Boris is poor pointer to Tory policies

I would like to take Boris Johnson seriously. I would like to think that behind the buffoonery and the TV shots of him falling into swamps there was a coherent set of thoughts that would gradually improve the transport situation for Londoners.

But after more than a year of the Boris show, it is really impossible to discern anything like a coherent narrative. Instead there are a bunch of disparate policies which transport commissioner Peter Hendy embarrasses himself by trying to justify. So we have had the scrapping of the Western extension of the congestion charge scheme, the abandonment of a host of major light rail projects, the rejection of the part pedestrianisation plans for Parliament Square (which the Tamils seem to have brought about through their demonstrations anyway) and the ending of work on the London Cycle Network.

Boris, too, rather came unstuck in the recent Tube strike highlighting his naivety. Pressed on why he had not begun talks with the RMT over a no strike deal, a manifesto commitment, he said he would not talk to a union while they were in dispute. And guess what, the notoriously militant RMT has been in dispute with some bit or other of TfL ever since he was elected. Nor, though, has he talked to ASLEF, which is not in dispute. This is playground politics. It is just an excuse for not reaching a no strike deal, which was never deliverable anyway. What’s in it for the unions, after all?

Sure, there have been a few good initiatives, such as the development of the cycle hire scheme in central London and the expanded target for removing guardrails on London’s roads, a particularly infuriating restriction for pedestrians as part of Boris’s commitment to reduce clutter. But even here there are issues. The cycle hire scheme promises to be extremely expensive, and without concomitant measures to improve conditions for cyclists in central London, it may be an expensive flop. Allowing fast motorcycles into bus lanes is jus the sort of thing cyclists do not want. Just because the number of cyclists in London has increased greatly in recent years does not mean there are a host more ready to jump on their bikes. Indeed, the opposite may be the case.

As for guardrails, there has been little action so far as the highway engineers are worried about risk assessments. Steve Norris, now a TfL board member, has pressed for an overall assessment to cover all eventualities, but the issue may get bogged down in technicalities and legalities. (As an aside, I have been writing to TfL to remove some frankly dangerous bits of guard rail which pose a danger to motorists as well as cyclists and pedestrians, near where I live in Holloway for two years with no result.)

However, it is the bendy bus fiasco that really shows up Boris as little more than a standard issue Tory playing narrow political games. The replacement of the first three bendy bus routes – two routes linking London stations, the 507 and the 521, and the 38 which serves Hackney from Victoria is underway but there really is no coherent case for this policy. Over the past few months, I have had various conversations with senior TfL and London Tory figures, and none have managed to provide any proper evidence for a change that is set to be expensive as well as adding to congestion and bus timings.

They mention fare evasion (unproven and could be dealt with by increasing number of inspectors); danger to cyclists (no accident statistics); unpopularity (not backed up by any balanced evidence); and their inflexibility (sure, on a few narrow streets they are not a good idea but that would be best dealt with by route changes).

I am no great fan of bendy buses which are not objects of great beauty. But, my god, they do their job efficiently. I travel frequently on the 29 up and down Camden Road and they operate far faster, with much greater loadings, than the old double deckers that served the route. On London’s major arteries, they are an enormous boon and there is no evidence that they are unpopular. There is no doubt, however, that scrapping them will make my local bus journey slower.

I suppose it is the attention given to the bendy bus issue which irritates me most. London has no shortage of tranport problems and bendy buses are nowhere near the top of the list. The issue highlights the fact that Boris has no clear idea of where he is going. The Johnson victory in the mayoral election was supposed to give some pointers to what we might expect from a Tory transport secretary if the party won the next election. Unfortunately, if what has happened in London so far is a pointer, then our expectations must remain rather modest.

  • Tom

    What about the qualities or otherwise of his transport advisor Kulveer Ranger, who was rather rude about you the other day, Christian.

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  • Great piece.

