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Burnishing Bus Culture: London Modernizes Transit by Reinstating a Classic

Thanks to its chic black cabs, cherry red double deckers, and a Tube map revered by graphic design students everywhere, London’s iconic transit system is known as much for its style as its efficiency.

But with 6 million bus passengers and 3.5 million underground journeys daily, Transport for London (TfL)—like many metropolitan transit authorities—is tasked with meeting a growing need in a city that has scant room for growth.

In 2008, when London mayor Boris Johnson ran with a campaign promise of bringing back the ‘Routemaster’ bus—favored by Londoners for its two staircases and doorless rear platform, which allows passengers to ‘hop off’ when stuck in traffic in between bus stops—one would have been forgiven for dismissing it as a superficial promise from a politician known for his publicity stunts.

The buses were decommissioned due to wheelchair accessibility issues in 2005 and since then, only two of London’s most tourist-laden “heritage routes” have used the original Routemaster bus, designed in 1960s.

So when Johnson was elected and the responsibility to deliver fell to TfL, officials saw the opportunity to design a new bus not just as an “exercise in nostalgia” but rather, a chance to use smart design principles to do more with less.

“If you look back at history, TfL has always proudly used great designers of the day in producing a lot of its infrastructure and its heritage,” said TfL project manager David Hampson-Ghani. “In this case, we brought together a fusion of an architect, a designer, and a bus manufacturer—all of whom had never worked with each other before. They all brought principles and concepts with them into the automotive industry that we worked with to make into a working bus.”

The design team included Heatherwick Studio, known for designing the mesmerizing Olympic cauldron which served as the centerpiece of London 2012's stadium. A fleet of the mod-looking, diesel-electric hybrid buses debuted on one of London’s busiest routes in February. An enthusiastic reception led to TfL’s recent announcement that 600 of the highly fuel efficient new buses will be in operation by 2016.

The buses’ sleek aesthetic—cool enough to make a cameo in the new 007 film—is not the only reason for the overwhelmingly positive feedback from riders. In addition to being quieter and smoother due to start-stop engine technology, Hampson-Ghani explained that there are fewer bottlenecks and a shorter journey time.

“We can create the same hourly capacity with fewer buses because its overall journey time is reduced not by it going faster, but by it stopping for less time,” Hampson-Ghani said. “By getting people on and off more quickly at each stop, the overall journey time comes down.”

These relatively subtle design changes have not only improved the efficiency of service, but have also created a more enjoyable ridership experience. The addition of a conductor in the back of the bus has brought with it something quite uncommon in a city known for its collectively stiff upper lip: friendly conversation.

“We thought the seats at the back of the bus would not be very popular because traditionally, people tend to dislike facing backwards on a bus,” Hampson Ghani said. “But it turns out these seats are the most popular because [passengers] can talk to the conductor and then people actually talk to each other as well—it’s definitely created a different culture on these buses.”

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, still too early for rush hour, a conductor stationed in the back of the 38 route had little to do other than greet passengers, answer the quickest way to get to Whitechapel, and be the recipient of dozens of ‘thank yous’ from riders.

“Everyone loves it,” he said. “It’s like a piece of old London.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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