LONDON – The double-decker bus is a postcard symbol of London. Bright red, prone to capricious scheduling, usually packed and generally Darwinian in the demands it makes of its passengers, the double-decker has retained a place in the national soul that has been called quirky, annoying, beloved, necessary and somehow worth every penny of the fare.
A half-century after its introduction, some of that same blend of pique and pride is being evoked by the looming disappearance of London's oldest type of bus, the Routemaster, distinguished by its open rear platform and its team of driver and ticket-dispensing conductor.
The Routemaster, though, has proved to be a victim of its own durability, stubbornly outlasting its projected 17 years' service to find itself condemned like many an old-timer in these times of downsizing as too old, too accident prone and too expensive to maintain.
At a time when Transport for London, the publicly financed body responsible for the city's buses and other mass transit, is seeking to cut costs and modernize safety and accessibility, the 72-seat Routemaster has been singled out for replacement by other buses, the so-called bendy-bus, a long, articulated 129-seat single-decker (two of which burst into flames shortly after inaugural runs in 2003) and more modern 88-seat double-deckers.
The newer buses are operated by the driver alone. Riders are expected to buy their tickets in advance on the honor system. All new buses have closing doors and low access platforms for wheelchairs, babystrollers and others who find it difficult to clamber onto the Routemaster.
Of the 2,876 Routemasters ever built, the first in the 1950s and the last in 1968, around 250 still ply London bus routes, such as those that run along Regent Street in city center. Their decline, though, has coincided with a vast expansion in the number of bus passengers, particularly since a campaign two years ago has reduced the number of cars in central London by imposing a $9 congestion charge on private motorists.
As Routemasters have been withdrawn, about 1,000 new buses have been introduced, bringing London's fleet to around 8,500, according to Graham Goodwin, a spokesman at Transport for London. Travel by bus, in fact, has returned to levels unseen since the late 1960s, when there were far fewer cars on the city's streets.
Bus riders, Goodwin said, now account for some six million paid journeys a day, twice as many as use the subway system known as the Tube and 1.8 million more than four years ago. "This is by far the single biggest transport system in Britain and most of Europe," he said, referring to the bus network.
But it is not cheap to run. Public subsidies for buses consume millions of pounds a year, and the Routemasters are blamed for inflating some of those costs, since they require a driver and conductor and up to 15 percent more in maintenance expenses. Their distinctive rear platforms, enabling passengers to jump on and off while the bus is moving, are seen as dangerous in more safety-conscious times.
By the end of 2005, Routemasters will have been removed from all 700 of London's commuter routes, with a handful remaining on a tourist run linking historic sites.
But in a city where the hankering for heritage sometimes outweighs the quest for modernity, the Routemaster's demise is not going unmourned or unchallenged.
Newspapers and radio stations have launched campaigns complaining that the city will lose its identity by trading its old unique buses for vehicles that look similar to those elsewhere.
"Can you imagine what the citizens of San Francisco would do if their mayor suggested scrapping the cable cars, or how Venetians would react if it was proposed to do away with the gondolas?" asked a local radio host.