Boris Johnson's new bus: a pointless, compromised mess

The new Boris Johnson “son of Routemaster,” unveiled today, is only a design for a prototype. Not even a balsa-wood model has yet been made. This design can, and must, still be changed. Because in its current form, it is simply not worth bothering with.

The only way the new bus can ever justify its existence is if it offers something genuinely distinctive, genuinely exciting and genuinely better for passengers than the existing models. But, apart from a greener drive, this prototype does none of that.

With great fanfare, a competition to design the new bus was held. The public was excited. Professionals and ordinary citizens entered in their hundreds. Two great winners were chosen, good-looking and true to the original principles Boris set out in his manifesto – to “renew traditional forms by commissioning a 21st-century Routemaster with conductors.”

Naturally, therefore, “Transport for Livingstone’s” first priority, as I reported at the time, was to bin the winning entry as soon as possible and go straight back to the same bus manufacturers who have given us some of the most dismally ill-designed, passenger-unfriendly vehicles ever seen on our streets.

What passengers want from their bus is a seat, but a modern one-person double decker has very few seats downstairs. Enormous amounts of space are wasted, particularly with the staircase, which TfL (unlike most other operators) insists must be straight.

The new Routemaster design is actually worse than current double-deckers. It has two staircases. Why? Why not go the whole hog as well, and install a lift, and perhaps also a buffet, and a small Tie Rack outlet?

It has three doors. Why? Why can’t disabled passengers enter through the front door if the bus is in one-person mode? It is claimed to be “better-ventilated” than modern sauna buses, but the pictures show no opening windows.

From the glimpse on the video, it looks as if all the unnecessary staircases and doors may take up so much space that there will very few seats downstairs. Passengers may have hated the bendy buses, but TfL loved them. Its ambition is quite clearly to create a bendy-bus experience on the lower deck of the new vehicle.

The total number of seats, across both decks, will be 62 – ten fewer than on the most commonly-used variant of the old Routemaster, and also fewer than in a modern double-decker. This is a deeply retrograde step.

It also looks as if there will no longer be any seats at the front of the top deck – eliminating one of the great pleasures of London bus travel, beloved of generations of tourists.  (TfL denies this, saying there will be seats. But the fact is that their own video shows seats on the top deck behind the staircase, and no seats on the top deck in front of the staircase.)

The rear door is a promising feature, but it can be taken out of use and the bus operated in one-person mode, TfL says, “in the evenings and at night.”   Evenings and nights are, of course, the times when passengers would most value a second staff member on board. It seems, from some reports, that the rear door may only be opened when existing mobile uniformed staff are around – in other words, almost never.

The front end of the bus unveiled today looks nothing like the winning entries and is pretty ordinary: it is a near-exact copy of a first-generation one-person double-decker.

Boris has done some really important things as mayor, above all ending the disaster of the Tube PPP. But this bus symbolises the other side of his mayoralty. He has the right instincts, but he is allowing them to be stifled and stripped of real meaning by a fundamentally unreconstructed bureaucracy.

The cynic in me suspects that TfL has deliberately produced a pointless design today so it can safely roll up the new project into, basically, a newer version of the flawed buses it already has.

But the interesting thing is that not too many changes would be needed to make the new bus  more distinctive and a genuine improvement for passengers. Fewer doors, fewer staircases, more seats, a nicer front end.  If today’s design is what we’re getting, however, we might as well stop right now.

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