At the beginning of my stay in London, I mostly used bus number 73. Bikes were not allowed in the place where I lived, and I didn’t have enough money to use the tube, so walking and taking buses for very long distances were the available options.
I always used the same route, the same street for things like the job centre and the market – and later my different jobs. Always the same streets, always the same bus route.
Then, one day, I felt with enough energy to venture around to explore what was there behind the unknown buildings and houses, beyond the unvisited streets. I just walked and walked, and I was surprised to find a bus stop with bus routes I had not seen before. One of them was 38.
Of course there were more bus routes that I used, but numbers 73 and 38 were the ones that would take me to central London – both terminate in Victoria station, in fact – and, most specially, both had this open door at the rear of the buses, which is ever so characteristic of the buses in London. Londoners claim there is no other city in the world with buses like these.
The fact is, people actually use these buses, i.e. they are not just touristy buses that only tourists would use. Most people took/take them in Angel, which was probably the nearest tube station to the place where they live, and then take one of those (or others) to continue their journey to the different parts of Hackney.
I remember that on weekends, it was impossible to take any of these buses. People who knew this would take them in the centre, to secure a place, so the bus would arrive in Angel already packed. Packed meaning, with all sits occupied plus five (and only five, strictly, always five maximum) standing in the lower deck.
I have moved houses many times since then. I have had the chance to use this type of bus from almost every home towards the centre. But now all this is changing.
Route 73 has been changed to the “bendy” buses pretty recently. Between routes 73 and 38 I liked the 38 better, for various reasons: Picadilly and Shaftesbury Avenue are always faster than Oxford Street; Rosebery Avenue is nicer and usually faster than Kings Cross and Pentonville Road, and there are no humps on route 38 – although some times it was advisable to take route 73, or N73 (the night bus) to make sure the humps woke you up before it was too late. So I could always choose to use number 38 to go to Hackney, to avoid the crowded and cramped 73. Because the new bendy buses are designed to take around people while they are standing, so you can put more people in the same amount of square metres. So in theory more people fit in these new buses. But the fact that they only have one deck/floor makes this argument a bit weak. In any case, the result is that the journey is a lot more uncomfortable and that you depend on people’s will to make space for you, rather than simply on the number of people already on the bus.
The worrying thing (for me) is that the only voice I have heard in favour of these changes is that of the Mayor’s. No one else likes these changes, and every one I hear of read, likes the old buses. Sure, including myself. Even when I don’t use them. I find them a lot more dangerous for bikers than the previous ones, and not only because it takes longer to overtake them. It is also a lot more dangerous to overtake them in the inside when they are stopped at traffic lights. I just don’t like them, as a user (we are now called customers, since the bus service was privatised and there are companies operating them), or as a biker, even as a pedestrian – they do tend to occupy pelican crossings a lot more than the shorter, double deckers.
All this, to try to illustrate how sad I felt yesterday, when the conductor in the 38 bus told every one that it would be the last day of the 38 double decker. It must have been true, because I saw people in Angel taking pictures to the bus, and then in Victoria it was surreal: a mass of photographers (or maybe just tourists, or simple people like me, just with really big fancy cameras) were taking pictures to the bus as it was arriving to its aisle in Victoria Bus Terminal. Number 73 just sits next to it there. I looked at the 73 waiting for its time to depart; all long and low and impersonal – then I looked at the 38, surrounded by cheering people taking pictures of it.
From tomorrow, London will have lost a good part of its charm, the one very thing that I used to miss whenever I was away. C. would say it’s just a bloody bus.