"A bus designed for people who never take buses": how London's Routemaster became a £300m white elephant

The New Bus for London, with its proud instigator, mayor Boris Johnson. Image: Getty.

A few weeks back, I finally spotted the benefit of London's new pretend Routemaster buses. I was on a 390, somewhere in King's Cross, watching the driver furiously yelling at a passenger that it was against the law to take his photograph without his permission.

This was the second time I'd been on a bus that ground to a halt while this exact argument played out, which was odd, because I'm pretty sure it isn't illegal at all. So as the driver yelled down the line to a presumably baffled police phone operator, since it was clear that we weren't going anywhere very fast, I took the opportunity to ask the conductor ("customer service assistant") if bus companies were, as I suspected, going around telling drivers it was illegal to take their photographs.

"Nah," he shrugged cheerfully. "He's just a bit of a twat. No one really likes him, to be honest."


And there's the unexpected upside to the new buses: the fact they have two staff on them can give you a window into the internal politics of bus companies, and you just don't get that on normal buses, do you?

So, there you go.

The New Bus for London is a modern take on the old Routemaster, and like its predecessor, its most prominent feature is the open platform at the back which allows passengers to jump on and off at will. The design is popularly, and inevitably, known as the Boris Bus, but it goes by other, more disparaging, names, too. The Bloat Bus. The Roastmaster.

The classic Routemasters, decommissioned in 2004. Image: Getty.

The new bus was intended, in the words of mayor Boris Johnson, to be a "new style icon" for the city. In practice, though, that hasn't quite worked. The bus, in fact, has come under almost constant attack. Such criticism tends to fall neatly into three themes.

1) The new buses are bad for the budget

Transport for London (TfL) reportedly spent £11.4m just on getting the ubiquitous Heatherwick Studios to design the new bus, and then getting the first eight of the things built.

If that sounds like a lot, that's because it is. TfL has since spent a combined £300m on 800 of them, putting the cost of each new bus at around the £375,000 mark. That's very nearly twice the cost of a conventional double decker (around just £190,000), so that's just great.

To compound all this, the buses are more expensive to run, too. The whole point of the new bus was bringing back that open platform (at least, during peak hours, when the buses are busiest). But in these more safety-conscious days of ours, if you want to run a bus with a gaping hole in the back, there needs to be someone to keep an eye on it, help people get on, and generally stop them from falling off.

That's a whole second salary that needs paying, that you don't get on most buses. That, somehow, sets you back another £62,000 a year. (For more hilarious facts about the cost of the new buses, check out this piece over on Londonist.)

"It cost HOW much?" Boris Johnson and then transport commissioner Peter Hendy, announcing the new bus in 2010. Image: Getty.

But at least all this spending has bought us the right to a new design icon, right? Ha, ha, no. The contracts stipulated that the intellectual property rights for the buses only pass to the public sector once it's bought 1,000 of these buses. At time of writing, TfL has bought 800, and (hey, these things are expensive) has no plans to buy any more. 

There's a three-syllable word for this sort of mess. The first two syllables are "cluster". 

2) The new buses are bad for the environment

The new bus for London is meant to be just like the old Routemaster, but with a modern twist. And in so far as we weren't facing an obesity timebomb when the old bus was designed, and we certainly are now, then they're a pretty accurate reflection of how society has changed. 

Many of the changes to the old Routemaster design were intended to make it more accessible. To that end it's longer than a standard bus, and comes with three doors and two-staircases, to make it easier for people to get on and off. 


The result is a bus that looks like it has a weight problem, for the very good reason that it does have a weight problem. Each new bus for London weighs 12.65 tonnes, which is around half a tonne more than most other double deckers.

This is not merely a cosmetic problem. The extra weight does terrible things to the buses' fuel consumption, and while TfL has claimed they're no more polluting than other buses, it turned out that this is only because they're officially meant to be carrying fewer passengers.

