Final destination for London double-deckers
Traffic woes ending run of famed buses
By Alana Semuels, Globe Correspondent | December 9, 2005
LONDON -- The fabled Routemaster, the red double-decker bus that has graced London streets for half a century, makes its final journey today. Its distinct silhouette has been scrapped for a sleeker, bendy bus that can accommodate more people.
Many in London are waxing nostalgic about the Routemaster because of its long history and old-fashioned boxy exterior; its jovial conductors; and hop-on, hop-off service. They say the city won't quite be the same without the icon that has graced movies and tourist brochures, and is as much a symbol of London as a red telephone booth or a corner pub. But Mayor Ken Livingstone, who once declared that only a ''ghastly dehumanized moron" would get rid of the bus, decided that it was time
for the Routemaster to go.
It is just one of many changes in the way people get around Britain -- or try to, in some of Europe's worst traffic. Livingstone also created and then enlarged the ''congestion zone" and raised the daily charge to £8 ($13.89) per day for private cars traveling through central London. He also has created incentives for people to ride buses and the subway, and is talking about a car-free 2012 Olympics.
Outside of London, congestion on small country roads is prompting other unusual ideas. Officials last week announced a £7 billion pilot scheme to test the feasibility of ''road pricing" in selected areas of the United Kingdom. Road pricing would use advanced technology to track cars on the roads and charge them based on mileage, time of day, and congestion of the area in which they are driving.
But if Steven Roberts is any indication, it is going to be a tough sell to get Britons out of their cars and onto the public transportation system, even with the most innovative measures. Roberts, an investment banker, does not like to use the Tube, London's subway system, which he describes as, among other things, ''jam-packed, stinky, smelly, super hot, and just unreliable."
So every morning, Roberts's commute to work is a bit like a video game. He leaves his house in southwest London by 6:30 a.m., and his mission is to drive all the way across to east London's Canary Wharf by no later than 7 a.m., when the congestion charge takes effect. If he is late, takes a wrong turn, or gets stuck in traffic, he gets charged. And he does not leave the office until 6:30, when the congestion charge ends.
In London, Europe's biggest city, the transportation problem is becoming a crisis. Its population is expected to grow by a whopping 800,000 by 2016 to more than 8 million, increasing the demands on transport by 28 percent.
Aided by former Boston T guru Robert Kiley, who has served as the head of London's transport network since 2001 and will step down in January, Livingstone has been pushing people to use public transportation. He says the congestion charge, introduced in February 2003, has cut traffic, reduced commute times, and provided much-needed funds to divert back to public transportation. In July 2004, he raised the price from £5 to £8, and in September he proposed extending the zone to encompass more of London's neighborhoods. Livingstone has gotten more people on buses by offering free bus passes to people under 16, putting more buses on the roads, and by establishing special bus lanes within the city.
Still, the Tube, London's underground system, is plagued by delays, and train drivers are threatening to strike over working conditions. It is not unusual to go to a Tube station and find that your destination is not accessible because of engineering work or a breakdown.
Policymakers blame the crisis on chronic underfunding of public transport. Britain has invested 30 percent less per capita on transportation than other European countries in the last 25 years, according to the Confederation of British Industry, an employers' organization. The organization also found that more than half of UK businesses think that the country's reputation as a place to do business has been harmed by transport problems, and the majority expect it to worsen.
''The British want European-style public services but with American-style taxes, and so Britain ends up with a highly stretched public transport system," said Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Fares have also been raised repeatedly to generate more money to invest back in the system. The average British family spent about £60 ($105) on transport per week in 2004-2005, more than they spent on food, recreation, housing, and health, according to the Office of National Statistics. London has one of the most expensive public transportation systems in Europe. ''What we've then got in London is people being priced out of cars and priced out of public transport," Travers said. ''What I'm not so sure about myself is the impact on the long-term desirability of London as a place to live."
Outside of London, small roads, unreliable trains, and an increase in cars have also fueled congestion. There are 25 million cars on the roads of Britain, and the government has predicted that the time spent in traffic could increase by 20 percent in the next few years. ''As people get richer, there's more traffic and more people on the roads. We simply can't provide enough road capacity to deal with it, and so congestion's going to get worse," said Stephen Glaister, professor of transport and infrastructure at Imperial College London.
Congestion on the roads appears to be driving some to public transportation.
Rail passenger demand grew by 44 percent in the West Midlands over the past decade as people looked for alternative ways to get to work. This overloaded the rail system to such an extent that the trains are simply not long enough to accommodate all of the passengers, said Heather Crocker, transport adviser to the development agency for the region.
To offset this increase, rail companies announced a pricing system that rewards people for traveling in off-peak times, and budget fares on some trains to London.
Even this might not be enough. In Birmingham, the train station is often so full that authorities have to close it for fear of dangerous overcrowding. Talk of a congestion charge, coupled with the increasing rail problems, prompted the local paper's editorial page to sum up what many in Britain are feeling: ''No trains, no cars, how do we get to work?"
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
Never make hyperbolic statements while in public office.But Mayor Ken Livingstone, who once declared that only a ''ghastly dehumanized moron" would get rid of the bus, decided that it was time
for the Routemaster to go.