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.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.