A short history of London's buses
And why you should use them!
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Whether it be the pop culture icon of the red Routemaster, the unique oxblood faience and futuristic Art Deco stations that house stops on the Underground, the soaring, unmanned DLR or even the much-ridiculed ‘dangleway’ that cost the taxpayer tens of millions but only serves four regular customers, the city’s public transport system is perhaps its most defining characteristic.
The long history of this vast network is not only fascinating, but is key to understanding how London became the city it is today and why transport data is so important for navigating and organising a city that on the surface may seem incomprehensible. At a time, too, when fewer journeys are taken as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to keep an interest in and generate enthusiasm for public transport in the hope that we see a large-scale return as and when it becomes safe to do so.
In the first part of this series of articles we will investigate the origins and recent past of the city’s most popular mode of transport, the humble red bus.
When we moved our London offices to Lower Holloway’s North Road in 2019, we stepped right into the heart of the city’s transport history. This wasn’t just because the office would be where some of the highest quality and most unique public transport data would be produced, but because the offices we moved into—now known as Busworks—were once the home of the London General Omnibus Company.
The firm, part of whose former factory we now proudly occupy, was founded in 1855 as a way to consolidate and manage the existing independent omnibus services that had been previously operating unregulated in the city. These included that of George Shillibeer, a London coachbuilder who in 1829 had begun running the first regular horse-drawn omnibus service between Paddington and Bank.
There had been long-established private stage coach services that traversed London for centuries, but these required prior booking and would serve a specific pick-up point. Shillibeer however opened up this form of transport to the public as his service could be hailed at any point along the route granted you could afford it. The term Omnibus, meaning ‘for all’ in Latin, was adopted to reflect Shillibeer’s ideal, though as mentioned the “publicness” of this route was contingent on one’s ability to pay a fare of one shilling, which was beyond the means of most Londoners.
The idea caught on, and alongside new rules allowing buses to enter the city centre—much to the irritation of the hackney carriage operators who had had a monopoly on the area—there grew to be 810 omnibus operators by the time the LGOC came about. Upon its foundation in 1855, the company quickly bought up 600 omnibuses, of which Shillibeer was not one as he had gone out of business in the years prior, unable to compete with the new operators. This amalgamation of most of London’s buses meant they could be regulated and centrally operated to serve as many people as possible.
Over the next decades the buses of the LGOC became an integral part of London life. Advances in transport technology allowed the company, and indeed the rest of the city, to slowly transition from horse-drawn to self-propelled motorised omnibuses from 1902. The chairman who oversaw the switch to motorised buses, Sir John Pound, would become the Lord Mayor of London in 1904, demonstrating how important bus travel had become for the city.
The LGOC had bought up the Road Car Company and the Vanguard Company by 1908, effectively ousting any competitor in the field of public motor transport. One year prior to this buyout, the company had started painting all of its fleet red in order to stand out—a tradition that lives on to this day!
With practically all the city’s buses under one centralised control their organisation was made far easier than before, and their resources allocated to advancing innovation instead of the dangerous underhand tactics that would reappear in the 1980s ‘Bus wars’. It didn’t take long for Frank Searle, the company’s lead designer, to come up with the motorised 34-seater X-type bus in 1909, shortly followed by the B-type, 2500 of which were in service by 1913, one year before the final horse bus disappeared from London’s streets.
Despite their widespread use, these buses were not the most comfortable things to ride and with the 12 miles per hour speed limit it wasn’t much faster than the horses they were replacing. 18 passengers would have to sit on the uncovered, unheated and unlit top deck whatever the weather, and headlights were only introduced after it became clear that the dim interior light of the bottom deck wasn’t sufficient to be seen on London’s dark streets.
With the outbreak of the First World War, the B-Type bus was integral to the country’s war effort, carrying troops and kit to and from the lines. Some were even used as mobile lofts for carrier pigeons.
Throughout the early 20th century improvements were made to the fleet, with pneumatic tyres and covered tops being designed in the 1920s and diesel engines in the ‘30s. By the mid-30s the LGOC had been absorbed into the London Passenger Transport Board, its former factory remaining a bus repair depot until the ‘50s. It may have even repaired the number 78 double-decker bus that Albert Gunter jumped over Tower Bridge when it began opening without warning!
The LPTB in turn was nationalised under Clement Atlee’s post-war reforms in 1948 becoming the London Transport Executive (LTE). It was under this new organisation that a true British icon was born with the rollout of the first AEC Routemaster in 1956.
A triumph of mid-century design, the Routemaster was designed by Douglas Scott using techniques honed through aircraft production during the Second World War and made an effort to use interchangeable replaceable parts that would help keep them running. It introduced a number of new features like an automatic gearbox and power steering, and its double decks and open rear platform complete with conductor became, what architectural and design critic Jonathan Glancey called “a symbol of London […] a masterpiece”.
The same year the Routemaster appeared in London’s streets, LT set up an office in Barbados to recruit drivers and conductors for their new model directly from the Caribbean. They had previously recruited from Ireland, but with this latest design came higher demand for bus transport which required more staff. This drive and others like it, including those for the NHS and British Rail, helped make the city the multi-cultural melting pot it is today.
However, the introduction of the television which kept people indoors in the evenings, and a political shift in emphasis meant there was a big push towards private motorcar usage. This not only removed passengers from the public bus, but also increased road traffic, making the buses that were already losing passengers to the private car less reliable and frustrating for passengers. It led to service cuts in an attempt to save costs as passenger numbers dipped, which only added to the dissatisfaction the remaining users had with the declining system.
