London by Bus: A week on the buses

25th February 2014 Blog Featured

These blogs originally appeared in The Independent in the week beginning the 17th February

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Preparing to hit the road: Blog post 1

Buses are the poor relation of public transport. Train and Tube get the limelight, yet every day twice as many passengers ride London’s buses as the underground.

The number 25 alone – through Oxford Street, the City, Mile End and Stratford – carries 64,000 people each day, equivalent to the entire population of Crewe. To understand better how London’s bus system works I’m undergoing a week of total immersion, riding 50 routes in inner and outer London, including the most congested and popular.

I’ll be blogging in the Independent as I go. Here is what I’ll be looking out for.

Congestion is a big issue. Since the millennium the number of journeys each year has risen from 1.4 to 2.3 billion, and there are now as many bus journeys made in London as the rest of England combined. A recent survey found a quarter of all bus users reporting their bus overcrowded. With London expanding by 100,000 people per year- almost four double-deckers of new-comers each day- how is the bus system going to cope?

I doubt the new ‘Boris bus’ is the answer. I say this as an admirer of the external design of Thomas Heatherwick’s new Routemaster.  It has the distinctive curves and elegance of the old Routemaster, which still runs on central London stretches of routes 9 and 15 for tourists and aficionados. But aesthetics are not enough; buses have to be practical too, and the problem with the new Routemaster is that it reduces capacity while increasing costs. Each bendy bus on Route 25 could carry 149 passengers.  That is 63 more passengers than the new Routemaster, which carries fewer passengers even than standard double-decker.

Who uses the buses? I’m keen to see the faces behind the figures. While rail services are most often used by 25-44 year olds, all ages use the buses roughly equally. And Londoners of all incomes use buses, particularly the less well off. Around two-thirds of all bus trips are made by those whose annual household income is less than £25,000, compared with just one-third of rail trips.

I will be spending Monday riding some of the busiest routes, including those through Kennington, Oxford Street, the City, Tottenham Court Road and Stratford, as well as two of the busiest rail termini: Waterloo and Victoria.

Tuesday I get out to suburban London, where many routes are similarly congested, particularly where underground and rail services are sparse or non-existent. This includes routes such as the 282 from Orpington to Lewisham, and the 96, serving Bluewater, Bexleyheath and Woolwich.

London’s night economy is huge and it couldn’t function without London’s night buses. Here again passenger numbers have exploded – by almost 200% since 2000. Night buses serve not only the leisure economy- pubs, bars, clubs, theatres and concerts- but also hundreds of thousands of night workers. Along with creaking capacity, safety is a concern with crime on night buses up by nearly half in the past two years. So I will be hitting the town from 11pm until 7am on Thursday-Friday, riding night buses from Trafalgar Square and Shoreditch, and then over to Heathrow, where the early shift is entirely dependent on night buses.

That’s why I’m taking a week off from ‘minding the gap,’ to ‘move down inside the bus.’

 

Day 1, Congested London: Blog 2

There are no suits on the bus, only wooly hats, baseball caps and warm coats. It’s 6.30am on the 38 from Angel to Victoria.

Two hours later it’s all suits and City workers on the 521 from Waterloo to London Bridge, ferrying wave upon wave of rail commuters from the busiest London terminus to their work places beyond.

 

London’s buses show a cross-section of London life, much more so than the tubes and the trains which tend to carry mainly the better off.

The other striking impression from 15 bus routes this morning is relentless congestion. Sometimes the congestion is buses packed like sardines, like the 521, a former bendy-bus route replaced by a single decker able to carry barely half the number. It has to be a single decker because of the Aldwych tunnel, originally built for the trams.

However, a good deal of congestion is caused by vast numbers of empty buses following each other through bottlenecks in central London, notably Oxford Street. I counted 53 buses on Oxford Street as I passed in a ten minute period, most of them barely moving and largely empty.