This shouldn't matter because the new buses are meant to be hybrids, running sometimes on diesel, sometimes on electric batteries. But, as should be entirely predictable by now, on at least some of the buses the batteries don't work. The result is headlines like this in the Evening Standard:

Faulty new Routemasters ‘emit 74% more harmful particles than old buses’

So, they're bad for air quality, they're bad for the climate...

3) The new buses are bad for their passengers

...and they're bad for the people who use them, too.

Most of the complaints on social media have concerned the fact that the buses get really bloody hot. The windows don't open (opening windows weigh more, it seems), so you can't get a breeze on the upper deck; but they do do a neat job of turning light sunshine into flesh-melting heat rays. 

Officially, the buses have a cooling system, but that doesn't seem to do much in the way of cooling, leaving passengers to tweet stuff like this:

 

 

Hence, in case you were wondering, “Roastmasters”.

The buses are now, very belatedly, being refitted with opening windows. That'll add yet more weight, but at least it'll reduce your chance of expiring halfway up Oxford Street.

This most ridiculous of design flaws points to a fourth line of attack on the New Bus For London – one that we've heard rather less of. It's this:

4) Routemasters were always horrible and we should never have brought them back in the first place

People have allowed themselves to forget this, and for good reason: Routemasters, unlike their fatter children, are beautiful things. They were a genuine piece of London's iconography.

But just like their descendents, they were a lot less pleasant to actually travel on. The bottom deck, for much of the year, was freezing bloody cold, because it was open to the elements and London is not Miami. On the top deck, meanwhile, all the heat from the engines would collect and then circulate in a tiny space with a ceiling so low that you'd crick your neck.

Those buses looked great in sixties movies, as hip young things in miniskirts casually jumped and off the back between stops to go and do something involving swinging. They were nonetheless horrible if you were an actual Londoner who needed to actually get somewhere.

And that's the real problem with the New Bus for London. It's a bus designed for people who don't think of buses as a mode of transport at all: people who instead see them as iconography, street furniture, the backdrop to a London they first glimpsed in the cinema. It's a bus designed entirely for the sort of people who would never be seen dead travelling on one of the things.

And they cost us £300,000 each. Great work, guys. Outstanding work. 

 


Unexpectedly sad postscript

Since I started work on this piece, some weeks ago now, something awful happened: Tom Barry, the blogger better known as BorisWatch, who had single-handedly shone so much light on the madness of the New Bus For London, died suddenly, at the age of just 41. Which just sucks.

I never met Tom – but I’d commissioned him to write for me, and I spent many a happy hour debating with him on Twitter. And, thanks to the weird ability the internet has to make strangers feel like friends, I keep remembering that he’s gone, and suddenly missing him terribly.

Those buses were always his specialist subject, and the screed above quotes liberally from his research. This post, which is titled, "Q: What’s Big, Fat And Eats Money? A: The New Bus For London", was particularly helpful.

So it seemed only fair to end this one by saying: Thanks for everything, Tom. This one’s for you.

 
 
 
 

Just like teenagers, self-driving cars need practice to really learn to drive

A self-driving car, of unknown level of education. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

What do self-driving cars and teenage drivers have in common?

Experience. Or, more accurately, a lack of experience.

Teenage drivers – novice drivers of any age, actually – begin with little knowledge of how to actually operate a car’s controls, and how to handle various quirks of the rules of the road. In North America, their first step in learning typically consists of fundamental instruction conveyed by a teacher. With classroom education, novice drivers are, in effect, programmed with knowledge of traffic laws and other basics. They then learn to operate a motor vehicle by applying that programming and progressively encountering a vast range of possibilities on actual roadways. Along the way, feedback they receive – from others in the vehicle as well as the actual experience of driving – helps them determine how best to react and function safely.

The same is true for autonomous vehicles. They are first programmed with basic knowledge. Red means stop; green means go, and so on. Then, through a form of artificial intelligence known as machine learning, self-driving autos draw from both accumulated experiences and continual feedback to detect patterns, adapt to circumstances, make decisions and improve performance.

