What about a Routemaster for the twenty-first century?

The shift from the old double decker to the new bendy-bus reveals officialdom's disparaging view of The People.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

An old joke: What’s red and lies in a gutter? A dead bus.

Well, I laughed. It’s a joke you would probably only get because the most famous bus in the world is red: the London Routemaster. Buy a postcard or a guidebook in London and you will likely see a picture of one of these old double deckers.

Today – 9 December 2005 – the Routemaster will run its last regular service. Transport for London is running ‘heritage services’ on two central London routes for the time being, but otherwise the buses will only service sightseeing tours or nostalgic wedding parties. In place of the Routemaster, Londoners will have to use bland, boxy but more modern double deckers, or the new and still unloved ‘bendy buses’ – long, articulated single deckers.

But this isn’t just about what goes up and down London’s busy streets. While there is a rich vein of geekiness and sentimentality running through much of the discussion, there are also important issues about the attitude of our leaders to the views and needs of the people they rule.

There are many who will mourn the passing of the Routemaster. There’s even been an unsuccessful campaign to save them. For their defenders, Routemasters are a classic piece of design, uniquely suited to London’s needs.

The open step at the back means people can hop on and off easily between stops – ideal when buses are often crawling along in traffic. Having a conductor on-board means fares can be collected while the bus is moving, again saving time. There isn’t much room to stand, but that’s because nearly all the available space is occupied by the things passengers want above all – seats. And because they spend less time stopping, and are relatively small and manoevurable, they are less disruptive to other vehicles, too.

The man behind the decision to scrap Routemasters, London mayor Ken Livingstone, used ardently to defend them – which, given that his political career has been spent defining himself as a professional Londoner, is no big surprise. ‘Only some ghastly dehumanised moron would want to get rid of the Routemaster’, he said in 2001 (1).

The problem with Routemasters is that they are out of keeping with a risk-averse, access-for-all world. All that jumping on and off moving vehicles is now deemed to be too dangerous, despite the convenience and the low rate of accidents; and all buses will have to be wheelchair-accessible by law from 2017. Livingstone has simply decided to make the break sooner rather than later.

Routemasters do not appear particularly expensive to run. Refitting existing buses is cheaper than buying new ones; being relatively small and now fitted with modern engines, they are actually more fuel-efficient than modern double deckers; and although they require two people to operate them, the presence of a conductor means that fare avoidance is much reduced.

The new ‘bendy-bus’ seems to have plenty of disadvantages. They are more difficult to manoevure, their length means they frequently block junctions, and they take up more of the road. They also have far fewer seats. The idea is to make wheelchair access easier, and to pack the passengers in at peak times, but trying to get a wheelchair on to a packed bus seems a hopeless task in any event.

While bendy-buses are more wheelchair-friendly (getting a wheelchair on a Routemaster would require a team of volunteers even if there were somewhere for the wheelchair to go), they are less helpful for others who can get on-board under their own steam but could really do with a seat. With fewer seats in each bus, the onus will be on the elderly and infirm to ask someone else to stand up.

In short: the Routemasters remain popular with able-bodied people and their replacements seem to have few advantages. But we shouldn’t get too misty-eyed about the existing Routemasters, either. Custom-built for central London’s narrow streets, they are also cramped when busy (people have got bigger in the past 50 years).

What we need is a Routemaster for the twenty-first century. Why not keep the best parts of the design – the open back step and the conductor – but put them into a modern body with wider seats? With a conductor on-board, there’s someone who not only collects fares but who can help people on and off, too. If wheelchair access is a problem, surely a design can be devised to enable it while maintaining the advantages of easy access for the able-bodied?

The production of the Routemaster and the introduction of the bendy-bus represent a comparative case-study in changing attitudes to The People. The Routemasters were the product of a two-year consultation between designers and end-users that allowed the integration of many useful design changes. The bendy-buses were imposed from above, with risible consultation.

This is not to suggest that the provision of buses should be the touchstone of democracy – but it does express an attitude that those in authority know best. From this view, bus users can’t be expected to make a balanced judgement about risk vs convenience, or able-bodied access vs disabled access. The knowledge built on the experience of using buses was instead replaced by the tick-box planning of a small clique.

Many critics of the new policy see this as the power of lobby-groups – in this case, the disability rights groups – having an overweening influence on right-on politicians. But since when have the disabled suddenly become so powerful? In reality, it is a consequence of the politics of identity and victimhood. When the authorities redefine people according to arbitrary characteristics like having a disability, even groups with quite different interests (blind, elderly, wheelchair-users) can be forced to act as a single mass quite against many of their individual interests.

The power of this can be seen in the reaction of the trade unions. Despite the loss of thousands of conductors’ jobs, the unions did not oppose the changes; the need to support disabled access was an overriding concern. A powerful demonstration of the demise of left and right is that the only ‘interest group’ these formerly left-wing politicians and union leaders can’t be seen to be defending is ‘the workers’.

It’s only an old-fashioned type of bus. But the death of the Routemaster illustrates in microcosm the creeping way in which the replacement of a democratic impulse with the narrow and disconnected concerns of a powerful minority make our lives worse, bit by bit.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Transport

(1) Quoted in Replacing the Routemaster, edited by Dean Godson, Policy Exchange, October 2005 [pdf, 1.2MB]

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Topics Politics