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Richard Dickinson, Chief Executive of the new West End Company (which represents West End retailers) tells me that this ‘screeching glacier of red metal,’ makes ‘London’s High Street’ severely unattractive. He is clearly right; it is also a cause of serious accidents and serious levels of air pollution.

Transport for London keeps talking about improvements, but they never happen. The Mayor and his team need to do more to tackle both forms of congestion – both the buses which are unacceptably full and the bus gridlock, which dominates central London.

London has a bus population of 9,000. It needs it: twice as many people ride the bus each day as the Tube. The challenge is to run the buses when and where the passengers need them, adapting routes and services.

London’s buses are an extraordinary story of continuity and change. Discussing a century of buses with Sam Mullins, Director of the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, he shows me the first standard London bus, built in 1912, complete with the destination signboards for route 11 from Liverpool Street to Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush. A century later, I am sat on the number 11, going down the very same streets.

 

Day 2, Inner and Outer London: Blog 3

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A better simile than ‘packed like sardines’ is needed to describe the crush on the number 25 bus every morning and evening. It is so oppressive downstairs that the only bearable way to travel is to stand near the exit doors, get off the bus at every stop, and then force your way back on again.

At least on the top deck they don’t allow standing, but upstairs was beyond my aspirations because of the scrum of bodies on the stairs (where you’re also not meant to stand) blocking my way.

Yet my neighbour tells me this is a quiet day because of half-term. “At least we can get on the bus today,” he said, as we sweated our way along Mile End Road towards Stratford. “Often you have to wait two or three buses to get on at Whitechapel and Stepney Green.”

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The bendy buses got a bad press, but the punters say it was better in those days, because they carried so many more people than a double decker (150 plays 90). They were also easier to get on and off because they had more doors and no stairs. But the bendy buses were unpopular among those who didn’t use them regularly, notably Mayor Boris, who has spent a fortune replacing them with buses of reduced capacity. The new Routemaster looks very elegant on the outside, but that isn’t much consolation to the cattle on bus 25.

Several passengers told me they don’t feel quite safe on board. One of my fellow passengers said that a fortnight ago, as he was wedged downstairs, there was, “a near fight between the driver and a severely agitated would-be passenger who couldn’t get on because of the crush.” While behind him an “unsavoury character sniffed glue from a bag. Nobody batted an eyelid.”

Eighteen hours later I’m on the suburban 269, speeding away from Bexley to Bromley, with barely a handful on board. We don’t even halt at most bus stops, because there is no-one to get on or off.

Doubtless it’s busier in the evening peak, but route 25, which carries 64,000 passengers a day – the population of Crewe – is another world. However, the views are better; at night St Paul’s Cathedral and the Bank of England are brilliantly illuminated; you can catch a priceless glimpse, but only if you force your way to the window.

 

Day 3, New London: Blog 4

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North Greenwich didn’t exist as a station or a bus terminus 15 years ago. It very nearly didn’t exist thereafter. The original plan was for the Jubilee Line extension to go from Canary Wharf to Stratford on the north bank of the Thames. It took a ferocious campaign led by local MP Nick Raynsford to make the expensive route change taking the Jubilee line under the Thames twice to serve Greenwich.

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By such fateful transport decisions are communities made and unmade. Today North Greenwich is a major transport hub. The tube station is crucial; it directly serves The O2 (another triumph widely opposed when it was built as the Millennium Dome) and it is making possible the wholesale redevelopment of the Greenwich Peninsula.  However, its impact crucially depends upon the eight bus routes which fan out from the station to serve Greenwich, Charlton, Woolwich and the communities beyond – including Greenwich Millennium Village, the stunning new development five minutes by bus from the station where Nick Raynsford now lives.

Over coffee Nick told me that his constituency – particularly the poorest parts of it in and around Woolwich – had been “totally reinvented” by public transport over the last 20 years. The latest reinvention is being brought about by the new Crossrail station being constructed in the heart of Woolwich Arsenal. New apartment blocks are springing up all around, alongside the impressive redevelopment for housing of the Arsenal itself.

