London buses


Boris: Why Londoners should vote for me

It is one of the most tragic sights of the London streets. There she is, exhausted, in high heels, weighed down at either hand with heavy shopping.

And suddenly there is her bus, steaming past her to pull up a hundred yards ahead; and, as it overtakes her, she gives a sudden gasp of panic and breaks into a trot, and as she gets closer she sees the doors hiss open, and the passengers start to get on and off, and now the stream has turned into a trickle, and she lifts a bag-weighted hand to wave at the driver, because she is now close enough to see his impassive face in his kerb-side mirror, and they make eye contact, and her face turns into a rictus of entreaty and exertion.

Surely, she thinks, he is about to do the compassionate thing; and yet just as she limps up to the door, wheezing, on the verge of collapse, the system performs one of those acts of inexplicable malevolence on the consumer. The doors hiss shut in her face and the bus moves off.

How often have you seen it happen? How often has it happened to you?

I know some people who have been tempted to ascribe the phenomenon to a kind of bus-driver sadism.

There is one distinguished professor of education who has seen the pattern repeated so often, she concluded that the bus drivers must in some way hate the companies for which they work, because they seemed to be going out of their way to avoid taking on more fares.

As I have just discovered, the professor is wrong, because bus drivers are, in general, wonderful and put-upon people, and the explanation for this practice is blindingly simple – and it can be found in the contractual arrangements of the London bus companies.

Unlike the bus companies anywhere else in the United Kingdom, these London bus companies do not have a revenue structure related to the number of passengers they carry or the fares they receive: oh no, that would be far too commonsensical.

It is a stunning fact that the London transport authorities do not even tell their contractors – the bus companies – how much cash they are generating in fares, and the bus companies do not know exactly which routes are popular and which are not, because all that kind of detail is jealously guarded by Transport for London.

Instead, they are simply paid to ply the route, and they are paid according to a formula that depends on the number of miles travelled during the day; and so the buses’ real incentive is to whizz around London as fast as possible with as few passengers as possible, and certainly not to linger for a straggler.

So next time you experience that lung-bursting agony of running for a bus, and then see it heave out into the traffic just as you get there, ask yourself whether it might be possible to devise a more sensible system, with improved incentives – a system that protected off-peak services and yet stopped propelling buses as fast as possible from stop to stop.

At which point the reader may be forgiven for reaching for the emergency bell and asking me to explain why this column – normally so global in its concerns – seems to be delving into the detail of London bus routes.

You might expect me to be revolving such questions as whether Gordon Brown will have the guts to call an October election or whether – as I suspect – he will be a big girl’s blouse.

The answer is that I am campaigning to be the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, and, while I do not want to abuse my tenancy of this space, let me briefly say that it is high time the Labour incumbent was removed, and it is high time all 32 London boroughs – from Barnet to Bexley, from Hillingdon to Havering – received value for the average £288 every household is paying for the Mayor; and anyone who wants to find out more about our plans for less crime and improved housing and better transport should now dial up a website called

But, in the meantime, I want to clamber back aboard that bus argument, and I merely observe that, if you could find a better way of paying the bus companies, then they would not only have an incentive to pick up shattered shoppers, they would be motivated to crack down on fare-dodgers, who are now epidemic on the bendy buses, and the general incentive to encourage fare-paying passengers would mean thinking about the number one problem: what to do about the scourge of some obstreperous kids, who are abusing the privilege of free travel for the under-16s and making life miserable for the other passengers, sometimes turning the buses into glorified getaway cars for their criminal escapades.

That is a problem that urgently needs a solution, and not a complacent refusal to admit that there is a problem at all; and when I think about the plight of that lady running for the bus, I have a final suggestion.

I have just driven a Routemaster bus for the first time, and everything about it is a joy: the riveted aluminium so redolent of Second World War aircraft, the indestructible floor of compressed rubber and cork; the way its flanks heave like a warhorse as it throbs into the life, the efficiency of its engine that can do 11mpg, as opposed to the 3mpg of its heavier successors.

