It’s 3am. After four hours of pubs and clubs in central London and Shoreditch, talking to people at about how they get home – lots of them use night buses – I take the final bus of my week-long tour of London by bus: the N9 which runs all the way from Trafalgar Square to Heathrow, serving another part of London’s huge night economy.
The night bus network has been transformed in the past decade. Over 60 night bus and 24-hour routes operate out of Trafalgar Square, which is epicentre of the city-wide night network. Growth in night bus usage has been phenomenal: 200 per cent in the past 5 years alone.
“Thirty years ago there were only a few night buses for print workers, charladies and dockers,” says Sir Peter Hendy, London’s transport commissioner. “The night bus network keeps London cleaned, entertained and in business for tomorrow morning. It’s also a reason why 40 per cent of 18-25year olds in London not only don’t have a car but not even a licence.”
The N29 bus from Trafalgar Square to Enfield has a 5/6 minute frequency on Friday/Saturday nights, which is better than daytime thirty years ago.
My route started on the N29 to Tottenham Court Road, then on the 242 to Shoreditch, returning to Trafalgar Square to pick up the N9.
Jack, coming from Shoreditch back to Trafalgar Square, told me that generally the night buses work well. His big issue was safety: ‘I’m happy down here [on the lower deck], but I would never go up there on my own,’ he said as he gestured up the stairs. Michela, who works as a cleaner in the City, relied on night bus to get to her early morning shift. ‘It takes much longer than the Tube to get here, but they’re not running at this time, and I couldn’t afford it anyway.’
We arrived at Heathrow at 4am, which is wake up time Europe’s busiest airport. Some 30,000 of the airport’s 76,000 employees arrive between 4am and 6am, with around one third of them using public transport. The Head of Landside Operations, Craig Oxby, tells me that buses are becoming more important. Terminal 5 has a new information centre dedicated to bus travel, the main terminals bus hub is the busiest in Europe, and the whole Heathrow area operates a free bus travel zone.
A bus tour of London - in pictures
As I travelled around the perimeter of the airport at 5am, I saw something I’ve observed all week: thousands of hard-working, perseverant passengers swiping on and off the buses, stoically heading to and from their jobs. London’s night buses are London at work – as well as play.