Here again, buses are crucial. Woolwich Town Centre has been radically redesigned as a town square plus bus interchange, with the Crossrail station, and the existing DLR and Overground stations all a stone’s throw away.

Some of these buses are ‘Hoppas’ which go through the backstreets to serve communities which would otherwise be isolated, particularly for the elderly. Until it happened I simply couldn’t believe the 386 was going to make it up the steep Vanbrugh Hill, and the narrow streets beyond, some of them parked on both sides with barely enough space for the bus to squeeze through once the traffic coming the other way had reversed out.

It is the same story at Millwall, which I visited the day before. A huge 3,000 home development around the stadium is being made possible by a new London Overground station at Surrey Canal Road, which transport officials opposed on the grounds that there wouldn’t be enough traffic. Two new bus routes into the stadium development are also crucial (though no one could explain why TfL needs £6.5m to introduce them.)

Similarly, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which I visited later, is now criss-crossed by new bus routes linking the park to Stratford itself and to Hackney and communities in the opposite direction.

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The problem is that the buses too often get stuck. On the approach to Greenwich the 188 stalled in serious bottlenecks thanks in one case to road works and in another to a sudden road narrowing with no bus priority. It was the same the night before, when the number 25 couldn’t even get into the bus lane on Mile End Road because of a lorry blocking the approach to it from a junction; and it was to be same in Hackney on the 254 later, where the gridlock was so bad I got out and walked two stops to catch a different bus because the 254 couldn’t get into a bus lane.

In all three cases, fellow passengers told me these bottlenecks were common yet they aren’t sorted out. The advantages of red routes and bus lanes are scuppered by poorly designed junctions, unlocked bottlenecks and roadworks, which seem to overrun everywhere. Time for a bus bottleneck buster to get to work.

 

Day 4/5, Night London: Blog 5

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It’s 3am. After four hours of pubs and clubs in central London and Shoreditch, talking to people at about how they get home – lots of them use night buses – I take the final bus of my week-long tour of London by bus: the N9 which runs all the way from Trafalgar Square to Heathrow, serving another part of London’s huge night economy.

The night bus network has been transformed in the past decade.  Over 60 night bus and 24-hour routes operate out of Trafalgar Square, which is epicentre of the city-wide night network. Growth in night bus usage has been phenomenal: 200 per cent in the past 5 years alone.

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“Thirty years ago there were only a few night buses for print workers, charladies and dockers,” says Sir Peter Hendy, London’s transport commissioner. “The night bus network keeps London cleaned, entertained and in business for tomorrow morning.  It’s also a reason why 40 per cent of 18-25 year olds in London not only don’t have a car but not even a licence.”

The N29 bus from Trafalgar Square to Enfield has a 5/6 minute frequency on Friday/Saturday nights, which is better than daytime thirty years ago.

My route started on the N29 to Tottenham Court Road, then on the 242 to Shoreditch, returning to Trafalgar Square to pick up the N9.

Jack, coming from Shoreditch back to Trafalgar Square, told me that generally the night buses work well. His big issue was safety: ‘I’m happy down here [on the lower deck], but I would never go up there on my own,’ he said as he gestured up the stairs. Michela, who works as a cleaner in the City, relied on night bus to get to her early morning shift. ‘It takes much longer than the Tube to get here, but they’re not running at this time, and I couldn’t afford it anyway.’

We arrived at Heathrow at 4am, which is wake up time for Europe’s busiest airport.

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Some 30,000 of the airport’s 76,000 employees arrive between 4am and 6am, with around one third of them using public transport.  The Head of Landside Operations, Craig Oxby, tells me that buses are becoming more important. Terminal 5 has a new information centre dedicated to bus travel, the main terminals bus hub is the busiest in Europe, and the whole Heathrow area operates a free bus travel zone.

As I travelled around the perimeter of the  airport at 5am, I saw something I’ve observed all week: thousands of hard-working, perseverant passengers swiping on and off the buses, stoically heading to and from their jobs.  London’s night buses are London at work – as well as play.

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