Alas, I don’t think that current legislation would permit me to reintroduce the Routemasters as they were. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could design a beautiful successor to the cyclist-killing bendy-bus, a 21st-century Routemaster?

Not only could bus drivers operate under new financial arrangements, with an incentive to hang on for passengers who are only inches away, but we would once again have a machine whose speed of embarkation and disembarkation was one of the miracles of London – and the waiting would be less inconvenient for the rest of the bus.

Someone once said that “only a ghastly, dehumanised moron would get rid of the Routemaster”, and that someone, of course, was the man who got rid of it.

44 thoughts on “London buses”

  1. The answer lies in a Personal Rapid Transport network for London. A system where you climb aboard your personal pod, tap in a location and sit back while you are whisked directly to your destination, leaves conventional mass transit systems in the stone age (correction, even the Flintsones had a car).

    PRT is silent, pollution-free at the point of travel, and can be installed at a fraction of the cost of the lightest of “light railways”, which still involve painfully heavy engineering.

    The built-in flaw of any group conveyance system – bus, train, tram – is that, if one person wants to get on or off, hundreds more have to stop. It slows the process to a crawl and is hugely inefficient.

    Watch any science fiction programme depicting a space age city. Where are the Routemasters and bendy buses! Everyone is travelling in a rapid transport device of some kind.

    Come on, Boris. If you want to show the world that Britain is ahead of the game, get with PRT. It HAS to be the way forward.

    Info: (I’m unconnected with them).

  2. Transportaion, of senior citizens, ladies, and under teen age children, in a civil society is the basic of all amenities that any city can provide. We have the blue line busses in Delhi,they were taken of the roads by the government once hue and cry was raised in parliament over rash driving, and death caused due to rash driving.London busses on picture postcards from london have played a major role in bringing in the tourist, hope back boris campaign helps bring about a change in the way things are running in city hall,or the deckers. BORIS MAN OF LETTERS. WILL GET LONDON OUT OF FETTERS. VOTE HIM FOR MAYOR. FOR YOUR POUND 288 FARE SHARE. VICTOR1

  3. This is hilarious: it disappeared off the last thread all too quickly and I suspect most people will have missed it; it’s by someone called jack. Priceless.


    In the 80s, a young man from a terrace-house and a northern comprehensive got into Oxford. He made the long journey down with his parents full of anticipation.

    On the first evening, something seemed wrong. Everyone else in the college already seemed to have friends: wearing baggy cords, stripey shirts and brogues, they disappeared off together leaving the northern comprehensive student alone.

    Soon it became clear: not only did they only want to be friends with their friends from public-school, some of them even celebrated it by having an exclusive friend-group called the Bullingdon Dining Club.

    The young man from the comprehensive spent a lonely 3 years at the Oxford college, and was fully aware that his friends who had gone to university in Manchester, Hull and Newcastle were having a much better time. He did not want to let his parents down though, so he put up with 3 years of rubbing shoulders with people who didn’t want to know him.

    Is it time Boris apologised for the Bullingdon Dining Club?

  4. Cresta if you are mentioning the little poetical limerick, then i stand condemned for authoring it.Jack target up from forum might havve used it. If Boris was responsible for making even one fellow student from oxford feel lonely, then he has to apologise.Though, i as a non-entity must implore all fellow batch mates of boris who might have felt left out, to please except the apology. You see boris in his college days was quite a hedonstic,it is know that he has realised the frivolity.But then Youth and its amber and misplaced sense of confidance is a human error, isnt it? Victor1

  5. Quite right Boris, sack all the idiotic beancounters that make everyone else’s lives hell.

    I don’t mind living in a world that revolves around money. I do mind, however, being constantly pestered in my job about why the various conflicting statistics I have to work to are not ‘on-target’, by some naive 23 year old girl who doesn’t mind doing a Monica Lewinsky impression to get a cushy non-job, so that the bean-counters can say that tractor production is up again.

    Funnily enough, once they stopped bonusing us on our battery-hen targets sales went through to roof! Monica Lewinsky and some of the others are still whingeing about the fact ‘call work’ (when you let the customer get off the phone whilst you navigate the creaking IT systems so you are not trying to concentrate on 2 things at once) is way over target.

