There was something to be said for the Routemaster bus of a few decades ago. It was instantly recognisable, easily accessible (you could jump on or off at the traffic lights), and zipped along in relatively light traffic. Today, certainly in London, the double decker bus comes clothed in full-size advertising and corporate colours. It gets stuck in queues of traffic and spends protracted periods sitting at the bus stops while passengers fiddle for their change.
There is no single owner or company – instead numerous bus operators compete for business. And, whereas in the regions deregulation has given the operators a certain independence, here in the capital, they are controlled to some extent by London Transport Buses. It owns the bus routes and chooses which operator to let each of the routes to. It cannot, however, dictate certain standards such as the particular design of vehicle. That is up to the operators and they can’t afford to take on new initiatives or invest in new designs. Stalemate? Well, not quite.
Early last year, LT Buses took the initiative and commissioned DCA Design Consultants to carry out a vehicle strategy study, “to look at the opportunities for using design to improve the accessibility, availability and perception of London’s bus service”. The result of this study was a proposal for a low-floor double decker bus aimed at the operators and designed “to serve the widest possible cross-section of the travelling public”.
An early part of the research carried out by DCA concentrated on certain environmental standards that had to be met such as the exhaust emission levels fixed by the EC. “We looked at the improvements that could be made to diesel”, says Paul Rutter, Senior Associate at DCA, “and did a lot of research looking at services around Europe where some of the manufacturers are prototyping gas engines”. But it was eventually decided that the easiest and most cost-effective way to help reduce levels of toxicity in the cities was to improve the passenger flow and ticketing systems on the buses so that they spent less time stationary at the bus stops and, subsequently, less time in city centres.
The key to the new look is therefore accessibility, driven in part by the forthcoming Disability Discrimination Act which is likely to impose wheelchair access on all buses. Hence the low floor chassis and a rear door fitted with a wheelchair ramp. The Act has also affected certain issues of the interior layout. “To get a wheelchair aboard, you have to have a back door with no pole in the middle”, explains Rutter, “as well as continuous handrails leading to the seats.”
But, for the operators, accessibility is perhaps more important when related to reliability and efficiency of service. They will be more concerned with the interior layout of the bus, how many passengers they can accommodate, as well as how quickly they can get them on and off.
“We looked at the various uses of the bus throughout the day,” says Rutter. “ranging from commuter use in the morning, shopping use during the day and leisure use in the evening. By being able to move the seats, standing or luggage space can be increased at appropriate times during the day”. DCA studied all the possible configurations involving seat layout and standing space, number and position of doorways, position of staircase, and location of wheelchair space, and drew up a series of layouts for different kinds of buses. Six were singled out for user trials and a full-size mock up constructed to simulate each design and analyse boarding times. These trials involved both elderly passengers and those with young children.
The result was a series of recommendations which were incorporated into the final design solutions for three bus types – single decker, midi bus and double decker.
So, on the basis of all this research, what recommendations has LT Buses made to the operators?
Andrew Thompson of the Strategy and Policy Team at LT Buses explains. “In London, LT Buses still maintains control of the whole of the bus network, and we clearly have an influence over the buses that run on our routes. We held an informal seminar earlier this year for the operators where we presented the concept and the presentation drawings for these new models. We are not trying to dictate to them. We just said that these were our aspirations and this is what we feel people want. The ball is now in the manufacturers court”.
LT Buses has also championed the cause for the new designs in the latest issue of its Network magazine which has been freely distributed to the operators, local councils and MPs. This unashamedly lists “suggestions, not a single recommended design solution” such as “a bright, open easy to clean interior design” with “improved lighting, cantilevered seating, large windows, better headroom…” and so on.
A substantial proportion of the new operator contracts are being awarded on the basis of this new design with a hundred of the new buses planned for next year. And we understand a number of the operators are already in talks with the manufacturers. But while LT’s commitment is commendable, ultimately it will be the cost of development which will be the deciding factor on whether the “suggestions” and the designs shown here, are actually ever adopted.