All aboard the Boris-Bus to Nowhere

Published on 19 December 2008 in , , , , , , , ,

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.


  • Kirk says:

    Actually, you’re wrong. The bendy bus is unsuited for London, a town based on a mediaeval layout. As such, that means narrow streets and tight bends. As would be the same if you put the bendy bus into Cambridge – they have enough trouble getting the longer single deckers around some parts of town.
    They’re much happier in places like Manchester, which is largely still based on a Roman layout, the roads are wider and there is more turning space.
    Plus Boris is totally correct in saying that they take up too much road space – they are nearly twice as long as a double decker and only hold about 50% more passengers. Quite simply, this adds to congestion.
    You can say that it also removes it because they are quicker to board, I suppose it would have to be tested to see whether they take half as long to board as a 2-door double decker.
    But I’ve got on busy London double deckers with an Oyster card, and lots of them are “pay before you board” anyway these days, and it was hardly a slow process like it is here in Manchester…

  • William T says:

    I’m only in London once every few weeks/couple of months, but as an occasional passenger I really like the bendy buses; they look really modern (the sort of vehicle you’d get on a proper transport system rather than one stuck in the past), they (seem) relatively low polluting, they’re nice to sit in and its pleasant not to have to climb up and down stairs if the bus is more than half-full.
    I don’t really understand why people still want to get on and off the bus at the back either, surely doing so means they will have to employ an extra person to check people have validated their oyster card. Is behaviour really that bad on London buses? If anything, I find people are a lot more conscientious when it comes to loud music and mobile phones in central London than they are in other parts of the country.
    Admittedly yesterday there was one incident where the bus had just reached a junction and a fire engine responding to a call was approaching from the right – the fire-engine was delayed by 20 seconds or so because the bendy bus was jammed in the centre of the road and couldn’t reverse any further back due to the traffic behind.
    One thing they seem to have got right are the announcements – they’re not deafening like on South Eastern trains, and they’ve managed to use the minimal number of words. “38 – to Victoria” and “Hyde Park Corner”. The intonation amused me slightly too – I quite liked the emphasis “*thirty* eight”, as if the female announcer had not recorded it in the order 36, 37, 38 but 18, 28 and 38.
    Plus the bus was clean, very empty and the sun was shining, so probably that added to my experience.

  • Carlbob says:

    I’m afraid I can only disagree with you (and most of the other people who’ve been blogging about this, almost universally negatively).
    For me this is ALL about the open platform – it really is the only way to make getting about London workable. And by this I don’t just mean Central London, but also the other traffic nightmare stops like Hammersmith Broadway or down Earls Court Road.
    I used to hop on the 14 into town quite regularly, but stopped doing so when the Routemaster was withdrawn on the route, because going down Piccadilly was mind-numbingly, nail-chewingly frustrating at any time of day. Before I could hop off when the traffic got really bad but still have made good progress on my journey.
    I think the winning designs look good and will be intrigued to see what the bus engineers can do with it.

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    Kirk – afraid I don’t buy the medieval layout issue – mainly because I’ve seen bendies in cities in Switzerland contend with far more twisty and turny layouts than London has to offer. Plus most of the bendy buses I’ve seen in London run on nice long straight wide roads – there are bound to be some routes which aren’t appropriate for bendys which have a bendy on them – but not all.
    There’s actually an argument that says that the 18m long bendy will cope better with corners than the a fixed length 12m single decker bus.
    And you’re right that they take up more space on the road – absolutely correct. However whilst each bus is longer you need fewer of them because of the capacity constraints.
    Over on the (very anti our current mayor) Boris Watch site, they did the maths and found that because of the requirement to increase the number of buses on the routes, a mere 9m will be released by removing the bendy buses. Apparently that’s two taxis.
    I haven’t got any statistics on loading times of a bendy versus a double decker in London – that would be interesting to see. I have my own hunch and that’s based on the fact that on a double decker you come in at the front and leave by the middle. On a busy bus you end up with congestion near the driver because people are trying to get down the stairs and off the bus in the middle.
    This is usually made worse by the fact that huge swathes of the population of the UK have a very odd attitude to the double decker. They want them but they’re absolutely dammed if they’re going to the top deck.
    As such you regularly end up with loads of people downstairs standing in the alleyway, whilst the upstairs is half empty! And because you’ve got loads of people standing by the door, it reduces the rate people can board and exit the bus.
    With a bendy with three doors placed throughout the vehicle the passenger flow of people boarding and alighting is very different to the single direction of the average double decker.
    And yes, boarding in London is so much faster – I sat on a bus in Bath about a year ago. Bloomin’ heck – journey could have been done in half the time if they’d just had a simple flat fare structure, yet alone a electronic ticketing system… But in London you have to be fast else there’s gridlock!