The central government had abolished Atlee’s London Transport Executive in 1962 and replaced it with appointed management boards, neglecting London’s transport system in place of building large highways throughout the country. The Greater London Council wrested control of the city’s transport back from government, bringing London Transport in house in 1970 whilst encouraging the public back onto it and away from the motorcar. Yet much of its funding remained in the hands of the Prime Minister and there was a deep ideological divide between what London and the wider government saw necessary when it came to providing subsidies for its transport system. This meant that due to service cuts even the much-loved Routemaster lost its back door and conductor, and many were phased out.
The central government re-took control of London Transport in 1984 and the GLC was abolished completely in 1986 in the run-up to the large scale privatisation of public services. Bus routes were put out to tender and over the ‘80s and ‘90s more and more routes were taken out of the hands of the government and assets sold to private companies. Overall there have been more than 50 different private operators of various aspects of London’s bus network. Many began using their own liveries, removing the iconic red bus from the city’s streets, leading to a huge outcry amongst the public that resulted in a law passed in 1994 that required that a bus must be at least 80% red.
London hasn’t fallen into all the traps of deregulation that have beset the rest of the country’s metropolitan areas, though. Luckily for Londoners, the Transport Act of 1985 excluded them from the worst excesses of privatisation by requiring an arms-length body of London Transport called London Buses, which contracted out services to private companies while retaining the ability to determine service levels, routes, frequency and fares.
This was thanks to a sustained pushback from those in charge of London’s transport system having seen both the results of the pre-1948 privatisation and those of a number of smaller regional experiments. Other metropolitan areas weren’t so lucky. Where other English cities have seen a halving of bus journeys between 1985 and 2016, London’s have almost doubled, with most of that increase coming after the introduction of the Greater London Authority in 2000 and the formation of the Mayor of London and Transport for London (TfL).
While this allowed services to become increasingly reliable, and remains the mode of organisation to this date, the subsidies for London’s transport network are still controlled by central government. But policies such as Congestion Charge introduced by Ken Livingstone, and the reinvestment of fares into maintaining services enable buses to continue running at a high quality.
More recently London has seen a number of transformations in the way our city’s buses appear. Low-floor buses and articulated (or “bendy”) buses which were adopted wholesale in the early-2000s as an alternative to the stepped double-deckers, in order to increase disabled accessibility on high-capacity routes. However, despite their greatly increased capacity and conformation to the Disability Discrimination Act, they were phased out when Boris Johnson, who campaigned against them citing a number of fires that had occurred on board and the increased fare-dodging they enabled, became Mayor in 2008.
Johnson’s biggest contribution to bus travel in London was almost certainly the introduction of the New Routemaster after a 2008 design competition that called for a “New Bus for London”. Courting the population’s nostalgia for the emblematic Scott-designed original, Johnson announced that the winning design to be that of soon-to-be darling of the Conservative Mayoralty, Thomas Heatherwick, who would later go on to design the controversial 2012 Olympic Cauldron and even more controversial—and ultimately scrapped—Thames Garden Bridge, as well as a number of arguably more successful projects such as Coal Drops Yard.
A hallmark of the Johnson-era, these impressive looking new buses entered service in 2012, just in time for the London Olympics. They were quickly subject to criticism though, with their “green” credentials undermined, the speedy removal of 300 conductors and later the closing (or removing in the later SRM model) of the back door entirely due to private cost-cutting, their failure to accommodate disabled users, and some argued that they were simply a costly vanity project and an unnecessary addition to an already functioning network.
Most publicised was the fact they would often heat up to a temperature “illegal for transporting cattle” due to the inability to open windows and their lacklustre air conditioning. Until these windows were retrofitted at a cost of £2m it wouldn’t be uncommon for the temperature to top 30C, in some cases even hitting over 40C! It’s no surprise then that their production ceased in 2017. While we may see no more new New Routemasters, they are still a feature of the London landscape alongside dozens of other bus designs by a myriad of companies.
But what’s next for the London bus? Austerity policies enacted on London have meant that TfL only receives 28% of its income from government operating grants, the rest from fares. This highly unusual system has meant that, compared to other major cities who fund only a small fraction of their running costs with passenger fares, London’s network has been hit extremely hard by the pandemic as users have dropped off.
TfL’s debt has reached almost £12 billion, thanks in part to failed PPPs throughout the 2000s, at a time where public transport is a key component to bringing the country back on track after the pandemic. It helps reconnect communities, reduce isolation and helps people access amenities, all the while lowering congestion and fighting climate change in a city in which 99% of its area does not meet World Health Organisation standards for PM2.5 particles, and over 4,000 premature deaths each year can be attributed to air pollution.
Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that each month on average almost 200 million journeys were taken on London buses, encouraged in no small part by Sadiq Khan’s “hopper fare”, introduced in 2019, meaning numerous buses can be taken in an hour for just £1.50. This hugely important service improves the lives of Londoners and any removal or reductions would have a dramatic effect on how we all interact and negotiate our city. Not only does it perform these functions, but the TfL’s funding structure means that the often more profitable bus services go on to fund the less profitable modes such as the Tube, so passengerless buses means negative knock on effects for the whole system. With its funding so reliant on riders, the best way to keep some of London’s most iconic elements is simply to use them as much as possible.
Though the London General Omnibus Company has long gone, we are proud to have our offices in the factory where one of London’s most defining characteristics begun. Our love for public transport is not just contingent on our office though. At Walulel we think it’s one of the best features of any modern town or city, so we urge anyone who can to use it as much as possible!