I decided to set the record for travelling on the most London buses in numerical order, for some reason

A bus! Look! Image: Getty.

I’ve always been vaguely intrigued by the people who set public transport world records – visiting all 270 tube stations in the shortest possible time, say – but not enough to actually compete. After even if I had delusions of grandeur that I could be a competitor, who wants to spend 15+ hours on the tube?

People have attempted similar challenges with London buses, setting records for the number of routes ridden in a day or a week, but that doesn’t feel entirely satisfying either.

Because buses have numbers. Buses have an order.

Let’s do this.

8.30am – Caught the 11 from Parliament Square to Horse Guard’s Parade

Why start with 11? Because the 10 no longer exists, having been brutally murdered by Sadiq Khan/merged with the 23 as part of a probably doomed plan to make Oxford Street less horrible. So what would you do once you’ve got the 9? Stand by the former route of the number 10 crying and throwing flowers into the road? That would be stupid. Starting with the number 11 means that, in theory, you can ride buses in sequence all the way to 71.

8.33am – Caught the 12 from Horse Guard’s Parade to Margaret Street

I planned (well, programmed a computer to plan) my journey by comparing the distances of the stops on numerically consecutive routes to find the closest pair, as the crow flies. In some cases, as with the 11 and 12 this ‘pair’ is actually a single stop served by both buses.

But to get the 13 I had to walk half a mile across town, from which we can conclude that consecutive numbering doesn’t necessarily indicate that the routes have any connection.


8.55am – Caught the 13 from Orchard Street to Hyde Park Corner

So what does the number mean, if anything?

In the early days of motorised buses, the London General Omnibus Company decided to brand one of their routes as “Vanguard” – then added another called “Victory”. Traffic manager George Samuel Dicks presumably realised that a massive error had been made and, instead of launching the Vile, Vague, Vapid and Vasectomy buses, reverted to the Vanguard name and differentiated the routes by sticking discs with numbers on to the sides of the buses.

9.19am – Caught the 14 from Hyde Park Corner to Gerrard St

In 1908 the London General Omnibus Company bought out all its main rivals and consolidated most of London’s bus routes into its numbering system, which ran from 1 to 20, omitting 5 and 12:  the system has never made any particular sense.

Much of the 14’s route dates back to this point, when it replaced its predecessor, the T – the London Road-Car Company used letters for its ‘Union Jack’ branded services. Why not write an alternate history novel in which the London Road-Car Company won the bus wars, and now all the bus routes are called “J” and “FH”, and that’s the only difference from our universe?

9.45am – Caught the 15 from Bedford St to Charing Cross

The computer’s directions prompted me to try and get on the 15 at the route’s last stop, where it was throwing everybody out, like some sort of shameful tourist. So I had to walk up the Strand and get the next one in order to get back to where I’d started in the first place.

10.11 – Caught the 16 from Grosvenor Gardens to the London Hilton Hotel

There is logic behind bus numbers – unfortunately, it’s several different types of logic that have been inconsistently applied over the course of more than a century.

In 1924, A. E. Bassom, the Metropolitan Police’s first traffic policeman (and inventor of The Knowledge, black cab fans), came up with a scheme in which the number would indicate the area the bus operated in and/or the type of bus it was. So routes 1 to 199 were central London double deckers, 200 to 289 central London single deckers, and so forth.

Given that portions of the Vanguard numbered routes survive in many of their numerical descendants, we can presume that numbers were only changed when necessary, rather than given a full overhaul. Lazy Bassom.

11.17 – Caught the 17 from Grays Inn Road to York Way

Letter suffixes (W12, P4, etc) originated in an attempt to simplify the once over-complicated fare structures by creating “flat fare” areas. This won’t be relevant to my adventures today, as I don’t think you should be allowed to cross between lettered routes and non-lettered routes for the purposes of completing sequential journeys. But perhaps we can debate this at the first meeting of the longest numerically sequential London bus journey record-keeping committee.

11.37 – Caught the 18 from Euston to Great Portland Street

I didn’t want to go to all the way to Great Portland Street but the two intervening bus stops were closed. There are many unexpected challenges in life, and also in numerically sequential London bus journeys.

12.08 – Caught the 19 from New Oxford Street to Monsell Road

There is an occasional hazy logic to the individual numbers – for example, the 59 and 159 share the southern portions of their routes. But the 60 and 160 don’t, so is it that helpful a system if the numbers only imply an association some of the time?

Walking down Tottenham Court Road I spot and wave to someone I used to work for years ago, and reflect on a time when I had a real job with a desk and meetings, and didn’t spend all my time thinking about things like bus numbers.

To get from Monsell Road, near Stoke Newington, to the next stop requires a somewhat further trek than I’ve done yet so far, across the Lea Valley.

I see many interesting things, including a nature reserve and a car that hates women.

 

14.24 – Caught the 20 from Walthamstow Bus Station to Grove Rd

It seems very important to me that you should have to walk between bus stops rather than using another method, even if this involves spending the best part of four hours walking to Walthamstow and back again to go one stop on a bus.

If this does not seem important to you and you think you should be allowed to use a bike or a train or another bus to get there, perhaps you should try and set your own record for catching London buses in sequential order.

15.59 – Caught the 21 from Mildmay Grove

The 21 passes pretty close to a convenient route home, so having been at this for nearly eight hours and walked 15 miles in all I decided to call it for my first attempt.

At 11 buses in order, I declare myself the current holder of the record for catching London buses in sequential order (unassisted). If you fancy giving it a go, or believe you have taken a longer sequential route already, please use the hashtag #catchinglondonbusesinsequentialorderunassisted to let me know.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.