Monday, 19 December 2011

Getting all sentimental - about a bus

A little over six years ago, I indulged myself in a secret geeky pleasure – a ride on the penultimate AEC Routemaster on a normal, cross-London bus route. It was a little misleading, because these 1960s veterans continued to ply their trade on two special ‘heritage’ routes, the 9 to Kensington High Street, and the 15 to Tower Hill. But the final day witnessed an outpouring of emotion for a public transport icon that only the British could be capable of (see files marked 'End of Steam on British Rail' and 'London's Last Tram').

As a reasonably recent arrival to London in 2005, I was already nostalgic for the Routemaster, with their 1950s design and quirks of a bygone age. They plied the streets of Dalston where I first lived, a flotilla of weathered red metal, rubber and comfy moquette. I missed them so much that I even ended up doing weekend work as a conductor and guide for a company that specialised in Routemaster charters when money became tight.

normally never a stranger to sentiment, but I recognised these museum pieces couldn’t go on for ever without significant re-engineering, time and money (the first one was built in 1959 after all). An impending 2017 deadline imposed by the Disability Discrimation Act sounded the death-bell for these purring red beasts. Mayor Ken Livingstone had made it clear that, since the introduction of German-built bendy buses on the high-capacity Red Arrow routes in 2002, the future was not going to be the preserve of elderly double-deckers with an open ‘hop-on, hop-off’ rear platform. The Routemaster was, after all, evolved from a design which, admittedly with the addition of a roof and pneumatic tyres, was little different from the pre-war B-Type, and later RT type. Why then, in 2005, would anyone want to operate a vehicle that was prone to accidents around its rear platform and which, without passenger doors, could be very cold in winter?

It took a Tory mayor, Boris Johnson to take that somewhat retrograde step – much against the advice of industry professionals and those who said “it can't be done”. But Boris did it. The proof of the pudding for me was on Saturday, as I perused the
Thomas Heatherwick-designed Routemaster New Bus for London. In tune with London's aspirational classes, it was parked up outside the brand-spanking new Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, itself the epitome of modernity situated on the Olympic park. Londoners were invited to inspect their new public carriage, and they seemed impressed during my short visit. It is indeed a beautiful vehicle which may finally render redundant the insult 'he/she/it looks like the back of a bus’; the NBfL is far from ugly. Its striking curves, traditionally-inspired seating and flooring and other bespoke design touches make it a winner, at least from an aesthetic point of view. Oh, and like many of London's new buses, it's a hybrid – so the Toyota Prius loving classes should come flocking. 

Like all good design however, the proof of the pudding will be in how it fares in every day use. The new vehicle seats just 64, and there is less space for wheelchair users and those with pushchairs – facilities which bendy buses seemed to have in abundance. The first two prototypes of eight initial buses are due in service on 20 February on the arduous 38 route – a bus route which has become ridiculously frequent in recent years, and one which runs not too far away from Boris' own home in Highbury. So let's see how the residents of Hackney and Islington deal with an open-platform bus six years after the last one ran in their locality. It is a high-profile risk to take for a Mayor of London who is so keen to see this expensive and quirky pet project succeed. I hate to be a cynic, but even if it does succeed I'll wait for the first person to fall off the back of one and become seriously injured (or worse) and see what the Mayor thinks about his new bus then.
'Elf 'n safety may well win the day - the passengers of 2012 just aren't those of 1962.

Meanwhile, is it just possible that the average passenger just wants a seat on the way to work – and isn't particularly bothered about what the bus looks like?

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