Bus concept

Missing the bus

E&T examines the winning entries for the New Routemaster bus design competition and the issues they present.

Whenever you watch films set in London after 1945, you are almost certain to see a London bus, and that bus will be a Routemaster.

The Routemaster bus came to symbolise London. The value of symbols is not lost on politicians; one had a pipe, one a hat and another a cigar. The current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, wanted something bigger, bolder, more inclusive - a bright red bus. He thought the current series of London buses lacked glamour and, perhaps being a Conservative, he looked back at the style of the retired Routemaster and wanted it to be brought back - and brought up to date. During his election campaign for the office of Mayor, Johnson said: "London deserves a bus fit for the 21st century." This was an idea he took further when, at the Beijing Olympic Games closing ceremony, he waved the union flag in front of a converted London bus that was central to the display advertising London as the next Olympics venue.

As soon as he took office, Johnson started implementing the idea. "I made a commitment during the election campaign to hold a competition to design a brand new bus for London, based on the much-missed Routemaster, which was an icon of the capital. Whether you're a professional designer who can submit a detailed plan or someone who uses buses every day and has one great idea that would make your journey better, we want to hear from you."

It was not a completely open competition though: the bus had to be green, accessible, hop-on-hop-off, double-decker; it would carry 76 passengers and there would be a ramp for pushchair and wheelchair access. There was a prize of £25,000 for the winner.

The competition created a lot of interest from professional designers and engineers, enthusiasts and amateurs, including children. Around 700 entries were received. In December 2008, Johnson, together with Peter Hendy, London's Transport Commissioner, announced the winners; the first prize was shared between Alan Ponsford's Capoco Design, and a seemingly unlikely collaboration between top-of-the-market car designers Aston Martin and architects Foster and Partners. 

Something old and something new

The Capoco team followed the Mayor's wishes by combining the old with the best of the new.

Their bus looks like a Routemaster with a front engine and open rear-platform, but it has a low, flat floor to allow easy access for all passengers. It will be built from lightweight materials; electric motors that drive the bus will be powered by battery packs charged by a hydrogen- fuelled engine and generator; these will also help reduce consumption and emissions. The bus could carry 48 passengers on the upper deck and 28 downstairs.

The judges were quite pleased; they said the bus was technically excellent and they were particularly impressed with the light-weight structure, hybrid propulsion and drive-train system - as well as with the fact that the design showed strong links to the original Routemaster.

A living-room feel

The other joint winner, Aston Martin and Foster and Partners, is short on specifics but is unsurprisingly strong on design and style. Their bus is highly-manoeuvrable with zero emissions. It has solar panels built into a glass roof; accessibility for all users; warm lighting and wooden floors. 

Ambience seems to be their forte. The two companies claim they have spent much time researching layout, materials and passenger experience and wanted to create a sense of 'warmth and community' with the help of lighting and wooden floors. They also hope reconstituted leather upholstery will reproduce a 'living room' feel, and views on the top deck through a glazed roof will bring joy to passengers.

Passenger safety will be enhanced by the driver's panoramic view, CCTV screens, and radio communication with the conductor. The bus will have low energy consumption and new technologies will overcome the peculiarities of London streets, with their tight corners and narrow thoroughfares.

The judges liked the overall styling; especially the rear end, with its echoes of the old Routemaster and the use of wood flooring, the drive-by-wire system, solar panels built into the glass roof, and LED moving advertising displays.

Entries from all over the world testified to the extent of the interest aroused by the competition. The best ones from children were awarded vouchers for bikes. Thomas Staricoff from Brighton, who hopes to be a bus driver, and Olivia Carrier of St John's Wood, both nine years old, were among the youngest entrants.

Harvesting of ideas

The competition organisers stressed that not one winning design would be put into production. Peter Hendy, who once drove Routemasters, said the entries were design ideas and not the actual buses you will see on the streets of London. "We've described the competition as a 'harvest' because it's allowed us to garner a lot of fresh and creative ideas that will be incorporated, one way or another, into a new generation of London buses. But, what we might end up with is something more radical than anyone has yet proposed."

