Friday, 21 September 2012

21/09/12 - Buses

Buses – you wait for a short amount of time, then the one that you want turns up according to the timetable. Or so the old saying goes.

Buses are interesting things. A London double-decker weighs about twelve tons and is powered by a vast rear-mounted turbo-diesel engine (many, for example, use the Cummins C-series, which produces about 250bhp from a displacement of 8.3-litres). They’re comically un-green – think 2 or 3mpg – but of course the point is that it’s a lot more green to take a bus than everyone on board driving around in separate cars.
They’ve got clever air suspension that allows the driver to tilt the front left corner down to let people with pushchairs, the elderly etc on through the front door, or the whole left side can drop when the wheelchair ramp extends. Some new London buses even have stop-start technology which is really disconcerting for the passengers, as traditionally if the engine stops while your bus is stationary it’s a cue to immediately get all indignant about the bus breaking down and stomp off in disgust. Hilarity ensues.
…and now the embarrassingly-named NB4L – short for ‘New Bus 4 London’, eww – is on the streets, ferrying commuters round in retro-futuristic chic and causing tourists to stop in their tracks, jaws agape. It’s a striking thing, all slash-cut glass and dopey eyes, evoking the spirit of the iconic Routemaster whilst meeting stringent modern safety regs. Personally I’m not sold on the idea of it though, as I always like to sit downstairs at the back of the bus (it’s where the weight is, so you don’t get as much lateral movement and thus have a smoother ride [plus it’s warmer there in the winter]), so my favourite seat has been ousted in favour of a set of doors. But hey, what do I know?

My flat is on a bus route, and there’s a bus stop right outside. Much like living next to a railway line or under a flight path, you stop noticing the noise and vibration almost immediately, leading to all kinds of potentially unnerving observations when you’re doing stuff near a window and realise that there’s a bus idling outside; we’re above a shop, so our living room windows are a little above the top deck of the bus. On more than one occasion we’ve been really getting into Guitar Hero and found that we’ve got an amused audience outside.
The fun thing about living on a bus route – or rather, living on my street – is that we get treated to a bit of street theatre pretty much every night. I live on a narrowish road, a two-way affair with parking along one side. There’s enough space for two cars to pass, and just about enough for a car and a bus to pass one another alongside the parked cars… but there isn’t enough space for two buses coming in opposite directions. To add to the fun, there’s a very slight curve to the road, meaning that when a bus coming from either direction starts to pass the parked cars, they can’t quite see to the other end of the row, so two buses meeting in the middle is a pretty common occurrence. This is where the true nature of the London bus driver comes out: they are terrified of reversing. They just won’t do it. So we frequently get treated to the amusing sight of two double-deckers full of passengers facing off in an inescapable stalemate, while the drivers remonstrate with one another about who’s got the furthest to go back, all the while traffic building up behind in both directions, causing total gridlock in a matter of moments. More often than not some other buses will turn up – there are three different routes going by, so there’s a bus going one way or the other every few minutes – and we end up with a row of three or four buses stretching back to both ends of the road, interspersed with the yummy mummies of Wandsworth trying and failing to weave their Range Rovers through the gaps, entirely unaware of where the corners of their vast machines might be. Cyclists and scooters taunt the trapped motorists by artfully weaving in and out, and the situation is often resolved by the arrival of the police, who wearily direct the traffic down sidestreets and wave whichever bus driver has been nominated to be the fall guy back down the street – a process that unfurls at glacial pace, the bus kangarooing backward inch by painful inch. It’s hilarious. Even amidst all of this tiptoeing it’s possible for the driver to spectacularly cock the manoeuvre up; we once watched with growing excitement as a no.44 reversed methodically and unstoppably up onto the pavement, over a row of bollards and beached itself, leaking oil and water all over the street, unable to disentangle itself from where it had been skewered by the street furniture. Classic.

You might say I’m too easily amused. You’re probably right. But I don’t see that as a bad thing.

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