    Of course it is, we can’t get shafted for £500 a month on it now, we can get on with shafting the customers instead of talking about the weather to them. All beancounters should be taken away to a re-education camp and forced to take phone-calls from angry customers who have had their mobile phone accounts goosed by them!

  6. Boris…I have always been an admirer, but I will vote for you and [Ed: moderated] if you can do something to bring down the cost of public transport in this city. I’ve travelled to many other cities in my time, and used their public transportation systems. New York? $1.50 (80p) will get you a ticket for as many stops as you like plus a free 90-minute transfer. Prague? Sixty pence will get you the same thing. London? Two pounds will get you one rotten journey on a really rather manky bus, with no transfers whatsoever. Please do something. Anything. Please.

  7. I will vote for you and bear your children…

    You’ll have to move fast, Lucy. He’s got 32 boroughs to visit.

  8. I didn’t see what Lucy put up that was moderated. Ed, can you say instead of [moderated], [moderated because bad language], [moderated because abusive], moderated because … etc
    [Ed: moderated because inappropriate]

  9. I see we are getting infesated with people that just want to ridicule Bpris.

    No-one minds you ridiculing (politely) what he said, but chopping it all up into little stones to throw at him just shows what nasty little haters you are.

  10. Or how about “Moderated because you’re as welcome as a wasp at a picnic.”

    This person has nothing to offer the discussion on buses or any other topic of interest. In net-speak he/she is a troll, and trolls/flamers get extinguished. I really do think, Ed, that you’d be entirely within your rights not just to moderate this saddo but wipe his/her messages on sight. It would do us all a favour.

    (On second thoughts, he’s less welcome than wasp at picnic. Wasps are interesting creatures.)
    [Ed: sound advice as ever, PauD; many thanks]

  11. I was on a London bus once. A man got on and argued over payments. One by one all 50 or so passengers got off and started waiting for the next one because the man would not stop harrassing the driver. It was things like this that made me very miserable in London. The place started to drain my faith in human nature if truth be told. I never used to have the same problem flirting with people in Newcastle or Cardiff.

    Perhaps this new routemaster should have design features that encourage people to smile and engage each other in conversation?

    Life in London for a country-boy like me was both exciting and lonely at the same time. It was a very educational experience living and working in London. Life would be much better for all those who flock to this fiancial centre and political hot-house seeking fame and fortune if their fellow Londoners were a bit more welcoming.

    I suggest the new bus has pictures of bunny-rabbits, flowers and a big sign saying “please feel free to smile at each other”.

  12. Boris old bean, this legislation that you suspect might preclude the reintroduction of Routemasters wouldn’t be sourced from Brussels by any chance would it?

    It would be a jolly good wheeze to tell them where to stuff their ‘bossy boots’ edicts say I.

    Or… could just take a leaf from Red K’s book and do your own thing………. and ignore it. After all most of the EU countries do just that with spoutings from Brussels.

    And, if you were to put a windmill on top of each Routemaster, they could probably run off their own self generated electricity. (Make sure you get planning permission first though.)

    PS. I’m advised by a boring friend that the above para. is in conflict with Newton’s second law. Never heard of him/her but I bet he/she was an EU bureaucrat. Just ignore the silly whatsit.

  13. Like a previous comment, [Ed: moderated because inappropriate]

    ‘I seemed to be averaging a speed of X
    and then the M3 opened up before me, a long quiet Bonneville
    flat stretch, and I am afraid it was as though the whole county
    of Hampshire was lying back and opening her well-bred legs to
    be ravished by the Italian stallion.’ (Life in the Fast Lane p261)

    What car(s) does he in fact own?

  14. Yes bring back the routemasters of a new design of the Routemaster, London would need to bring back its historic features especially for the 2012 games.

    Another failure from Ken is that it is wrong that he has raised transport cost, and at the same time the congestion charge has also raised. It is either one or the other and not both.

