Editorial – The story behind the Boris bus

Heatherwick Studio’s new bus for London is finally set to launch, after what’s been a pretty haphazard commissioning journey.


Indeed, there was a slight, late embarrassment for TfL with the bus’ launch date having to be delayed by a week (they were supposed to hit the streets on 20 February) due, apparently, to a paperwork delay.

The final design is, as you would expect from Heatherwick, rather lovely. It elegently fulfills the brief for an update of the old ‘hop-on, hop-off’ Routemaster while boasting, according to Transport for London, some pretty impressive sustainability figures (emitting just 640 grams per kilometres of CO2, compared to 1295 g/km from a diesel bus).

But the route that this new bus has taken to get to the streets of London has been, frankly, pretty roundabout, taking in stops for a free pitch and several ditched designs.

The New Bus for London, by Heatherwick Studio and Wrightbus

The Routemaster’s revival is due to London Mayor Boris Johnson’s 2008 election pledge to bring the bus back, after his predecessor Ken Livingstone scrapped the old Routemaster in 2005 (some of them, to be fair, had been around since the 1950s).

In his mayoral manifesto, Boris said, ‘We will invite designs for a renewed Routemaster from the world’s leading designers. TfL will decide on the final shortlist, depending on strict criteria, and the Mayor will take advice from TfL on which design should be commissioned.’

Well, what actually happened was that shortly after winning the election, Boris launched an unpaid, open competition with two entry categories, one for potential designers and one, titled ‘Imagination’ which sought concepts for particular features of the bus, or sketches of the overall look.

Capoco Design’s winning entry in the New Bus for London competition

Winners of these competitions were announced in December 2008, with two winners in the professional design category – one from Capoco Design and one a collaboration between Foster + Partners and Aston Martin.

It was at this stage that Boris threw another googly. The winning designs, he said, would ‘not be a single idea to be taken into development’, but would potentially feed into the final design, which would be subject to a separate tender process.

The second winning entry in the New Bus for London competition, from Foster + Partners and Aston Martin

It was this process that eventually led to the design Londoners will shortly be seeing on their streets – by Heatherwick Studio and Wrightbus, who unveiled their designs in 2010.

Now judging by Heatherwick’s appointment, and the final designs, we can at least assume that Boris (or someone in the Mayor’s office) has a good eye for design.

But it’s hard not to conclude that the convoluted competition and commissioning process that has led to these fine designs has been driven largely by Boris’s desire to make a grand public gesture, without really worrying too much about how to get to the end point.

The classic Routemaster design
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