Travel: Zero tolerance time

Want to party on public transport? Then catch the magic bus that's a clubbers' dream.
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The Independent Culture
IT'S SATURDAY night. You're freezing cold, the taxis are full, and the club you want to go to is miles away. It looks as if you'll have to walk. Then something silver pulls up to the kerb. It's got ultraviolet light. It's got thumping dance music. It's got ... well, it's got a bus driver. It is a bus, but one with a difference - it has a condom machine, for a start. Welcome to Bus Zero, the party animal of public transport.

This new adjunct to club culture operates in Sheffield, a city re-inventing itself as the country's leisure capital after the death of its steel industry. From 8pm to midnight, Wednesday to Saturday, the three customised minibuses of the Bus Zero "fleet" run every 10 minutes, taking revellers from one oasis of alcohol to another while they continue the party on board.

The service was launched last October by Mainline, and is aimed at 18 to 30-year-olds out for a good time.

"We identified a market that we weren't catering for," says Mike Holmes, commercial officer of Mainline. "There was a large movement of people from pubs and night-spots to clubs in the city centre, so we identified what we thought would be a suitable mode of transport. The idea was to continue the club environment."

Passengers on Bus Zero can take their drinks (in cans) on board, smoke, or buy a little something for the weekend from the condom machine. There is a flat fare of 50p. Outside the buses are silver, with a large white zero on the front, back and sides. Inside, the colour scheme is silver, grey and black, with a four-speaker sound system. The seats face each other across the aisle under the glow of an ultraviolet light (although there's also a party-pooper white light above the emergency door), leaving more room to cluster and even dance, should anyone have the inclination and the balance.

The drivers wear black "Bus Zero" sweatshirts and seem to enjoy the atmosphere as much as the passengers. "I'm right into it," says one of them. "It's friendly. Nobody complains. There's never any trouble. Everybody's happy."

The drivers can choose the music from a selection of tapes, but generally just tune into a non-stop dance radio station and pump up the volume. Although there is a specified 20-minute route - into the city centre along a main "drinking corridor", out along another - it is open to interpretation. When some girls on the other side of the street flag down the bus, our driver does a U-turn and picks them up. It turns out they had no idea what the bus was; they waved it down as a joke.

First-time passengers obviously wonder what they are getting into. One girl, dressed in black Sixties chic, climbs on and looks around bewildered. "What is this bus?" she asks, shouting to be heard above the music. "Brilliant," she exclaims when it's explained. "Makes me feel like dancing." Two others do a double-take and collapse into giggles when they see the condom machine.

Attitudes towards finding this particular item on a bus are mixed. "It's good that it's promoting safe sex," says Josie, a first-year student at Sheffield Hallam University. Her friend Rachel, however, disagrees. "It's just so blatant."

Even if the condom machine fails to do a roaring trade, by 11.30pm the bus itself is heaving. Cans of beer are swigged, cigarettes smoked, and a good time is being had by all. "Really wicked!" says one girl, out on her 18th birthday.

The atmosphere is loud and sociable. Then there's a problem: the sound system develops a fault. There are shouts to turn up the music, but it sinks into the background babble, and without it Bus Zero is in danger of becoming just a grey minibus with funny lighting.

Luckily, the passengers start singing their own songs. A cluster of young men are chanting, "Magic bus, magic bus, get on the magic bus." The driver throws his route to the winds and zig-zags around the city, dropping people off wherever they like. Finally, the bus is empty except for four girls at the back. Which club are they going to? "We're not," they say. "The driver's taking us home." And, music still playing, Bus Zero parties off into the Sheffield night.

The Bus Zero route takes in Sheffield's Ecclesall Road, the City Centre, and West Street.