/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on May 22, 2010 at 4:30 am
Filed under: bus, top-feature, transportation

The new Red Bus!

I’ve just been looking at the new London bus – the mayor’s office has posted a video tour of it on Youtube.

The gleaming red vision that was Routemaster

I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It’s certainly an improvement on the dreadfully uninspired boxes-on-wheels that represent ninety percent of the London bus fleet, and the detested-by-all bendybuses. I like the curves – they feel both elegant and friendly.

On a practical level, with three doors and two staircases, it doesn’t have the bottlenecks that make the standard designs of bus such a pain to use. And the staircase has a wraparound window, so instead of going up a little dark funnel, then being blinded by the light of the top deck, you can actually see where you’re going.

I also rather like the quirky wraparound spiral of the staircase windows, echoed in a slanting stripe across the front of the bus. For me, that echoes the winking aysmmetry of the original Routemaster. (However, Jonathan Glancey, the architecture critic of The Guardian, disagrees with me on this. He says buses ‘ought not’ to look funky. Well, it’s not as if the designer has given it a Mohican, is it?)

And hey! The platform is back! So running for a bus will be fun again – you’re going to be able to pull yourself up as it moves off, instead of seeing those sliding doors hiss shut just as you get there. And if the bus gets stuck in a traffic jam you’ll be able to vote with your feet, instead of waiting for half an hour till the bus gets the other side of the roadworks/traffic lights/double parked trucks. This will be a very popular feature with Londoners!

What you don’t see, and won’t experience directly as a traveller, is that this hybrid bus is also a ‘green red bus’, using 40 percent less CO2 than today’s normal buses.

The actual buses won’t arrive on London streets till 2012 – we hope in time for the Olympics. The prototype is still being worked on.

What don’t I like? Well, it still has a very undifferentiated outline. Part of the attraction of the old Routemasters was the way they were broken up by the indentations of the platform, the driver’s cab, the motor housing, the little sliding bars at the top of the windows. This bus looks very much like a solid block – albeit a curved one.

It’s also quite a big bus. One big attraction of the old Routemaster was its svelte outline and small dimensions – it was a bus designed to work on the twisty, narrow streets of central London. This bus is quite bulky. I’m not sure how it will handle some of the smaller streets in the City.

And I think Jonathan Glancey has a point when he says the bus feels a bit over-designed. One of the charms of the Routemaster was that it achieved its iconic status by just being a fantastic little bus – a functional beast. You could see the engineering on the outside.

This bus, on the other hand, has been very specifically designed as a replacement for the Routemaster. It’s been designed specifically for London, and to be ‘iconic’. To become ‘iconic’, something has to win that status over time. You can’t just go and invent it. I think there’s something a bit fake about that – like the ‘Irish pub’ in Lithuania I once visited that had clowns and jugglers to give it ‘authentic Irish atmosphere’. (Yes, I found that pretty confusing, too.)

And of course because this is a special new design, and because the manufacturers presumably won’t be able to use it for other customers, so the market is a limited one, it’s going to be expensive.

The first five Routemasters will cost £7.8m – that’s more than a million quid per bus. Of course the costs will fall with economies of scale once we’re past the prototype stage and the bus goes into full production, but even so, we’ll be paying something like £300,000 a bus – and that seems to have gone up from initial estimates of £250,000. (A normal bus, I’m told, costs £190,000 – considerably less than even the lowest estimates for the new Routemaster.)  It’s not surprising some politicians have been asking whether London should be spending all this money on new buses at a time of economic difficulty.

So the jury’s out on the new bus. And it’s still not delivered – so I’m wondering whether I should make rather cynical bet that this will be another of those great plans that never quite work out, and that by 2020 there will be just five, beautiful, elegant, much loved and horribly expensive new green red buses at work on the streets of London?

Photo by Garry Knight on flickr

Tags: bus, top-feature, transportation

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