Andrew Adonis - the world was his Oyster card: Peer’s week on the night buses

Andrew Adonis explains what he learned when he joined nocturnal workers for their commute to and from the most unsociable jobs in London

There are hardly any suits, but lots of wooly hats, baseball caps, trainers and warm coats. That’s my abiding impression from a week criss-crossing London by bus, from the 38 from Angel to Victoria at 6am on Monday to the N9 from Trafalgar Square to Heathrow at 4am on Friday morning.

There was one exception: it is all suits and smart shoes from Waterloo to London Bridge at 9am on the 521, which ferries wave upon wave of rail commuters from the busiest London terminus to their offices. But that’s because this bus is an extension of the south-west London commuter rail into Holborn and the City. The general pattern is that better-off Londoners use the trains and Underground; the less well-off take the bus.

The less well-off are far more numerous: there are twice as many journeys by bus as by Tube. The No 25 alone – from Mile End, Stratford and Ilford to the City and the West End – carries 64,000 people each day, equivalent to the entire population of Crewe, even though it follows the route of much faster rail lines. The £1.45 Oyster bus single makes all the difference: it is half the Underground fare from Zone 1 to 2, and far less than half for Zone 1 to 3.

Even that £1.45, increased by 5p last month, is a source of acute anxiety. I heard lots of complaints from passengers who need two buses to get to work, paying even more. For hundreds of thousands of Londoners earning at the breadline, each extra fare is a struggle.

An equally striking impression of the week is the transformation of London’s bus system. It is vastly improved on 20 years ago, like so much else in England’s fast-expanding and enriching capital city. The creation of the mayoralty in 2000, and the reforms of Ken Livingstone, largely continued by Boris Johnson, have made the difference.

Their use has doubled in the last 10 years Their use has doubled in the last 10 years (Nigel Howard) They are not all about extra spending. The world-leading Oyster card has virtually eliminated cash fares, sharply cutting costs and improving access and efficiency. I only saw one cash fare payment in the entire week. Red routes and the congestion charging zone have also significantly improved the bus system.

Read more:
You see London at work, and at play, on the night buses

Few (if any) of these reforms have been implemented in cities outside London, because they don’t have equivalents of the Mayor and Transport for London with strong powers. It’s time they did. Buses are also driving regeneration, and they need to do so far more given the scale of the London housing crisis.

Take North Greenwich, which didn’t exist as a station or a bus terminus 15 years ago. It very nearly didn’t exist thereafter. The original plan was for the Jubilee Line extension to go from Canary Wharf to Stratford on the north bank of the Thames. It took a ferocious campaign to make the expensive route change taking the Jubilee line under the Thames twice to serve Greenwich.

Woolwich Town Centre has been radically redesigned as a town square plus bus interchange, with the Crossrail station, and the existing DLR and Overground stations all a stone’s throw away. Some of these buses are ‘Hoppas’ which weave through the backstreets to serve communities which would otherwise be isolated, particularly for the elderly. London’s night economy is huge and it couldn’t function without night buses. Here again, passenger numbers have exploded – by almost 200 per cent since 2000. Night buses serve not only the leisure economy – pubs, bars, clubs, theatres and concerts – but also hundreds of thousands of night workers.

Safety is a concern with crime on night buses up by nearly half in the past two years. But on my N9 trip through West London to Heathrow, the only sound was the shuffling of airport workers up the stairs, making their way to the 4am shift.

The biggest bus problem I encountered is that they too often get stuck. Often this is caused by bottlenecks, which undermine the benefits of bus lanes because buses can’t get in or out of them. But buses themselves are sometimes the cause of the congestion. In a ten minute mid-morning walk down Oxford Street I counted 53 buses, most of them empty and barely moving. Oxford Street is glacier of red metal: a bus park, pollution trap and accident zone which badly needs sorting out.

Lord Adonis is shadow infrastructure minister

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