  15. I have serious reservations about how useful he is as a spokesperson for cyclists, since he also writes drivel about the pleasures of driving fast cars. (Jason)

    What a stupid, bitchy comment. You mean it’s not possible for someone who cycles regularly in a congested city to have a valid opinion about cycling in a congested city, simply because he also enjoys driving fast cars in totally different surroundings?

    You, under whatever pseudonym you are using today, have nothing to contribute to the discussion on how to get London moving. Everyone is bored by you. Take that enormous chip off your shoulder and run along.

    Oh, and mind the bendy bus.

  16. The bendy buses are an obvious and ridiculous mistake, there is no logic to having a vehicle that is twice as long which straddles and blocks intersections all over London. The problem in London is the capacity of our roads (in length not height) and the intersections, where traffic lights sit at red for ridiculous amounts of time. If we returned to shorter taller vehicles with rapid access (The RouteMaster or the modern equivalent) we would solve the majority of the problems. I have to believe that some financial incentives from the manufacturers where involved. The other crazy Ken policy is Bus lanes that lie empty in peak times because the buses are stuck in the line of cars trying to merge into one line BECAUSE of a bus lane… Blackfriars Bridge is an example of THE most ridiculous bus lane in London!

  17. The best way to get London moving is to completely change the way insurance on bikes/scooters work in this country. If like in Italy you could insure the for arguments sake a scooter so that everyone can use it not just yourself to ride said bike it would make it a more viable option.
    Go to any Italian city get an ice cream sit on a wall and just watch the same scooter go up and down with mum dad brother sister and grandma all using it to wiz around. not at the same time of course.
    Or you have to go all the way ban all cars from central and parts of greater London and double the amount of busses, preferably not bendy ones and make them free if you park you car at a park and ride. Pay to park the car ride the busses for free as long as they make it a reasonable price.

  18. Bendy buses are common throughout various countries (and make sense here) for 3 simple reasons: one, they have 3 doors through which people can get on and off, rather than just the one, so unloading is quick. Two, they don’t have the problem that faces double-deckers (routemasters or otherwise) in that people at rush hour stand on the bottom deck, leaving the top half-empty as they are too worried about missing their stops. Thirdly, they are safer (none of those suspicious looking people you have at the back of the top deck at night). It makes sense for people who actually use buses… but that won’t matter to most of you, I can imagine.

  19. Here speaks a man who obviously doesn’t use buses.

    If the buses waited at each stop for everybody who might want to get on, they’d be full and 15 minutes late after 3 stops. I don’t understand why people insist on running for the bus, especially as our wonderful system ensures there’ll always be another in 5 minutes time!

    I actually quite like that once you’ve got upon a bus, the driver has a reason to get you where you want to go reasonably quickly.

    And just so I’m attacking every policy in this article, let me just remind Big B that, as nice as they are, RouteMasters use twice as many people as new buses, and therefore cost twice as much to run. Hardly a Tory policy!

  20. Dear Boris

    Have you ever tried to get a weelchair or a pushchair on a routemaster? Having a go at bendy buses is just a populist move, they are a good development and offer the only practicle public transport in London for those with pushchairs or wheelchairs

  21. Before messing with the London buses, perhaps you should try travelling on the buses in your own Oxfordshire. Often I have to let one bus, going to my destination, pass me by with only two passengers on board, and wait for another one. The reason: they are operated by different companies, so the first one wouldn’t accept the monthly ticket I’ve already paid for.

    It’s wonderful to visit London and be able to use my travelcard on any bus I choose, or on the tube or DLR. Any move to further deregulation in London would be disastrous.

  22. “Here speaks a man who obviously doesn’t use buses” says Stuart.

    Trouble is, the last few posters seem to use nothing but buses! You have to consider the effect these machines have on other traffic, including cyclists. London’s streets weren’t built for these monsters.

    Having watched their video, I fancy the personal transit system which PaulD linked above. How cool is that!

  23. PaulD, I think it’s fair enough to question Boris setting himself up as a spokesperson for cyclists when he writes about the joys of fast driving. Survey after survey show fear of traffic is the thing that stops people cycling.

