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Can London's 'Boris bus' launch a political victory?

A new routemaster double decker bus passes Piccadilly Circus in London on its first first day of service, Monday, Feb. 27, 2012.

Sang Tan/AP/Sang Tan/AP

The bus was pulling away from its stop on the King's Road as I piled out of the pub. I ran behind it as it gained speed, leapt, and hoisted myself onto the wooden platform. Gripping the metal pole and hanging out the back, I waved to my mates, then tossed 50 pence to the conductor and bolted up the stairs into the smoke-filled upper deck.

That was 1987. It would be a quarter century before I would again go home aboard a Routemaster, London's legendary red double-decker bus. It was, as Londoners often say, more than a bus. It was a lifestyle. Its clattering diesel engine and perilous non-safety features symbolized Britain's tough era of do-it-yourself survival, a soot-stained time of stiff upper lips and working-class honour. It was soon to be obsolete.

This week I was walking along Upper Street in Islington when I saw it roaring round the bend: a sleek, gorgeous red capsule with a stark slash of black glass tracing its rear staircase and, here we go, a platform on the back. The new Routemaster had arrived. Only two minutes late – early by London standards – and with a spectacular design and a very different political meaning.

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If a bus can be sexy, this one is. If it can produce a political victory, it just might. This sleek three-door, two-staircase beast is officially known as the New Bus For London, but everyone knows it as the Boris bus.

It was, after all, a quixotic and economically unlikely gamble on the Routemaster that brought Boris Johnson, London's ragdoll Tory mayor, to power in 2008. And with a close-fought election pending on May 3, it may well be the bus that brings him back.

Ken Livingstone, his perpetual Labour Party challenger, must be fuming. As mayor from 2000 to 2008, he was a champion of public transit, and spent much of his time talking about buses. He famously made Trafalgar Square traffic-free, introduced the Congestion Charge (in which drivers are automatically charged $16 a day to drive downtown), and launched a new east-west Underground line.

Mr. Livingstone was a great champion of buses, and strove to bring better-off Londoners back above ground and onto them. He introduced new routes, launched a smart instant-payment card, made the buses wheelchair accessible and safer, and, in what seemed to him a progressive move, eliminated the old Routmasters in one fell swoop in 2005. They were, he argued, bad buses: Last built in 1968, they were dangerous, ecologically horrible, and most important inaccessible: Two-thirds of London bus riders (heavily dominated by seniors and pram-pushing parents) were unable to board them.

If Mr. Livingstone had a fault, it was that he tended to listen to transit experts rather than the deeper chords of history. His replacements on most routes were practical, well designed and box-like double-deckers with one staircase and one door, making the conductor obsolete and the driver a bundle of nerves. On high-traffic routes, London made use of the ever-unpopular bendy bus: While it had the highest capacity, the idea of a single-storey bus seemed an affront to the city's self-identity.

Mr. Johnson was widely mocked for his obsession with the Routemaster. Economists pointed out that the cost of its design and construction made little sense, given the slim margins of the companies that operate the buses. But he seemed to have grasped something: City dwellers tend to favour things that seem destined to last forever. Nobody ever loved the above-ground light-rapid-transit train lines introduced under Margaret Thatcher, or the ever-practical Hungarian-made bendy buses. Only a full-fledged subway line or one-of-a-kind bus will make people remember the politician who introduced it.

So the high-intensity election campaign will be a showdown between two genuine public-transit geeks. Both have very strong, very intelligent ideas about how to keep London moving. Only one managed to get a bus named after him.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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