The secret emotional life of the passenger… and why it matters for the future of the bus

Scary stuff. Image: Getty.

Most of the research on why people use or ignore the bus treats people as if they know what they are doing. It assumes that travellers are constantly making fully conscious, rational, economic trade-offs between cost and journey times, and then making the logical choice as a result.

And of course there is part of the brain that does this – the part that likes to flatter itself that it’s in charge. But it’s not. The rational economic actor in our brains is in a little boat that is being constantly tossed around by a churning sea of emotions and instincts, including the always switched-on pre-historic threat assessment.

So, as part of the Urban Transport Group’s research programme into the factors behind bus patronage change, we decided to take a look at what’s going on in the part of passengers’ brains that can’t add up but can summarily take control of actions at a nanosecond’s notice if it doesn’t like the look of something. And then tell you not to do that again.

Although the “take back control” slogan on the side of a bus is the abiding image from the Brexit referendum campaign, the abiding characteristic of bus travel is a lack of control. There are so many points in a bus journey where you can feel stressed and vulnerable: Am I at the right stop? Is the bus going to turn up? Is the bus driver going to see me and will the bus stop? Will the interaction with the driver go well? And if not, will I have a whole bus full of people watching whilst I hold up their journeys? Will I end up sitting next to someone who behaves in an anti-social way? Will I know where to get off? Will the driver stop where I want to alight?

On top of that, if you are a wheelchair user or encumbered with prams and children, there is the anxiety around whether or not there will be space for you and how accommodating the driver and your fellow passengers are going to be.

The same applies in different ways for other disabilities. Attach a heart rate monitor and look for the spikes.


Now, let me turn up the stress and vulnerability dial a bit further. Because as well as the particular stress points in bus travel, in general the bus can feel like a far less supervised and controlled space than a train. You can further turn up the volume on these anxieties around the unsupervised nature of buses and bus stops in relation to your personal security and space if you are a young person or a woman.

Fortunately, there is someone on every bus that can help ease all the stress points set out above, and turn a space that feels worryingly unsupervised into one that feels safer and more under control – the driver.

Transport for London has recognised this and has been putting a lot of focus on supporting drivers to better support their passengers. I’ve experienced this myself recently, where drivers in London used the PA system to explain why their bus was being held at a stop and how long the wait was going to be. It was amazing what a positive difference this made to how I felt about the journey compared with the prior norm of sitting there for an unknown period of time and feeling like a sucker for getting on board in the first place.

The nature of the bus as a unique social space can work against this mode of travel. But it can also work for the bus.

Our research shows that people can enjoy travelling socially and communally. The young are most affected by the climate crisis and the least interested in car ownership. The bus offers the opportunity for them to socialise with friends (both actually and digitally) whilst being car free. You can’t drive to work and plug yourself in to the hive mind. You can on a bus.

The bus is a unique social space. If – through vehicle design and better support for drivers – we can tackle the negatives and accentuate the positives of this space, then there is an opportunity to win more hearts and minds, both conscious and sub-conscious, for the bus.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.