There's a guy in the German embassy trying to travel on every London bus route before he leaves town

Don't worry, he's done these two. Image: Getty.

What would you do, if you found yourself posted to strange cities for years at a time? How would you get to know them? How would you explore?

You could visit all the famous bits, but that probably wouldn’t take you very long. You could work your way through the various cultural treasures listed in the guidebooks, and thus get a view of the city unrecognisable to anyone who actually lived there.

Or, then again, you could travel on every bus route in the city's transport network, in rough numerical order. That's also a thing you could do.

It is, as it happens, a thing that the head of press at the German Embassy in London has been doing since he got here four years ago. “I've just got to number 155, and there are 499 in all, Dr Norman Walter tells me when I phone up to ask him about this hobby of his. “I've also done a few others, like the 452, which run near where I live. But I'm not sure I'll make it before I get back,” he adds, with the wry understatement of someone who is quite sure that he won't.

And then, just in case you thought we were dealing with an amateur here, he starts enthusing about route 465, which runs from Kingston to Dorking, “the farthest point you can get on your Oyster card”.

Route 465: the queen of Surrey.

CityMetric has love in its heart for anyone who enjoys a good bit of urban transport geekery, and Dr Walter very kindly took a few minutes out from a Brexit-packed schedule to talk buses. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jonn Elledge: So, er: why do you spend your time doing this?

Norman Walter: It's an idiosyncrasy, I guess. Some people collect stamps; for me, it's this. My wife thinks it's completely crazy, but she's been married to me long enough that she's used to it.

I did in several cities where I was posted before, but in London it's simply unique. I love to go up to the upper deck, just to go through the streets and “be there, you know. I did the underground first – but as the name says, you don't see that much. Buses are the best way to discover the city.


JE: Which other cities have you explored by bus?

NW: I did some in Belgrade, but that was 30 years ago. I did Bucharest, but didn't get very far. I did Vilnius – and in Moscow, I did a fifth or so of all the bus lines.

But in London it's actually a real pleasure to do it – the upper deck's a real incentive, it gives you the feel of the city.

JE: How does London's bus network compare to those of other cities? It has more routes to cover, right?

Certainly that's the case, though Moscow has more underground lines. But the [London] bus lines are quite well organised, I would say. You mostly have at least two or three bus routes which run parallel for a while and then diverge, like the 19 and the 38. So if you just have a short trip, you can take either one of them, and you have a bus every three or four minutes.

JE: It must be getting harder though – most of the suburban routes don't run that frequently.

NW: Yes, I was rather quick in the first 100 or so, but the farther out I go the longer it takes. When I took the 468 to Croydon, I took the tram and then the underground back, so it can take several hours.

Normally I have to get up rather early, so on a Saturday morning I'd do two or three – but I've been rather lazy the last couple of weeks.

JE: I heard you'd had some difficulty locating route 5.

NW: Yes, it took me at least a year to make sure there is no number 5. There's a night bus, but-

JE: But there is a route 5 – Canning Town to Romford. It's the suburban route with the lowest number.

NW: That's amazing! There's an N5 that goes up to High Barnet, so I looked for a number 5 around Holloway, but I couldn't find one, so I assumed it didn't exist.

Route 5: nowhere near Holloway, or route N5 come to that.

JE: Do you have a favourite route?

I like the buses which come every three minutes – the one I really like is the number 38. It runs near our embassy [in Belgravia], and when I go to Piccadilly I can always catch one of them. It's also one of the Boris buses, which has a conductor and where the rear door is open – I like that very much.

Route 38: simply the best.

 

When I first saw the 38, I noticed that it normally goes to Hackney Central, but some go on to Clapton Pond. So I thought, there can't be a pond there, can there? So I went to check, and I found out that there was! It's still a sweet memory.

JE: When do you finish your posting?

Probably next year, I've around 300 more days. I'm glad the foreign office gave me an extension – certainly, the only reason they did that is to help me complete the bus lines.

JE: And will you keep exploring by bus wherever you end up next?

I'd love to, but it always depends – I might end up in a small town in Africa, where there aren't too many buses and it's too hot.

Or there's a risk I'll get called back to HQ in Berlin. But perhaps I could start there, too – they only moved the capital to Berlin 15 years ago.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge

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Bus maps courtesy of TfL.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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