Perfect freedom is being able to step off the back of a London bus whenever you want, whatever the reason, and walk into the sunset without a bus-stop in sight.
Apologies for this second London-centric piece of trivia, but the city is abuzz with the news that Boris’s new Routemaster will be hitting the streets soon. Well, five prototypes will be designed and built for £7.8m.
The original Routemaster was withdrawn from regular service in December 2005 by Ken Livingstone, while he was London’s mayor, though some still run on a limited basis on two “heritage routes”. The new buses, which were a key part of Johnson’s 2008 election manifesto, will have two doors as well as a shuttered platform, which will allow passengers to hop on and off.
A spokesman for the mayor said the initial cost of the buses included design and development, research, prototypes and testing. He added that the cost was expected to drop to about £300,000 per bus as “hundreds” came into use in the coming years.
However, Darren Johnson, a Green party member on the London assembly, claimed the mayor had underestimated the cost of the new buses at every stage. “Development costs have more than doubled since Boris said the budget was only £3m, and that the rest would be borne by the industry. In September he was saying each bus would cost less than £250,000, now it is £300,000. We still haven’t got clear answers from him about the extra costs of running these buses with the conductor and the ‘hop on, fall off’ insurance premium.
The new buses will have two staircases and be made of lightweight materials. The mayor’s office said this meant they would be 15% more fuel-efficient than existing hybrid buses and 40% more efficient than conventional diesel double-deckers.
At today’s launch Johnson dismissed his critics. “This iconic new part of our transport system is not only beautiful but also has a green heart beating beneath its stylish, swooshing exterior. It will cut emissions and give Londoners a bus they can be proud of, complete with cutting-edge design and the freedom of an open platform. I expect to eventually have hundreds of these on London’s roads, and for cities around the globe to be beside themselves with envy for our stunning red emblem of 21st-century London.”
For me, the rear platform of the Routemaster is another magical example of liminality, like bridges and tangents and waiting rooms and wardrobes. You are on but not on. You can go or stay. You are inside and outside at the same time. You can jump.
The other public transport example of liminality (and danger) that springs to mind is the paternoster lift. Are they still legal? The ones where there are no doors and the lift platforms simply move without stopping – and you have to step on, at your own peril, at just the right moment. Which is easy, compared with the stepping off. I had a friend at Sheffield University in the ’80s and I’d take a detour just to jump on the paternoster in the huge arts faculty building. The last functioning one I found was at Northwick Park hospital – closed to the public, but I was able to use it as ‘a member of staff’ (a visiting priest on a sick call). Is it still there? Health and safety have probably closed it down. I’d love to read a study of paternoster lifts…