Until recently, perhaps the most bewildering thing about Boris Johnson – aside from the curiously benign disposition afforded to him by many of the UK’s major media outlets – was that he has twice been elected mayor of the largest city in Western Europe. This is not to say that his two victories (2008, 2012) were unmerited; more that it is difficult to recall a single original policy which characterises his time in tenure, and which therefore would have secured him an eight-year stint running London. (Many successes attributed to him, such as the rehabilitation of the London Overground, were designed and commenced by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone.)
However, this state of affairs has been surpassed by Johnson’s strange decision not to make the most of what is arguably his one Big Idea: the NB4L or ‘New Routemaster’. A genuinely splendid addition to London’s streets since its gradual rollout began in Q1 2012, the finalised NB4L is now running on no less than five routes, and is fast becoming an icon of the city: with its open-entry rear platform, affable conductors and graceful posterior, it draws admiring glances and friendly questions almost everywhere it goes.
But in February 2014 the new, Johnson-commissioned bus was introduced on route 148, with one proviso – no conductor was to be present. The official reason given by Transport for London (‘TfL’) was merely that ‘Central London’ would ‘always be the focus’ for the NB4L. For the following reasons, this is a response which is anything but satisfactory:
- Geography Lessons. Route 148 does in fact go through large areas of what is classified as ‘Central London’, including Notting Hill, Hyde Park Corner and Westminster Cathedral/Victoria Station. But unlike the other routes which have been fully converted to NB4L operation, the 148 also goes through some genuinely shabby areas which have not yet been gentrified to hell and back: Shepherd’s Bush, White City, Lambeth and Denmark Hill.
- Social Exclusion. The poorer areas served by Route 148 are also some of the most obviously multicultural in the capital, with significant communities of African and Afro-Caribbean Londoners. Not allocating this route conductors could therefore be seen as doubly invidious, reinforcing the image of London as a city exclusively for those with the ‘right’ kind of bank balance and skin tone.
- A Flawed Plan. The absence of conductors on the 148 merely serves to highlight some of the other illogicalities of the NB4L – not the bus itself, but the way it is being operated. Even on the routes with conductors, these personnel – who are pointedly absent at night – do not actually work the bus like the conductors of old, meaning that fare evasion is still possible: our Creative Director & CSO witnessed the absurd spectacle of a ticket inspector asking for passengers to show their passes while a bus conductor was already on board, but not authorised to go on the upper deck and do exactly the same task.