Page last updated at 11:54 GMT, Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Can a simple bus be so hated?

Bendy bus in north London

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The bendy bus has had a troubled journey but it could soon be the end of the road for it in London. Does the shape of a bus really provoke such strong emotions?

Enemies of the bendy bus have long been seeing red.

And now they can sense that victory is near. Two of the candidates to be Mayor of London have promised to abolish them, which means their death knell may sound in just six weeks.

At a time when people are being encouraged to leave the car at home, a "super bus" carrying nearly twice as many people as a double-decker would seem to be the answer.

Bendy bus at Trafalgar Square
So long it can't fit in the picture

But since their introduction in 2001, there have been hundreds of stories questioning their safety to passengers, cyclists and pedestrians.

Headlines like "Bendy buses fail the disabled", "Accidents surge as bendy buses take over", "Bendy bus victim set for £1/2m payout" and "Bendy bus drags man mile to his death" have not inspired confidence.

But dozens of other cities across the UK seem to have accepted them without the same degree of controversy. And Jo Debank of passenger group London Travelwatch says there have been no more complaints about bendy buses than other buses. So what's the truth?

On London's Oxford Street in the evening rush-hour, among the throng of red (buses) and black (taxis), there is only one bendy bus in view, the 73 to Victoria.


But its 19-metre length, with three sets of double doors disgorging dozens of passengers at every bus stop, makes it pretty unmissable. On board, passengers can't really see what the fuss is about.

"I like them," says Sameer Majeed, 46. "It's a very quick bus and so many people can get on and off." Others complimented the sliding doors and the extra space.

But complaints included a lack of staff, not enough seats, the difficulty of standing up especially going round bends, and how their length was a problem when one bus backed on to another at a bus stop.

"They're too long and the drivers don't seem to use the cameras to check that everyone has got on," says Angela Scott, 34. "The other day someone got caught in the doors before they had a chance to get on."

Among 12 passengers in this unscientific survey, there was a 6:3:3 split representing like:dislike:indifferent. Hardly a revolution.

Cyclists in London
A cyclist's utopia - no bendy in sight

But in the cycling community there is a lot of anxiety about them. Some say the extra length means overtaking them at bus stops can be "terrifying" and there is the ever-present danger that drivers turn left without looking.

But a spokesman for the London Cycling Campaign says while bendy buses can be awkward on narrow streets, lorries are a far greater danger.

And Lionel Shapiro, who has 60 years of cycling experience, says there is a lot of mythology about them. They actually "turn beautifully" round corners and sometimes collisions are purely the fault of the cyclist.

Tory mayoral hopeful Boris Johnson believes they cause accidents because they are too wide for London roads and he wants to replace them with an adapted Routemaster, the much-loved open-ended bus phased out - except for two heritage routes - in 2005.

'No U-turn'

His Liberal Democrat counterpart Brian Paddick highlights another problem, fare evasion. He says one in 10 passengers takes advantage of the pre-pay ticketing system and avoids paying. He would replace them with trams. Green candidate Sian Berry was unavailable to comment.

Lee Beckwith, 21, tried to re-board a bus after leaving his phone behind, but was killed and dragged for a mile in east London
Three passengers hurt when back of a bus swung on the M77 near Glasgow
Three teenagers died after collision between car and bus in south-east London
Blessing Olayiwola, 12, died after being knocked over in south London
TfL says no deaths have been caused by the design and there are no more accidents involving bendy buses than other buses

Mayor Ken Livingstone stands by them, saying they're a vital part of the network, taking vast numbers of people from key stations like Victoria and Waterloo. He recently announced he has no plans to extend their use beyond the 12 routes they already serve, but denies this is a U-turn or a change of policy.

"There's a perception that people don't like them but in customer satisfaction surveys people are pleased and say they meet their requirements," says his spokeswoman Victoria Collins, "so it's a perceived image that people don't like them but not reality."

Graphic of a bendy bus and a double decker
Length: Bendy bus 18 metres, double-decker 10 metres
Capacity (inc standing): Bendy bus 149, double-decker 90
Proportion of London fleet: Bendy bus 5% (399 vehicles) Double-decker 63% (5,104 vehicles)
Source: TfL. The double-decker in the graphic is a Dennis Enviro 400

Transport for London says they are only 5% of the fleet but they carry 9% of the passengers - 164 million last year. A spokeswoman said none of the 12 routes is in the top 10 for the most accidents and there have been no deaths due to their design.

FTR in York
York has advanced bendy buses called FTRs

And she adds that you are more than five times as likely to have your ticket checked on a bendy bus than any other bus.

Many cities around the world have had bendy buses for years and they have been running in other parts of the UK since 1980, when a ban on them was lifted.

In York they have both "bendys" and an advanced model called FTR (text-shorthand for "future"), which serves one of the fastest-growing routes in the country.

Routemaster bus
Routemasters were very popular but were replaced by bendy buses

FTRs are styled like trams, with greater low-floor area to improve access and maximise space. Their bright purple exterior raised some eyebrows in the historic city and the unpopular pre-pay system was ditched in favour of conductors.

Some York residents have described them as a blight on the city - over-priced, unsightly and awkward on the narrow streets.

But Councillor Ann Reid who has responsibility for the city's transport policy, says they have been a success, partly because they are so accessible.

"If you have a pushchair or wheelchair, you should expect to get on a bus. When I was younger you had to fold up a pushchair, lug it on and carry it, but now there's quite a lot of open space."


But London has unique demands which bendy buses are not always equipped to meet, says transport expert Christian Wolmar.

"A number of them operate on main roads and do make sense but they don't when they go into town and go round corners and cause real problems and I think that's the issue."

