On the day when the new chancellor stood up in front of the press in Whitehall and warned us all we’re going to have to tighten our belts, the man who wants to be his boss stood up in front of some other press at a bus garage and showed off what he’s spending great wads of Londoners’ money on.
So, probably not coming to a south-east London street near you, it’s….
What do you reckon? It’s a little… odd. It’s a little bit difficult to picture on the street, but I could grow to like it. Boris Johnson’s desire to recreate the Routemaster has been one of the most controversial acts of his mayoralty. I’m not as down on it as others are, but let’s be clear about this – it’s a vanity project. Ken Livingstone’s most enduring legacy may be the skyscrapers starting to pierce the views in unusual parts of London, Boris’s may be a bus. (It’d better not be that ugly heap of crap he wants to build at the Olympic Stadium, which is now quite nicely viewable from my street.) But it’s the whys and wherefores that mark this project out as just a little odd.
Let’s get one thing out of the way – this isn’t a bendy bus versus Routemaster issue. London was doing quite nicely with both. I reckon bendies would have been more popular if they had conductors. Boris’s desire to free the twisty streets of Stoke Newington from 73s snaking around tight corners isn’t unreasonable, but claiming they are more dangerous than other buses is; and his bendy-phobia means other services where bendies would really work well (the 472 from North Greenwich to Thamesmead, for example) are now denied the chance of real improvement.
For a start – it’s a bit unusual for a Conservative mayor to be commissioning his own buses, isn’t it? Isn’t that the kind of thing that’s best left to the free market? Of course, London Transport used to commission its own buses all the time, the Routemaster being among the last to be made specially for the capital. Indeed, it was the Conservatives who broke up and sold LT’s bus division in the 90s, making it harder to commission these things centrally anyway (although TfL does specify which bus is used on which route). Does London even need its own buses? And is there a chance of the taxpayer even making a bit of money back on this flutter on designing a bus? If Ken Livingstone had come up with this idea, he’d have been pasted for it. But because it’s Boris, he’s getting away with it.
Secondly – that design. This ain’t no Routemaster – it’s a bus with three doors. It has more in common with a bendy bus than its illustrious predecessor. For me, the Routemaster had two unique features – the open platform at the back, and the upstairs back seat from where you had the best view from the top deck. This bus has neither – the door at the back is going to be left closed at night, and there’s no windows upstairs at the rear. That spot on the Borismaster could get very unpleasant, very quickly. One of the design conceits is having windows next to the stairs, which isn’t going to be appreciated by vertigo sufferers. It’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s hard to see why Boris is determined to throw cash at it instead of holding bus fares down and improving services.
Who’ll get to use it? Only a handful are likely to be in use by 2012, and yet London’s busiest routes need 50 or more buses on the road at any one time. The suburban voters who backed Boris for not being a “zone 1 mayor” are likely to only ever see this bus on TV – Routemasters were withdrawn from most London routes during the 1980s, and it’s hard to see this suddenly appearing on the streets of Bexleyheath. If a new mayor is elected in 2012, what happens to the scheme then? The increased cost of staffing this bus means it’s likely only to appear on central London services only.
Maybe that’s the point of it – less about something that’s practical and useful for Londoners, more about something to sell the city – and its mayor – around the world. Nothing wrong with that, but now we’re all being lectured on the need to save money, now seems like an odd time to throw money at designing buses when the network still needs improvement and fares are going up.
(More: Boris Watch, Tory Troll, Ross Lydall, Dave Hill.)