Brust: Buses keep commuters moving all day and night

Amelia Brust details how London’s bus system works through a system that is all its own.

Amelia Brust

Amelia BrustIf you’ve ever seen the film “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” you’ll more than likely remember a scene in the beginning of the film where Harry has run away from his surrogate home of the Dursleys. He is waiting on a park bench for a bus — any bus — to come along. What he gets is the night bus.

And in Camden Town, London, at 2 a.m., we also get a night bus.

Unlike its daytime counterparts, London’s night buses do not follow the rules of conventional city traffic. They swerve on corners, diving between cars and other buses, all to come to a screeching halt at the end of the road. After a Camden pub crawl, it can be a little disorientating to say the least, especially when you’ve gotten on the wrong bus, which is now heading north when you want to go south.

Little tip, from me to you: Never take directions from the drunk American who thinks the “N” in the bus number stands for “North.”

The double-decker buses are every bit the fantasy, minus the legendary hop-on, hop-off option that now only exists in old movies. Today, riders must enter at the front of the bus, swipe their Oyster card or show the driver a ticket, and wobble through to the back or head upstairs.

When exiting, riders proceed to the middle of the bus, and exit once the doors have opened. Although a fair number of the old-fashioned Routemaster vehicles, with the open platform at the back, are still on the streets, they also carry the ubiquitous 21st-century H&M ads with Lana Del Rey plastered all around them.

The low suspension of the buses allows them to seemingly glide down the street, while their towering height above the shorter shops and buildings gives them an almost ghostly quality. They can also be flagged like taxis, if you are on the sidewalk between stops. Double-deckers are fiercely rectangular, and so bus drivers will sandwich them among one another, all on streets that look too narrow even for a Toyota Prius.

Perhaps one of my more iconic sightings here was during the River Thames Festival, which ended with an evening fireworks display near Waterloo Bridge. Standing on the riverbank, I watched the buses creep to a slow crawl as they crossed the bridge, under the flashes of fireworks, with St. Paul’s Cathedral glowing in the distance.

It looked as if the buses were posing for a postcard.

At the end of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Olympic Flame was passed to London via a double-decker bus. In preparation for the London Olympics, buses were fitted with Michelin X InCity tires, enabled with radio-frequency identification chips to track tire pressure while carrying games-goers. During the closing ceremonies, Russell Brand even rode into the stadium on a bus, singing a combination of “Pure Imagination” and “I Am the Walrus.” Of all London transport, buses are arguably the most visibly striking.

The design is somewhat ingenious. If you want to increase space in such an already-cumbersome vehicle, why not add a second level rather than an extension connection by a kind of accordion panel? You do the same thing when you raise your bed to fit more stuff underneath it, or when skyscrapers are made. Cities — successful ones, anyway — build up, not out.

That is definitely the sense I get when riding the 11 to Fulham-Broadway or the 10 to Hammersmith. The buses were made with practicality in mind.

London is a very old, very big and very densely populated place with little to no room to spare. Therefore, everyone must figure out what to do with the architectural and transportation features that already exist. Should we try to build a space for that new vegan pizza place, or shall we just stick it inside that empty townhouse that was a milliner’s before it was a butcher’s and then a brothel? Just stick it in!

In the daytime, buses are relatively quiet, but passengers have permission to talk on the phone or hold conversations. Occasionally, you will get the confused passenger who argues with the driver that the bus “does indeed stop in the middle of this street, and will you pull the whole thing over so I can get off?” But on the night bus, the crowd shifts. People are testier, ruminating on their grand night out and what they will eat first when they get home.

And you have to do everything you can to not fall asleep as you fly through the night — not to the Leaky Cauldron, but to Stansted Airport.

Amelia Brust can be reached at

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