Four thoughts on TfL’s plans to colour code its bus routes

This one’s red. Image: Getty.

So, here’s a thing:

The short version: Transport for London (TfL) is trialling a new colour-coding system for bus routes. Each bus will get its own colour, which will be used on the “spider maps” showing bus routes around a particular area, as well as on signs at stops, and in big numbers on the side of each bus.

At the moment this is only a pilot. Initially, it’s been trialled on seven bus routes around Barkingside, out in the far east; in the summer, it’ll spread to Hayes in the west. But if it works, it could be rolled out further.

So – will it work? Some thoughts.


There aren’t that many colours

London has a lot of bus routes. A lot. Even excluding special services like night buses, school buses and so on, there are over 500 routes.

There are of course an infinite number of colours, so this wouldn’t be a problem – except that there’s a limit to the number the human eye can instantly distinguish. You can get away with a light blue and a dark blue; but throw in any more blues than that, and users have to consciously try to follow a line rather than simply see it at a glance.

One result of this is that no metro map in the world contains more than 15 shades; only a dozen use more than 10. (Lots more analysis on this stuff here.) So the implication that each bus will get an identifying colour like each tube line does is very clearly nonsense.

And buses cross each others’ paths

Not every bus needs a unique colour, of course: you can have multiple buses numbered in violet, providing they don’t go anywhere near each other.

The difficulty is they probably will – and TfL has started with an easy bit of town. There are only seven buses in Barkingside. It’s easy enough, then, to give them all a unique colour:

The Barkingside spider map: click to expand Image: TfL.

But five of those routes go to Ilford, where they cross paths with 12 more. Two of them go to Romford, from where they meet another 19 buses.

And the Romford one: click to expand. Image: TfL.

Even thinking about the maths does my head in – but it seems unlikely to me that every bus in London can be given a colour different from that of every bus it ever shares a stop with. At some bus stops, there’ll be two buses in violet.

The problem is the maps

That’s not necessarily a critical flaw: the big colourful numbers on the side of each bus will still help you when identifying buses from a distance. If a violet 25 and a violet 101 happen to share a stop at some point, well, those numbers look different enough that nobody’s going to confuse them. The colour coding will still be useful.

Except – those numbers aren’t just for the sides of buses, or the stop signs. They’re also meant to match those shown on spider maps, like those above.

I am unconvinced it will be possible to do this in such a way that no map needs to use the same colour for multiple different routes. In fact, I suspect it’ll happen rather a lot.

And I’m not sure a world in which three buses are shown on a single map in the same colour is one in which buses are more accessible than the world we’re living in now.

What about service flexibility?

There’s another issue. The whole point of rotating bus blinds is that the same bus can be used on several different routes. Historically, you’d turn a handle, and both the destination and the number shown on the front of the bus would change.

Old London bus blinds in the London Transport Museum. Image: Leif Jørgensen/Wikimedia.

This meant a degree of flexibility: if a bus broke down, another could be swapped over from a different route to plug the gap. Even today, when London’s bus services are provided by a dozen different companies, each of them generally runs enough routes to retain these advantages.

One quick way to remove this flexibility, though, is to paint the route number on the side of the bus in big colourful numbers, so that a 150 is a 150 is a 150.

I don’t want to be down on this idea. I think it sounds lovely: you’ll be able to spot your bus from further away, and giving bus routes colours should give them a stronger identity, something for people to latch onto. All this should make the bus network more usable to those who find it a bit intimidating.

But – I just can’t see how it’s going to work in practice. I’m sure it’ll work in Barkingside and Hayes. But how can it work in a network of over 500 buses?

I fear this may be one of those ideas where the theory is better than the reality.

You can read more on public transport map colour schemes here, if you so wish.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.