piece of history, is that someone has to come along and think that simply copying the past is the answer to the future.
Welcome to the “new bus for London”.
Creating a new bus for London was one of Boris Johnson’s manifesto pledges. In fact he shouted about it very loudly, alongside his other big policy – scrapping the bendy bus (apparently the bus is completely unsuited to London, despite the fact that bendy buses has been running in towns and cities across the globe with no problems for decades. If they’re so unsuitable for London, they must be ridiculously unsuitable for a hell of a lot of places. Yet still they run… Hmmm…)
Basically Boris wanted to create a new Routemaster for London – a new bus icon that would enthrall and excite a whole new generation of people, as well as being able to address the problems that the Routemaster had. The “new bus for London” would have, for starters, wheelchair access, as well as the “traditional” open platform.
The contest to design this new bus was held over the summer, and on 19 December, the results were announced.
And pretty much all the winners showed, for my money, a huge failure.
Why? Because the winners were little more than rehashing the existing Routemaster design.
The joint winners – one from Aston Martin and Foster, the other from Capoco Design – are firmly based on the past. They have similarities to the old school Routemaster design. In fact they look nearly identical to the old style Routemaster, but with some tweaks like curved windscreens.
They offer nothing new. And no real benefits over the old. More so, they ruin the old because they’re not the old.
Let’s ask ourselves why we love the Routemaster. Is it the open platform? No. Is it the fact its all curvy? No. Is it because the stair case is at the back? No. Is it because it has a conductor? Well it’s a benefit, but frankly… no.
The reason we love the Routemaster is because what it represents. It’s a relic of a former age. A fifty year old relic of a former age. It’s heritage. It’s history. It’s a piece of a world that doesn’t exist any more.
The Routemaster remained partly because it was long lasting (and outlasted most of the buses brought in to replace it) and partly because the fact that the fact you didn’t have to pay the driver on boarding meant it could load people on board very quickly – perfect for the congested streets of London (Loading time is, incidentally, where the Routemaster is beaten into a bloody pulp by the bendy bus – with three doors, the bendy can devour passengers like no other bus on the road. It could do even better if, like some bendies in Europe, it had four doors.)
But it’s neither of these things that made the Routemaster iconic. Not at all. What made the Routemaster iconic was that it became a piece of history running in our streets. If, in the 1970s and 1980s, someone had come up with a new bus that had the same benefits as the Routemaster, the Routemaster itself would have sunk without a trace and no one would have given a damm. It would not be the icon it is now because it would have been quietly forgotten.
And lo, the problem. You don’t create icons – icons just happen. There was absolutely nothing iconic about the Routemaster when it first appeared in the 1950s. In fact in appearance it was pretty bog standard. It was just an updated version of what had gone before. All we loved was that it was still around after so long.
Unfortunately the competition winners (or more accurately, those who came up with the formula for who should win the competition) have not understood that point because the winners are all about re-creating that original bus. That by somehow blithely copying the past will somehow work.
But they don’t. Take one look at those pictures of the winners and it’s abundantly clear. These are not new icons for London. These are poor rehashes of the past – ones that we will fail to love because they will never, ever, evoke anything like the feeling that the Routemaster did. And stand next to no chance of ever doing so.
They fail to capture the charm, the delight of the old buses purely because they are not the old buses. We never loved the Routemaster for its shape, nor for its open platform. We loved it for the fact it was the past.
And no new bus shaped the same way will ever be able to recreate that magic simply because they’re new, not old. They’re modern, not the past. No one ever falls in love with a new bus, even if it is shaped like an old one. No matter what the Mayor of London thinks.