For both humans and machines, more driving will ideally lead to better driving. And in each case, establishing mastery takes a long time. Especially as each learns to address the unique situations that are hard to anticipate without experience – a falling tree, a flash flood, a ball bouncing into the street, or some other sudden event. Testing, in both controlled and actual environments, is critical to building know-how. The more miles that driverless cars travel, the more quickly their safety improves. And improved safety performance will influence public acceptance of self-driving car deployment – an area in which I specialise.

Starting with basic skills

Experience, of course, must be built upon a foundation of rudimentary abilities – starting with vision. Meeting that essential requirement is straightforward for most humans, even those who may require the aid of glasses or contact lenses. For driverless cars, however, the ability to see is an immensely complex process involving multiple sensors and other technological elements:

  • radar, which uses radio waves to measure distances between the car and obstacles around it;
  • LIDAR, which uses laser sensors to build a 360-degree image of the car’s surroundings;
  • cameras, to detect people, lights, signs and other objects;
  • satellites, to enable GPS, global positioning systems that can pinpoint locations;
  • digital maps, which help to determine and modify routes the car will take;
  • a computer, which processes all the information, recognising objects, analysing the driving situation and determining actions based on what the car sees.

How a driverless car ‘sees’ the road.

All of these elements work together to help the car know where it is at all times, and where everything else is in relation to it. Despite the precision of these systems, however, they’re not perfect. The computer can know which pictures and sensory inputs deserve its attention, and how to correctly respond, but experience only comes from traveling a lot of miles.

The learning that is occurring by autonomous cars currently being tested on public roads feeds back into central systems that make all of a company’s cars better drivers. But even adding up all the on-road miles currently being driven by all autonomous vehicles in the U.S. doesn’t get close to the number of miles driven by humans every single day.

Dangerous after dark

Seeing at night is more challenging than during the daytime – for self-driving cars as well as for human drivers. Contrast is reduced in dark conditions, and objects – whether animate or inanimate – are more difficult to distinguish from their surroundings. In that regard, a human’s eyes and a driverless car’s cameras suffer the same impairment – unlike radar and LIDAR, which don’t need sunlight, streetlights or other lighting.

This was a factor in March in Arizona, when a pedestrian pushing her bicycle across the street at night was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber vehicle. Emergency braking, disabled at the time of the crash, was one issue. The car’s sensors were another issue, having identified the pedestrian as a vehicle first, and then as a bicycle. That’s an important distinction, because a self-driving car’s judgments and actions rely upon accurate identifications. For instance, it would expect another vehicle to move more quickly out of its path than a person walking.


Try and try again

To become better drivers, self-driving cars need not only more and better technological tools, but also something far more fundamental: practice. Just like human drivers, robot drivers won’t get better at dealing with darkness, fog and slippery road conditions without experience.

Testing on controlled roads is a first step to broad deployment of driverless vehicles on public streets. The Texas Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds Partnership, involving the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, University of Texas at Austin, and Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, operates a group of closed-course test sites.

Self-driving cars also need to experience real-world conditions, so the Partnership includes seven urban regions in Texas where equipment can be tested on public roads. And, in a separate venture in July, self-driving startup Drive.ai began testing its own vehicles on limited routes in Frisco, north of Dallas.

These testing efforts are essential to ensuring that self-driving technologies are as foolproof as possible before their widespread introduction on public roadways. In other words, the technology needs time to learn. Think of it as driver education for driverless cars.

People learn by doing, and they learn best by doing repeatedly. Whether the pursuit involves a musical instrument, an athletic activity or operating a motor vehicle, individuals build proficiency through practice.

The ConversationSelf-driving cars, as researchers are finding, are no different from teens who need to build up experience before becoming reliably safe drivers. But at least the cars won’t have to learn every single thing for themselves – instead, they’ll talk to each other and share a pool of experience.

Johanna Zmud, Senior Research Scientist, Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Texas A&M University .

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.