I think part of the problem was that nobody realised quite how nostalgic Londoners got about the old Routemasters. They were a design classic and very much part of the scenery. Old-fashioned, yes, and not without faults of their own, but much beloved. Not that they’ve exactly vanished – they still work a couple of tourist routes and there have been no shortage of private firms to snap them up. But I digress.
The thing with the Routemasters was that, like the classic FX4 taxi, they were designed in consultation with drivers using the routes. They were, in a very literal sense, a bus for London. The bendy buses were not – they were off-the-peg vehicles used all over the world, from Germany to Japan to Mexico.
The bendy buses, or Mercedes-Benz Citaros to give them their proper name, were therefore not universally popular with drivers. Problems with visibility due to the length of the vehicle and reflections in the windscreen were reported. The length of the vehicle also meant that they had a tendency to foul crossings and junctions (this, incidentally, was my personal beef with them). Cyclists were perceived as being at risk from the lack of driver visibility. What also caused a certain amount of jeering in the early days was a fire aboard one of the buses en route to its new home, resulting in the nickname ‘Chariots of Fire.’ When Boris Johnson was standing for the Mayoral election, one of his promises was that he would get rid of the bendy buses and come up with a more appropriate successor to the Routemaster. A friend of mine went so far as to actually decry the bendy buses as “the Devil’s work,” which I think is perhaps a bit harsh.
However, I do wonder if the Citaros are a bus more sinned against than sinning. There has, for instance, never actually been an instance of a cyclist being killed by a bendy bus, despite Boris’ slightly showboating implications to the contrary. While it’s true that in terms of actual numbers, the bendy buses have been involved in more accidents than any other model, they are also used on more routes than any other individual model. The fire does not appear to have been caused by any fault inherent to the bendy buses and was in fact a one-off.
And the bendy buses did have certain advantages. They were roomier than your average double decker (they could hold 120 to a present-day double decker’s 85). And all of that space was downstairs, great if for whatever reason you couldn’t negotiate the stairs. Along those lines, they had disabled access, unlike their predecessor.
They were also popular for rather less orthodox reasons. One of the major reasons for their withdrawal was that they were a godsend to fare dodgers – one could board via the centre entrance. Transport for London as a result had to take on 150 extra ticket inspectors (I refuse to use the term “Revenue Protection Officer”), and there were plenty of reports of people getting shirty when told that actually, they were supposed to pay for this journey. A strange use for the bendy buses I learnt about today was by the Capital’s homeless. The night buses provided a measure of warmth and comfort, unofficially for free. Actually, a friend of mine once spent a week sleeping rough on the 24-hour non-articulated 285, so it is possible even if you don’t have a bendy bus. Just putting that out there. Not that I’m advising anything illegal.
Boris has been noticeably reticent about the cost of replacing the 10-year-old bendy buses with new models, and frankly I suspect the decision to get rid of them was populist first and practical second. Nevertheless, the bendy buses are finding new homes in other cities, where perhaps they’ll be a lot happier.
Why am I feeling sorry for a bus?