    I would add on the issue of fare evasion that boarding will be allowed through both sets of doors on the new 12m buses. If the objection to bendies was that you could board without passing the driver, one wonders why you’ll be able to do the same on the replacements. There are other routes that have two-door, single decker, unarticulated buses – I wonder if people will become confused.

    What I find particularly annoying – and wish I had done something about – is the lack of passenger consultation. In answer to an FOI request of mine, TfL said:

    There are no plans to use double-deck buses on routes 507 and 521. However, we are considering a proposal to use 12-metre long single-deck buses in place of articulated buses on these routes. No advertising has been placed in relation to this, but we have consulted stakeholders (including the relevant Boroughs, MP’s, Assembly Members and London TravelWatch) on this proposal as part of our regular review programme. Responses were requested by 3rd October.


    I don’t know about the 29, but there wasn’t even a hint of a change on the 507 (which I take daily), the 73 or the 521 until ads appeared saying that bendies were going. The 507 and 521 are the last remaining Red Arrow routes, set up specifically for getting people from major stations. Those commuters are, almost by definition, from outside the stakeholder areas and frequently from outside Greater London.

    It’s all a bit depressing, isn’t it?


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  • RapidAssistant

    I’ll know I will be crucified by some for saying this but as a non-Londoner my observation as an outsider was that when Ken Livingstone was voted in, all his non-political appearances on the media abruptly stopped (like HIGNFY for instance), and outside of London you seldom saw him on national TV.

    Boris on the other hand never seems to be off it, as though running the capital is some sort of hobby he does on the side.

  • Colin Jones

    They are unpopular because 1) they replaced the much-loved routemasters, which despite being old were very popular and convenient (for most) to use, and 2) because they emphasised the current policy of numbers over seats (soon to be seen on the new North London line trains) where your fare entitles you not to a seat but a crush at worst and mostly a long stand as the bendies actually have far fewer seats than the RMs they replaced. Also, rear facing seats are not popular, and bendies have lots of those too. My main objection (as a regular 38 user) to bendies is the amount of standing I now have to do.

  • “…the much-loved routemasters”—got any evidence for this assertion? And no, I don’t mean umpteen quotes from the vocal minority of nostalgia fans. Just because something was good *then*, doesn’t mean it would still be good *now*.

    Speaking solely for myself, I *hated* the Routemasters. Even as a kid, travelling on the 36B, I found them noisy, uncomfortable and far too small given the passenger numbers using them.

    I lived in Lewisham for years and frequently had to use the original 36 bus before the 436 came in. The 436 was a much better bus for passengers. For one thing, we could stand up straight in it without banging our heads on the ceiling! Far more passengers can get on board, very, very quickly, so journeys were much quicker. (Admittedly, Oyster and pre-paid tickets play a large part in this aspect too.)

    It could be argued that any route which is seeing so many passengers is ripe for conversion to light rail or metro. (Any chance of that endlessly-delayed Bakerloo extension? Please?) Routemasters were clearly having difficulty coping with the demand on this route. Restoring them (or buses very like them) won’t win Boris many fans.

    Now, I admit that the Routemaster had an visually interesting design, but this was effectively dictated by the technology and requirements of the day. Steam locomotives also look interesting to human eyes, with all that polished metal, exposed machinery, that sound and motion. But covering it all up would have added tons to the weight and made them much harder to service and maintain. Steam locomotives needed a lot of the latter! (“Streamlining” was attempted, but soon abandoned.)

    Wherever screaming great gobs of cash are at stake, function and serviceability trump form every time. The Routemaster was an example of this: easy to service, easy to maintain and, in an age when labour and fuel were both still cheap, it cost peanuts to run too. But this is no longer the case. Ambience and passenger comfort are also much more important in an age when almost everybody has their own horseless carriage.

    The Citaro buses are, like every other modern bus, just boxes on wheels. But they’re also great when used on suitable routes. Where the route is unsuitable, they should not be deployed. This isn’t rocket science. I’ll grant that London is cursed with more than its fair share of narrow, winding roads, but the 436 Citaros are—Peckham aside—a good fit for their purpose. Long may they run!