Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Boris Johnson's Bendy Jihad: boondoggle edition

Tom from Boris Watch and Andrew Bowden have both been studying TfL's bendy bus consultation. The results?

Okay so we've been over most of this. We know, that Boris knows, that we know, that this policy has absolutely nothing to do with common sense value-for-money policy-making and everything to do with ideologically-nonsensical politicking. 

He's confidently marched us up the double-decker stairway anyway, and even though there's a gang of knife-wielding maniacs on the top deck, there's no way he's going march us back down again.

This is what his deputy Kit Malthouse calls courage

Now one man's hard-headed courage is another man's blind folly, but we are where we are. 

Bendies are going and eventually we will get the gleaming red boondoggles that are the new Routemasters. So let's take a look at those boondoggles.

Into the abyss

Well when you're marching up a bus stairway, you always have to keep in mind that at some point you're going to have to march back down again. Even if the gang of knife-wielding maniacs doesn't set you on your heels, at some point you're going to need to get off at your stop.

With this in mind, and with the Routemaster competition still ongoing, London Travelwatch prepared a report on which staircases work best on a double decker. Here's a summary:

The original Routemaster staircases were rear ascending and had a steep 90 degree turn. Steps on the curve were obviously narrower and more difficult to traverse, but overall they seemed to work.

The onset of front-loading buses meant that some later designs put the staircase at the front. 

Thankfully these were never taken up in London, partly because of the risk of being hurled into the abyss whenever the bus made a particularly sharp stop.

As a result of this fault, future designs put the staircase in the middle. Although they were no longer front ascending, the DMS and Titan designs unfortunately had the added obstacle of a 180 degree spiral turn.

This meant that the staircase treads were even narrower and more dangerous to descend than those they had replaced.

The solution was the 'square' staircase as shown above. Less precarious than the spiral and with a wider tread, the Metrobus seemed to be the ideal solution. However, space considerations meant that later designs incorporated the now ubiquitous straight staircase:

The straight staircase is almost in universal use in London. It is both easy to ascend and takes up a minimum amount of space. However, there are significant problems with it as pointed out by Travelwatch:

"For the passenger, the problem with a straight staircase becomes apparent once the bus actually moves. The reality is that a bus lurches about – back and fore, sideways, up and down and in any combination of these – and can brake suddenly. For passengers going up the stairs there is no real problem; if they are thrown off balance the worst that is likely to happen is that they fall forward onto the staircase. This is unpleasant and may result in minor injury, but it is a risk which passengers seem willing to take.

"Descending a straight staircase is different. When standing at the top, the passenger looks down on a long open space which offers an unbroken fall if the bus lurches or brakes suddenly. Even for the most able bodied, this is psychologically disturbing, causes most users to hesitate as they descend (thus slowing the unloading of the bus) and is particularly difficult for those who are carrying bags and therefore have only one hand free to hold the handrail."

Of course the ideal solution to all of these problems is to simply *not* have a staircase at all. 

But accepting that double deckers are necessary on some routes, and accepting that a whole new fleet of them is about to be designed and built, then it is important that these considerations are taken into account. 

So what did Travelwatch advise? Well here's how they broke it down:


That London TravelWatch adopts the following policy on bus staircases (subject to any further evidence becoming available from practical trials) :

(a) All staircases should be forward ascending. 

(b) Straight staircases which present descending passengers with a long drop into an open void are not acceptable.

(c) Of previous staircase designs in London – 
  • The square staircase used on the Metrobus is the preferred option. 
  • The 90 degree curve used on the Routemaster may be acceptable, subject to careful attention to design detail and to user testing. 
  • The 180 degree spiral used on the DMS and the Titan is not acceptable.
Okay, so the straight staircases don't work, the square ones do, the 90 degree curve just about does the job, but the 180 degree curve absolutely doesn't.

Now after reading all of this can you guess which type of staircase our common sense, listening mayor went for. Yep, you've guessed it:


Anonymous said...

Foster's deasign was chosen for one reason and one reason only, because they are the big name. The policy needed credibility and Foster was seen as the best way to supply that. Never mind that they've got no experience at designing buses. They just sound and look good and that was enough.

AdamB said...

