Monday, 3 March 2008

Wrong route

Bendy, taken from my Flickr stream.

Boris Johnson, candidate for the Conservative Party in the London Mayoral elections, made clear today his plans to scrap the bendy bus. He also declares that he wants to bring back conductors and the Routemasters.

I should say, first of all, that all of the points I make on this blog are entirely my own and don't seek to represent anyone else. Mr Johnson is wrong on this one - these policies are often 'popular', but they fall apart when examined.

Let's start with conductors. Conductors are a member of staff, and having two members of staff (a driver and conductor) on every bus nearly doubles the staffing costs. Of course, there could be some reduction in ticket inspectors, but there are much, much less ticket inspectors than there are buses, so the potential for cost savings is small. Conductors are not a solution to the problems Mr Johnson claims he is seeking to solve. He claims that bendy-buses have become free, but conductors provide a bizarre forced fare-evasion. On so many occasions when riding on buses with conductors, especially when I've been riding on the top desk, the conductor has not even ventured upstairs, meaning that my Oyster card was never checked. This is inevitable if the conductor is busy downstairs with lots of passengers getting on and off.

Conductors don't make journeys usefully quicker either - a trial on the 55 a few years back showed that as so few London Bus users buy tickets on the bus there is little time to be saved by allowing them to walk straight passed the driver. Oyster is generally very quick, so touching in with the card is only ever so slightly slower than doing nothing while walking past. The time saved on the 55 was so small it didn't allow any reduction in the number of buses to run the route - not much help there then.

But Routemasters are wonderful aren't they? No - they're not. They are, rightfully, acknowledged as being iconic, but this does not make them a good form of public transport. They are small, cramped (I'm 189cm (6ft 2 inches) and they really don't have the leg room) and, let's not forget, much less safe. People often scoff at this, blaming an H&S culture (a fact well addressed in this article), but as someone who's broken my wrist jumping off a Routemaster when I thought it was safe to do so I can say that one might realise that an open back on a moving vehicle is not terribly safe.

Of course, the stats bear this out - this pro-Routemaster booklet (page 47) accepts that the accident rate for a Routemaster was double that of a regular bus. One of my lecturers suggests it's worse than that (2.6 times worse than a regular bus).

Finally, of course, everyone agrees the articulated buses, or "bendy buses" are awful. Except they don't. TfL did lots of customer research with simple, unambiguous questions when the bendy buses were brought in. They asked people on routes that had been converted from Routemasters (like the 36) what they thought of their replacement (in this case the 436). You know what - regardless of whether the bus being replaced was a Routemaster or a standard double-decker people preferred the bendy buses. This effect, although diminished, was still present when they revisited these users after 18 months (to try and eliminate the effect of bendy buses simply being new and thus worthy of praise).

These were real users saying they liked the buses. It's amazing how many of the people complaining about them don't use them - Mr Johnson included. I use them pretty regularly - I live on the N29 route, I take the 507 quite often (hence the picture) and the 73 and 38 provide useful routes from Victoria (where I work). I like them - I like the fact I can get on them, even though they're busy. Busy buses are always tough to board, but at least on bendy buses you have three doors to try, and no need to push people to try and get upstairs only to find it's full. They also do board quicker when there are a lot of people - it's the doors that help with this. I invite anyone who doubts this to come and watch them alight/board at Victoria bus station in the morning.

Of course other road users must be taken into consideration, but the stats showing that bendy buses have a higher injury rate than other buses (for other road users) seem to be explained by the fact that these buses, by design, are used on the very busiest routes which encounter the most traffic. This isn't to diminish the importance of reducing accidents, but to say that we do have to be sure of a common base of comparison.

With money likely to be tight (Crossrail, Thameslink, PPP Upgrades and much more) it's vital that buses can spend money on useful things (more buses for routes, new routes, police on buses), not on conductors. Finally, when someone tells you that conductors make buses safer, I would always rather have a trained police officer (someone whose job it is to deal with crime) than a conductor, who understandably is trained not to put themselves in danger's way. So why doesn't the Mayor fund police officers for buses? Oh, he does.

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