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.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.