This piece is from July 2009, when mayor Boris Johnson had just begun replacing London’s infamous bendy buses (introduced by Labour predecessor Ken Livingstone) with regular vehicles and had announced plans to bring back Routemasters with conductors because (according to his election “manifesto”) people are too scared to go on buses. PM David Cameron had also been wittering on about us living in Broken Britain. Hazel Blears, referred to in the very last line, is Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, and also very small. See Wikipedia for stuff about her expenses.
If, unlike me, you’re not wont to spend your Saturday afternoons wandering up and down Victoria Street howling at bus stops, then you might not know that the first of London’s infamous bendybuses – the 507s that once happily buzzed back and forth between Victoria and Waterloo stations – have just been replaced by old-skool single-deckers. But what about the decrease in rush-hour capacity, you ask, not to mention the speed of loading? No problemo: these new low-slung bad boys will be running at three-minute intervals. Or, to put it another way (not for clarity, just to let it sink in), every three minutes. That’s right: because 60-foot-long buses (with three wide doors) occasionally clog up box junctions, we’re replacing them at humungous expense with twice as many 30-foot-long buses (with two narrow doors) and paying twice as many folk to drive them. Why? Because that’s what people want.
God, I hate people.
This isn’t a political blog. Obviously I have my opinions, not to mention vague plans – currently on hold while I finish doing the kitchen – for some sort of benevolent dictatorship under which Londoners who disagree with the aforementioned opinions will be dealt with in a variety of amusing and imaginative ways and probably also in order of height, as my intention is to be a whimsical despot, but… politics isn’t really the issue. Boris is, after all, simply doing what he was mandated to do, having been smart enough to twig that pandering to the misinformed dimwit is always a vote-winner, and such cynicism is hardly exclusive to the Tories – Tories are simply more likely to be chummy with the sort of people who can provide gratis gobbets of helpful misinformation on a daily basis via placards outside newsagents and tube stations during an election campaign. Opportunistic populism trumps utilitarianistic common sense every time – that’s old news. Most politicians, though, thankfully marry their crass populism with a shameful lack of integrity – it was a safeguard built into our democratic system when Magna Carta was drawn up – so we never have to worry about their promises bearing poisonously expensive fruit. Sadly, though, Boris not only lacks the sort of grip on reality (the £250,000 he gets for writing a weekly column in the Telegraph is “chicken feed”, he told us last week) that’s needed to fully understand the whole bus-catching process, never having done such a thing in his life, but he’s also a maverick. So, not content with leaving wide-hipped commuters sobbing in the rain for at least three minutes on Victoria Street, Boris is also bringing back the Routemaster.
OK. Routemasters, let’s be blunt, are loved only by people who never used them, but quite liked to see them pottering about in a colourful fashion, probably going to Carnaby Street or the Kings Road; the sort of people who go on about “classic caffs” in articles cobbled together for the Sunday supplements over brunch in the local wi-fi’d-up gastropub (articles in which the fact that the owners of said caffs are no longer allowed to work a 16-hour day for a pittance just so the writer can have her 90p Maxwell House in a chipped mug once a year when showing friends from abroad The Real London is loudly bemoaned). “It’s all about freedom,” they’ll chirp at some point in their pro-Routemaster tirade, “the freedom to jump off an open platform.” Or the freedom to hospitalise an unsuspecting cyclist, as those of us who’ve spent years twelve inches out from the kerbs of central London prefer to mutter. At least with a bendybus we know where these dizzy idiots are: locked-up safely inside.
Anyone who ever had a choice – anyone living, shall we say, just off Kennington Road, along which the 3 and 159 ply identical routes to Brixton – would, until 2005, always plump for the 3 (one-person-operated) over the 159 (Routemaster) because the 3s had space in which to mooch about and sit comfortably; and enough doors to let you get off without becoming unexpectedly intimate with someone you’d only been sharing your passage through life with since Oval. Obviously if you were trying to ride for free, you’d pick the 159, as bunking a trip was dead easy on a crowded Routemaster – you just kept your head down or feigned sleep, and half the time the conductor would never come round anyway. Fare evasion is a problem, but it’s solvable – you just have a little machine by the door which beeps when a valid Oyster Card is held in front of it. Obviously you could also employ someone in a shiny cap to walk up and down the aisle with a little machine slung round his neck which beeps when a valid Oyster card is held in front of it, but – that would be foolish. As every other European city realised years ago. It’s called progress. We also now have automated in-bus announcements and digital displays telling us where we are – we don’t need to have it shouted in our ear.
So why is Boris bringing back clippies? Why is he not only spending fortunes on unnecessary new buses but also planning to double staff levels (or maybe we’ll just have half as many buses)? Because it was in his manifesto, because that’s what was demanded by people on the street – or, more precisely, by people on the avenues of Zones 5 and 6, where nobody would dream of catching a bus anyway, because buses are dirty and unsafe and unpunctual and full of unmarried binge-drinking immigrant hoodies wielding knives and using mobiles to sell crack very loudly… or so they’ve been told… by Boris and the placards outside newsagents and tube stations…
Relentlessly insisting that buses aren’t safe for ordinary decent people isn’t a great way to increase public transport usage, but that’s not really the point of an election campaign. And if what you say actually degrades the lives of those you aim to represent (if no one uses buses, then they will become less safe and less frequent), so what? You’re not exactly going to meet any of these people, are you, Boris, unless you happen to accidentally oversleep and end up leaving after the cleaner arrives. I don’t know: Margaret Thatcher once told me I was a failure for using public transport at my age (not to my face, she was speaking generally, and obviously I wasn’t my age at the time); David Cameron’s told us that we live in Broken Britain (despite most folk on the new one-person-operated 159 actually seeming quite pleasant), and presumably we’re the ones what broke it, because there’s only us here; and now Boris Johnson is telling me I need someone to look after me on the bus. I don’t know whether to feel angry or… just insulted.
But then I think about how much money is being wasted which could actually be spent on properly improving things and – that helps me focus.
I’ve also just realised that all three of those politicians are Tories. So, because this isn’t a political blog, can I just provide a bit of balance by saying that I really don’t like Hazel Blears? And not just because people that small are really creepy.