Thursday, 10 July 2008

Britain - The Land That Time Forgot 2: Buses

Last year I did a posting about how obsessed the British were with the past and how we seemed to only be able to derive pride from things that were very dated like pre-decimal currency and I did another similar posting about imperial measurement. Well, all of this stuff seems to be going on but I was alerted this week to a new and more vigorous example of this obsession. When the Conservative candidate, Boris Johnson, a real buffoon who has a made a career in the media of appearing like a real-life version of the 'Tim Nice-but-Dim' character of the comedian Harry Enfield, was elected to be the Mayor of London, he said he would reintroduce the Routemaster bus to London by 2012 and remove the so-called 'bendy bus' by 2015. The Routemaster double-decker bus was produced 1954-1968 and used in London from 1956 onwards up until present day, though they were phased out actively from 2005 onwards. This means that the Routemaster is not a pre-Second World War bus as many people assume. In fact its predecessors were Leyland Titan, in service 1938-9 and the AEC Regent III RT produced from 1942 onwards and used in London primarily 1947-54, though the last RT ran until 1979. They are often mistaken for the Routemaster.

None of these old buses, including the Routemaster was designed for an era in which we are concerned about disabled access. Its aisles are very narrow as is the staircase to the upper deck and it is high off the ground so is difficult for children and the elderly to access let alone anyone in a wheelchair. The Routemaster is open at the back, it cannot be closed against the weather and it allows people to jump on and off while the bus is moving causing on average 10 serious accidents per year and also making fare evasion easier. Every day 1000 wheelchair users travel on buses in London. This is compared to 6 million users in total, but it suggests on average there are 1-2 wheelchair users on every London bus route every day. Obviously this does not take into account the many more pushchair users or the numeous elderly people using the three-wheeled push along supports or people with other mobility difficulties or even luggage to get on board who welcome the low-level floors and ease of access of modern buses. This is why there are only 18 routemasters running compared to 5,197 modern double-deckers and 389 'bendy', i.e. two compartment buses in London, A bendy bus can hold 149 people compared to 90 on a modern double-decker and only 69 on a Routemaster.

People complain that there are fewer seats than on a Routemaster, but have they actually tried to sit in the seats. I am 6'0" tall (1.86m) which is about average height for a man in the UK now. I cannot sit on most Routemaster seats because my knees are jammed so hard into the seat in front, so I have to turn them to one side so I take up two slots or I have to stand anyway. Routemasters are more expensive to run than modern buses. People complain that they are safer on a Routemaster because of the conductor. Well, I know modern buses do not have conductors, but there is no reason why you cannot put one on or have a 'guard' if it makes people safer. I have travelled often on the Docklands Light Railway which is totally automated. There is no driver and all the tickets are bought from machines, and yet often, especially at night, they have a guard to make people feel safer. The structure of a bus does not determine who you put on it. If you wanted to, there is no reason why you could not have four armed guards on every bus. We do not have conductors on underground trains and yet people pack on to those.

You can see how successful modern design buses are if you note that bus passenger numbers are rising faster than at any time since 1946, they carry more people now than at any time since 1968 (when the Routemaster was dominant) and they cover more distance than at any time since 1957. Why is that? It is because they are clean and safe and easy to get on and off.

What is hilarious is that there are more complaints about the abolition of Routemasters online than there are people complaining about inflation. As I have noted before the British will always sacrifice comfort and efficiency for some perverse sense of nostalgia, that it is somehow better to be jammed on to a draughty bus that fills up quickly because it looks 'right' than to be on a modern efficient, safer service that their granny can get on without difficulty. Its removal is not portrayed as a step forward but, and I quote, 'an act of cultural vandalism'. No-one says every Routemaster must be destroyed but there is a difference between things you see in a museum and what you need to get to work or the shops in the morning. It is the same with the old red telephone boxes. They may have looked good but you had to be a weight-lifter to get the door open, not a child or an elderly or even just an average middle-aged person.

Johnson is clever, he knows how masochistic the vocal British public is, in its desire to live in some fantastical golden past that costs more and works less efficiently. His policies pander to that. It is ironic that most of the people who want the Routemaster back do not travel daily by bus in London. It is no different to saying that we should replace modern airliners with the aircraft you might see at a historic airshow or that the British Army should return to scarlet jackets and muskets because we won more battles with that equipment. Nostalgia has its place but not in informing the best approach for tackling the challenges of day-to-day life in 2008 Britain.

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