What will happen next is that the designs will be sent to bus manufacturers to act as a source of ideas to contribute to the final shape of the new Routemaster and other London buses of the future.

Mayor Boris Johnson, who was impressed with the "phenomenal response" to the competition, wants to see the new bus on the roads by 2011 or in time for the 2012 London Olympic Games. But he has acknowledged that things cannot be rushed and designs incorporating new technologies and materials needed for a long, low-cost, low-energy and stylish life, have to be tested and trialled before being produced. "What we should aim to create now is not just a Routemaster replacement, but a whole new generation of London buses that could affect the future of the entire industry. You can't rush that, but we'll definitely have some working prototypes for passengers to look at and ride on as soon as we're able to."


While they welcome the prospect of new buses and ideas, Transport for London (TFL) officials, are very aware of economics and logistics of running a bus fleet. Open-back buses will need conductors, thus doubling the crew and increasing costs. TFL says that currently only 2 per cent of tickets are paid for in cash; cards and passes account for the other 98 per cent. What will the conductor do? Will he/she become a host and travel guide and ensure passengers get on and off the bus safely?

Hendy says: "I've spent 20 years getting rid of conductors for economic reasons. It would be great to have them back, but we do have to ask the simple question of who pays for them? I'm sure we'll find a way because, clearly, conductors are popular and they would allow us to offer a better service in future.

"Employing conductors and commissioning a new generation of buses will lead to both an increase in costs and almost certainly a further increase in fares."

He also thinks that "engineering concerns will need to come first as we'll want the most efficient, environmentally friendly machines possible. The final look and feel of the buses will follow."

Does that mean passengers are an afterthought?

The new bus is set to replace the articulated or bendy bus; but this raises another issue: fewer people will be able to get on the new bus than the current double-deckers, and far fewer than currently use a bendy bus. And more buses would mean more pollution which runs counter to the design entry condition of a more environmentally friendly bus. "I welcome the eco-friendly features on the design for these new buses," says Hendy, "but if you have to run twice as many of them, then the health of Londoners will still suffer from the problems of pollution."


The bus workers union, Unite, also has reservations. London regional organiser Peter Kavanagh thinks that it would amount to £135m in labour costs alone to replace bendy buses. He estimates that 2,640 conductors and 1,320 drivers would be needed as the new Routemaster would have significantly less capacity than the bendy buses (the existing Routemaster has a capacity of 68 compared to a bendy bus with 140).

And even the Mayor said it would cost around £100m to replace bendy buses with new Routemasters.

Travel Watch, the organisation of Travel Users, conducted a survey in September 2008 which found that replacing articulated vehicles on three bus routes while maintaining overall route capacity, would cost an additional £12.6m per annum because it would mean running more buses. 

Arriva, a leading bus operator in London, will not commit itself until the finished item is produced: "As this is a TFL project, it would be for them to offer out a 'spec' for tender with the requirements they expect for its operation. It would be at this point that we, as the operator, would consider how we would wish to proceed."

Unresolved issues

While there may be a good case for double-decker buses on central London tourist routes and as an icon to symbolise London, there are several issues to be faced that are, as yet, unresolved.

Is it the bus passengers' need? TFL has said that it has not undertaken a survey of passengers' preferences. So how does it know what sort of bus passengers would like? Double-deckers suit the fit and able, but disenfranchise a large section of less able users. The population is getting older and elderly people do not climb stairs, nor do they hop on and off.

If a conductor is to be employed again, what will his function be if he has only a few tickets to sell? How will he be paid? And if the double-deckers do not carry the same numbers as the bendy buses they are set to replace, how many more will be scheduled? Will the operators raise fares or reduce services? And, if more buses have to run there will also be an increase in harmful emissions that will not meet the condition that the new bus should be green.

It will be interesting to see what the solutions are when they are made public this November.

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