Arrrrgh! Blogspot is still not allowing certain comments through. please check that your comment has been taken before leaving the page and if yours haven't appeared, please try again. Arrrrgh!

simon said...

"boondoggle |ˌbuːndɒg(ə)l| informal

Work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.
• a public project of questionable merit that typically involves political patronage and graft."

Boris is Mayor Boondoggle

Tom said...

Slight correction - the danger from braking is if your staircase faces forwards (i.e. you access it from the front door and climb towards the rear). I'm not sure anyone was ever mad enough to put a bus into service like that.

Very odd piece from LT, but good spot. Note they don't say what they consider a 'long drop' to be, since the Metrobus design still has a drop, just about one step less (the step being relocated into the middle of the floor). Modern buses don't have the bottom of the staircase opposite the door, by the way, they have seats - the wheelchair/buggy space is opposite the door for obvious reasons).

Of course, the debendifications aren't going to wait for non-straight-staircase double-deckers to come in, they're going to use the current design, which LT claim will cause people to slow down descending the stairs...

Helen said...

In my experience, passengers are always reluctant to use the upper deck and prefer to huddle around the exit door(s), impeding those who are trying to get off the bus, move down the bus or even go upstairs if they're really adventurous.

AdamB said...

"Slight correction - the danger from braking is if your staircase faces forwards (i.e. you access it from the front door and climb towards the rear). I'm not sure anyone was ever mad enough to put a bus into service like that."

I should have made it clear that this was never used in London (for the reasons that you point out) but did surface elsewhere: From the report:

"In the mid 1950s bus design underwent a revolution when the industry saw advantage in placing the entrance at the front alongside the driver, the staircase immediately behind the driver and the engine banished to the rear. This enabled one-person operation, but for a variety of reasons London largely resisted this trend and continued building Routemasters until the late 1960s.

"One reason for London’s resistance to the new layout was that, with the staircase at the extreme front of the bus immediately behind the driver, it had to ascend to the rear. This – rightly – was regarded as an unacceptable safety risk."

AdamB said...

I've made that clearer in the main post now.

Helen - this is another complicating factor when trying to work out exactly what capacity double-deckers have. Anecdotally you're more likely to be left waiting while a crammed-bottom double decker drives past, even though there are still seats upstairs. I'm not aware of any studies into this though.

Tom said...

Helen/Adam - that's precisely why the Red Arrow routes (of which the 507/521 are the remains) were always non-double-decker. Because the routes are so short and loading is lopsided due to the railway termini double deck operation would be a nightmare. Hence the RM good/bendy bad meme being irrelevant along with most of the bendy myths. It's Boris's bad luck that they're the first routes up for retender, but hey, the facts were there if he'd bothered to actually flesh his policy out first.

Helen said...

Tom said: "Modern buses don't have the bottom of the staircase opposite the door, by the way, they have seats" - all the London United double-deckers round here have the stairs opposite the exit doors.

Rog T said...

I couldn't agree less with this thread. Being the cheapest option should never be the main consideration. London needs Icons and the new bus will be one. Boris is useless, but this is probably his one good idea. Whenever I used to return to London, the three things I loved were the Buses, the Taxis and the Tube trains. They made me feel "back home". A city isn't defined soley by a couple of funny looking buildings. Buses are a part of the street scene.

Here's my view

AdamB said...

I don't think London is in any danger of having a shortage of icons and we do still have Routemasters (I travelled on one the other day and it was free as it happens).

I love the old RMs as much as the next man. I also quite like horse and carts as well, but nobody's proposing bringing back a 21st century hybrid version of those. I personally just don't think it's worth raising our fares in the middle of a recession and making public transport less efficient and more difficult to use, just for the sake of a nostalgia which won't even be satisfied by the new designs. Have you seen them?

Tom said...

"London needs Icons and the new bus will be one"

You can't impose an icon from above, particularly not on Londoners. In fact, believing that such a thing is *possible* betrays a rather naive view, as does concluding that Boris is a) useless and b) capable of carrying this project through to iconic status. I agree with a).

Anonymous said...


Surely the first bendy route up for re-tender was the 38?

Anyone want to buy a bendy? Arriva have about 50 spares coming up.