Atlantic Cities

Sleek, Redesigned London Bus Gets Off to an Awkward Start

Sleek, Redesigned London Bus Gets Off to an Awkward Start
Heatherwick Studio

For a public unveiling of a costly transportation project, the inaugural journey of London's new city bus could have gone better.

The sleek, revamped Routemaster – the first bus designed specifically for London in more than 50 years – pulled out from Victoria Station yesterday onto the number 38 route, but soon had a rival bus full of protesters on its tail. The hecklers waved a banner reading "Sack Boris," a reference to London mayor Boris Johnson, who backed the $18 million redesign project.

Then riders aboard the Sack Boris Express happily snapped pictures when the new bus suffered "software" issues and had to pull over. After a quick reboot, the double-decked vehicle slipped back into traffic and eventually arrived at its destination, Hackney, just 30 minutes late.

"Other than breaking down, the doors not working and the aircon going kaput, sounds like the #borisbus got off to a flyer," tweeted one man, using the monicker the bus has acquired in London. Another non-fan wrote: "In fact, if Boris was a vehicle, he would be the new Routemaster: Eye-catching, red in the face and totally unreliable."

But the hate hasn't been universal. One rider cheered the Boris Bus on Twitter for making her commute "a lot sexier," and another deemed it "really cute – got a retro feel to it."

It is kind of cute. Designed by Heatherwick Studio, it has an exterior as smooth and shiny as hard candy and a front that looks like the face of a Cylon that had a stroke. Adorable! The design is based upon London's emblematic Routemaster, a trolleybus replacement the city introduced in 1954 that was specifically meant to conquer the challenges of the urban environment. It sported a hop-on platform at the back for easy access, two decks to handle large crowds and grooved flooring for when the wheels slipped all around the moisture-glistening streets.

The original Routemaster was popular enough to appear among the automotive cohorts of Thomas the Tank Engine and inspire fashion accessories and furniture that mimics its plaid upholstery. Its future seemed golden: Ken Livingstone, London's previous mayor, put it best when he said, "Only some ghastly dehumanized moron would want to get rid of the Routemaster."

And yet, by 2005, it had completely vanished, doomed by an obsolete, fuel-sucking design. London replaced the Routemaster with an articulated bus made by Mercedes. This so-called "bendy bus," put in the hands of unskilled drivers, had design flaws:

It was also the subject of a citizens' campaign to make the articulated joints squeal like an accordion when rounding corners, an effort that sadly never got off the ground.

The new Routemaster, the result of an election promise by Mayor Johnson, preserves aspects of the original design but is built for modern transportation battle. The groovy floors are still there, as is the carnival-worthy color scheme, the hop-on platform and the elegant staircases. Then there's a hybrid-diesel engine, kicked up for fast acceleration on city streets; an armored exterior to withstand the dings of bollards and street signs; and wireless call buttons that are camouflaged within the hand poles. The bus takes both cash and Oysters, the odd name London has given to its smartcards.

Seven more Routemaster 2.0s will deploy through the grid during the first half of 2012. Despite Johnson's claims that the bus "showcases the very best of British manufacturing and design and simply oozes with quality," the transpo project has created a bitter debate over its worthiness. Here's Time Out London on the divide:

Rarely has a bus been so politically divisive. Left-wingers say that during a time of recession and rising fares it is sheer vanity to spend a fortune on a bus that has a lower capacity than the ones it is replacing, that it isn’t really a Routemaster and Routemasters were rubbish anyway. Right-wingers argue this is a terrific use of public money, defend the conductor (each bus costs a combined £500,000 a year) and insist good design trumps expense.

Was it worth it? Perhaps some eye candy will help you make a judgment:

Old Routemaster, courtesy of PoloGoomba

New Routemaster, from Transport for London

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John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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