    If he wants to do both, that’s fine, but leave the spokesperson about bikes bit to local activists like myself who don’t even own a car, and would love to see huge fines for first-time speeding offenders.

  24. Pauliney/Helga. You are undoubtedly the same person as ‘Jason’, ‘Cresta’ and various shadowy figures of the recent past. [Ed: now eliminated as not appropriate]

    What you don’t understand is that you are doing Boris a big favour by this needling. Everyone can see that you have a chip on your shoulder the size of Bedfordshire and that you are incapable of rational argument. If this is the best you can do, Boris will sail in as Mayor because his opponents are showing themselves as nothing but embittered hecklers who have nothing in common with the rest of us.

    “…leave the spokesperson about bikes bit to local activists like myself who don’t even own a car, and would love to see huge fines for first-time speeding offenders.”

    Come and say that down the pub. I will, with some reluctance, help you to the ambulance.

  25. Boris,

    Publish a structured, cohesive, financed and peer-reviewed plan for the re-introduction of modernised Routemasters and you will have gone 75% of the way towards securing my vote.

    Appealing as you are as a ‘good-old-chap’, don’t let us down by following through these very admirable visions with vague New-Labour planning and populist spin.


    John Henry

  26. Why you should vote for Boris:

    * sound conservative politics
    * caring, concerned and accesible.
    * startlingly intelligent
    * great blog on which views can be aired
    * very good at his job
    * not stuffy or distant – approachable.


  27. Nick Carvey that is an interesting point you bring up, not sure what it has to do with London transport or Boris running for Mayor but thanks for sharing

  28. Oh dear,

    Here I was thinking I was the only paranoid nut-job that took too much acid and smoked too much crack in the 1990’s.

    ‘U’d Love to Know’ – see your GP.

  29. In the last 5 days of the Routemaster Service in Decemebr 2005 we recorded the toughts of people in London as they farewelled the Routemaster

    The result was 10 short films which were put into the Farewell Routemaster DVD.

    It’s only available at

    Have a look at how London responded in the last week of the Routemaster bus

    RM 159 by Kevin Dolan

    Kevin Dolan’s “RM 159” is an engrossing tone poem of sounds and images: the deep thrum of the engine, clean ting of the bell and classic design elements of mirrors and handles are set to soothing xylophone music and nostalgic reveries from conductors and passengers.

    Bus Kong by Ed Hartwell

    Ed Hartwell’s ‘Bus Kong’ is a delicious animated political cartoon that exploits the iconography of the Routemaster, London and a certain giant ape movie with bold witty simplicity, pitching our hero against a feral bendy-bus and an even more sinister foe…

    Unlucky for Some by Ben Crocker

    Interestingly drawn study of the social and emotional impact of the Routemaster on peoples’ lives.

    Moving Musings by Toby Falconer & Caroline Gardiner

    “Moving Musings” by Toby Falconer, Caroline Gardiner and Alex Craster, uses a split screen to show both street scenes and talking heads (including a south London kid who notes “there’s not as much bullies at the bottom than the top”)

    One Colour Red by Chris Hauke

    Interesting concept with good interplay between the interviews/ voiceovers and images.

    MGTV by Martin Gooch

    Very funny with nice sci-fi twist at the end; clever editing and use of special effects.

    38 by Eleanor Thomas

    Fluid camerawork with a light, humorous touch.

    Routine Master by Max Goldzweig

    Funny and well acted, atmospherically shot comedy about what happens when you get a new bus,

    The End of the Line by Tom Bainton

    Tom Bainton’s “The End of the Line” has George Cole reading a self-eulogy over picture-postcard London scenes (“Since ’56 I’ve been around – landmark, icon I’ve been called/But I kept my wheels firmly on the ground and went where I was told”)


  30. I have seen the impassive stare – Usually(if not always) when showing my ticket or asking a question. The stare continues – a rebuff and an insult simultaneously. I have seen drivers closing doors in the faces of panting passengers too (always female, usually on the wrong side of forty.)Many times.Several times I have been on the verge of ringing the complaint number, but then thought – what’s the point? There will only be someone equally rude on the end of the phone.
    It is time that simple manners returned to the streets of London. A bus driver who ignores passengers, or cannot even be bothered to look at their tickets as they board , ought to be fired.Because he is only doing half the job, and is contributing to the depression , misery and exhaustion that ensues after a day of negotiating public transport. ( One bright spot is the music that plays at Vauxhall tube – which just shows how much difference one person can make to the days of thousands. )Bus drivers who are not willing to be polite to their customers do not deserve the job- whatever the policies of their management. There is no excuse for insolence.