The idea that in what is supposed to be the world's leading city, the most visible argument is about a kind of bus is slightly strange
Tony Travers
Local government expert

He thinks they can be a menace in the capital's narrow streets, especially with dozens of passengers standing up and hanging off straps, but their problems have been exaggerated.

The fuss is partly due to the fond nostalgia of the Routemasters which they replaced, says government expert Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, and since then it's escalated.

"It's a bit like the First World War, no-one can remember what they're fighting about and it becomes an excuse for an argument.

"The idea that in what is supposed to be the world's leading city, the most visible argument is about a kind of bus is slightly strange."

And ultimately it won't make a difference come the mayoral election in May.

"There are not many votes in arguments about types of buses. It's entertainment, like a Punch and Judy show we can all enjoy from time to time."

But maybe not for much longer.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Londoners probably don't like them because they didn't have them first. Manchester has two main routes that use these bendy buses and to the best of my knowledge there have never been anywhere near the number of problems that they have in London. Perhaps it is more to do with people not taking due care and attention whether driving or cycling. Get out of your cars, you're going to have to anyway when the petrol runs out!
David Lee, Manchester

HKL (The Helsinki equivalent of TfL) have been running "bendy busses" for about 20 years. They are now experimenting with an even longer bendy bus, 24 metres long ie half as long again as a normal bendy bus! It has two articulated joints. I suspect that this will not be trialled in London - at least not for a few more years.
Chris, Oitti, Finland (Ex London)

As one who uses London PT quite a lot, I think this is little more than politicking. People used to fall off the Routemasters when they were sober - with more recreational drug use & low level alcoholism we can expect many more deaths. That's without their being impossible to get on with a buggy, pram or in a wheelchair.
Fee Lock, Hastings

It's not that I have anything against bendy buses per se, but compared to the iconic, design classic Routemaster they just have no style. When people come to London, they want to pretend they're in a sixties movie, swinging onto that back pole of the Routemaster in the rain, not stepping on to an 80s-looking bendy bus. Even modern adverts (and New York!) prefer using a Routemaster. Bring the style back to London - bring back the Routemaster!
Michelle, London

Of all the buses in London bendy buses are by far the most pleasant and efficient to use. It seems that people complain about them purely because they can't think of anything better to complain about. I would certainly complain more if scrapped them and replaced them with something inferior.
Will Humphreys, London

It was shockingly bad when the Routemasters were in service, cold, too busy, not enough of them on any given route, not enough room to stand if your above 6 foot (like me), uncomfortable, the list goes on. At least bendy buses have answered some of these problems in city which is inherently difficult to find solutions that please everyone.
Franc Lowe, London

The thing that doesn't get mentioned is that bendy buses have managed to destroy that great British pastime of queuing at bus stops - and that surely must be an underlying source of the disquiet felt towards them; to take a British person's queue is to take their very soul...
Al, London

How on earth anyone can feel passionate against the bendy bus is beyond me. The advantages are clear: they carry almost twice as many passengers while being only 50% longer (and single decked); the three large doors enable much quicker getting on and off, reducing the symptom of "three buses arriving at once"; most are more fuel efficient; and they are more comfortable inside than any of the double deckers and certainly than that god-awful pre-civilisation toy bus called Routemaster. There are plenty of streets the bendy can drive on very safely, not all London streets are narrow.
Stephan, London

They are only designed for long straight roads. Never stand on a corner when they turn... I was almost hit! I had to jump back to look after my health
Phil, London

I used to travel to work daily on Routemasters, and in the latter days they simply weren't the glorious things that people seem to make them out to be. I found them cramped and uncomfortable; they frequently broke down and some of the conductors were the rudest people I ever met. The bendys on the other hand are user-friendly and most importantly fast - because they don't linger at stops for people to run up and down stairs. I suspect the people who moan about these buses are the people who aren't actually using them - the folks who have a romanticised view of London to which the buses are a backdrop - not a vital means of transport for hundreds of thousands of people every day.
Paul, London, UK

Bendy buses have a serious problem of overcrowding because there's a never anyone to control the amount of people getting on and off the buses. Most Londoners seem to have an unspoken etiquette when it comes to the Tube and double decker buses, but it just doesn't translate onto bendy buses. Also anyone who's had to wait a stupid amount of time for buses to turn from Gower Street onto New Oxford Street in the morning because a bendy bus is clogging up not only the turning but the three lanes of traffic as well will know how much they don't work in this city!! Bring back Routemasters...please!
James, London

I started cycling to work recently and I have to admit that the bendy bus I share a route with scared me the first time it overtook. I've got used to it now though and the driver always makes sure he has plenty of room to pull in ahead of me. As long as I'm careful there are no problems, which is true of any other road users.
Elle, London

More people fell off the back of open platform buses than have died in bendy bus accidents, including people who fell or stepped out into traffic to be struck by a passing bike or taxi. Off-bus ticketing is the future, giving people ticket options on phones, Oyster Cards or whatever method.
John, Oxford, UK

British infrastructure is designed to be able to handle the double decker bus (ie bridges etc) 2. Why can't the double deckers be redesigned to take 149 passengers, they do have more space after all and don't have a bendy bit taking up space (although they do have the stair well) 3. Surely if we are paying over a pound for a journey we should be able to have a seat, how do you expect to get anyone out of a car if they have to stand all the time not to mention the added danger of having to stand. 4. Bendy buses take up a lot more road space than normal double deckers so inevitably contribute more to traffic problems. 5. The double decker bus is profoundly British and tourists travel to the UK expecting to see them in regular use.
Jamie Ferguson, Amsterdam/Edinburgh

The majority of people in York dislike the bendy bus despite what the council and First say. They are to big for the streets of York.
Peter Harrison, York

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