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    William – oh everyone loves conductors. I love conductors. Are people prepared to actually pay extra for conductors? Now that will be interesting to see. There’s an interesting battle of words on that front – Ken claims it would cost over £100m a year – Boris has the slightly less figure of £8m. Channel 4 News did a check on that and decided £8m would hire 325 conductors – which suggests the number of routes that will get a conductor would be very low.
    The other wonderful thing about conductors however is that whilst everyone loves them, no bugger wants to be one! It’s an age old problem – indeed one that helped change the make up of London in the 1960s when London Transport set up recruiting offices in the West Indies!

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    Carlbob – But is the open platforms the best solution? We don’t really know. Specifying an open platform in design terms is a solution to a problem. I think it would be better to look at it is to ask what’s the problem we’re trying to solve?
    In a normal running road, the open platform is actually of little use – and potentially dangerous – because the bus is moving.
    In congestion the open platform is handy because it allows people to jump off. So one of the problems we’re trying to solve is that we want buses people can get off easily when things are slow. That’s a better product design requirement.
    And one other solution to that design requirement is that drivers are told to open the doors when they’re stuck in a traffic jam. Would give the same result.
    There are probably other solutions, other requirements. And maybe an open platform is actually the best solution. But unless we know what the problem we’re trying to solve is, and people are allowed to investigate it and try other ideas, then we’ll actually never know…

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    Plus, whatever anyone says… these new proposals really are butt ugly!

  • Francis Cook says:

    Andrew, you might not buy the medieval layout issue, but it’s there. It’s there with the same reasons that the tube can’t have air-con and yet others around the world do.
    Take the Aldwych and Fleet Street for example, if those needed to be widened or the junctions changed, it would be impossible, the project would die in the red-tape and planning regulations. Yes, other countries seem to introduce these systems more easily, but then whenever I got to places like Switzerland, it’s fairly apparent how much more space is used. Even The Netherlands has more space dedicated to road/cycle and tram use. London’s road system in the main is crowded and too narrow for the amount of traffic trying to use it.
    If you talk to the cycling crowd I’m sure they’ll have more then a few words to say about sharing the road with London’s Traffic.
    The points about about people not wanting to go upstairs are also valid, which doesn’t help the decision either way (pro/anti-bendy).
    Oh, and in terms of spacing around corners, while it’s not the bus, just how many times did they have to relay the tram track around the corner of Debenhams in Manchester ?
    The European Transport systems succeed where ours don’t due to a better and more integrated planning process, introducing extra long buses or any other transport after the fact without being able to alter the environment to accommodate them will always have problems, and in this case, might it be simply that London has too much traffic and too little road ?

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    Perhaps I should explain my theories about Switzerland in more detail. It’s based mostly on what I saw in Switzerland first in two very old cities – Bern and Thun. Both are pretty old cities.
    Thun was a lovely city with some very narrow roads right through the commercial town centre – the Aldwych, Kingsway etc are pretty wide – one of the roads I saw in Thun was a busy through the commercial district but was a standard two lane road, with lots of twists and turns aplenty.
    Bendy buses thundered down it without problem, elegantly turning round the corners, passing everyone with apparent ease. Even me on a bike.
    Over in central Bern I encountered an interesting situation. One of the main roads through the centre of the town is the Gerechtigkeitsgasse – it’s where my hotel was. It’s pretty wide considering, and seemingly perfect from the outset for the articulated bendy trolleybuses which went up and down it.
    Here’s the kicker. Looks were very deceptive, for this road was mixed usage – no one had priority meaning cars, buses, cyclists and pedestrians go wherever they want. In the middle of the road are a series of fountains which tourists wander out into the road to go and see.
    Ironically on a straight road, the trolleybuses have to wind round all manner of obstacles – fountains, tourists, cyclists, parked cars… They seemed to spend barely any time going in a straight line.
    A lot of central Berne is like this. It’s an interesting situation, that most people will be chaos. Bendy trolley buses thundering down a cobbled street gives some people in the UK nightmares.
    I would never have believed this if I hadn’t had been there, but I’d never felt so safe in the central area of a city.
    That’s why I don’t buy the medieval layout issue. Because I’ve seen two places where it does work.
    Incidentally if you want long buses, it’s worth checking out the 14m long sightseeing buses that trawl London. They go round corners terribly. Yet no one ever seems to complain about them!