  31. Good Article Mr Johnson.
    I’ve just looked at the PRT system suggested by PaulD in his comment. The system seems a bit far fetched but perfectly possible I guess. I wonder whether it would be possible to use the same concrete channels for bicycles too? That would be wonderful.
    I’d don’t use a bike although I’d like too. I feel that without dedicated bicycle paths, it is just too risky in London.

  32. I will probably vote for Boris but do wish that the conservatives would allow more participation.

    I have been a member of the conservative party for over a year and have never yet been invited to a local event despite having called my local constituency on a number of occasions.

    I have created my own discussion groups etc and been very successful with this but think its a bit sad that local politics can be turned into a VIP lounge.

    I guess the reason I will vote for Boris is that he takes a frolicsome approach to public discussion and given his own head in matters I think he could do good things.

  33. Boris, I’m with you on that. The bendy buses fulfill another apparent ambition of Ken: harassing cars as much as possible. A bendy bus is too long to overtake so traffic is forever stuck behind it. In addition, it allowed Ken to claim even more parking space from the road edges, although I have no idea why because quite a few of them don’t even bother to get out of traffic but simply stop (hah, not to pick up passengers, usually for a chat with the bus going in the opposite direction).

    I’m also sure that you wouldn’t be so insane to rig opinion polls so it would seem all of Ealing would be in favour of cutting down 1000s of mature trees so Ken could stick a tram in to a new shopping mall (strangely staying mute on the question where the emergency vehicles would go, or on why he polled only people that didn’t even live near the tram zone).

    Yes, I can see you could put some sense into it. Let’s face, after Ken things can in my opinion only improve (no disrespect to your abilities!). And maybe you can then finally answer this question for us: if public transport is so good, why does Ken’s office have the highest taxi expenses of the whole government?

    Enquiring minds want to know..

  34. The Routemaster was a wonderful bus for it’s time. But NOT for the 21st century. An open platform is only slightly less archaic than an open top.

    Aside from the drawbacks that have already been pointed out (lack of access for disabled; need to employ two people per bus) it is worth remembering that the Routemaster took 5 years of development from the appearance of the first prototype to it’s introduction into service. That development came at a cost of course, as did the manufacture when it finally went into production. Even to revive the old Routemaster production line would be entirely uneconomic, let alone design a new version from scratch, particularly given the fragmented bus operator setup in London these days (a product of earlier Tory meddling).

    Whatever Boris’ charms, his transport ‘policies’ consist of ill-thought out, probably un-thought out pie-in-the-sky. Transport is one of Ken’s strengths; he’s done a really good job. Boris is going to need to do far better than he has so far on this. I’d give Ken an 8 out of 10 for transport; Boris doesn’t even start to approach zero yet.

  35. @ clive harrison:
    You can get prams and wheelchairs on double deckers, you know and I’m sure it perfectly possible to have a wheelchair-friendly 21st century routemaster.

    @ Liam:

    Sure bendy buses are common throughout various countries, but that doesn’t make them suitable for London’s streets which are very narrow. Anyway, in the space one bendy bus takes up, you could almost have two double deckers.

    I’ve also seen plenty of bendy buses blocking up entire roads as they try to pull into a main road. I

  36. I only read the first few comments, but:

    bus driver waits for the person running to catch the bus: 62 people annoyed

    bus driver continues his journey: 1 person annoyed

    As well as the electronic information boards at every shelter (for the sake of the passengers) I think it might be a good idea to have a button to press when you arrive at the bus stop, rather like the buttons for crossing a road. While not accurate, this would at least give some easy feedback with which the operators could plan routes.

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