Tuesday, March 20, 2007

London's routemasters -- icon or inaccessible dinosaurs?

This article on London's familiar Routemaster buses prompts a good question: When does an icon's historical status eclipse its need to be accessible to everyone?The Routemaster is one of those enduring designs -- created 50 years ago and still around because of its functionality but perhaps even more so because of its uniqueness. The red double deckers say London. But time has marched on too and these buses, after all, are not amusement park rides; they're public transportation. For the most part, the Routemasters have been replaced, the article relates, with more accessible modern vehicles, in some cases still red and still double deckers but more accessible to all riders. Only 16 remaining Routemasters run on two routes. Some advocates for people with disabilities in the UK say all the Routemasters should go, replaced with more accessible, albeit less quaint, vehicles. Others lament any of the replacement of Routemasters and want the few remaining to keep in service. Who's right?
It's not an easy question to answer. I can relate to the irrational adherence to what one knows and identifies with times gone by, which of course we know were always better than now. I'll offer an example. I live in Wisconsin, but I'm originally from the Chicago area. Consequently, I grew up with the Chicago-style hot dog stand. My impression of a real hot dog is pretty rigid. The right condiments -- tomato, pickle relish, onion, mustard, celery salt, pickle spear, sport peppers (no ketchup!). The right bun -- steamed with poppy seed. And the right fries -- cut from a fresh potato, skin on, soggy with grease and served wrapped up with the dog in one piece of paper. Several places do a good job on the dog around here, but the proper fries are elusive, and it kinda ruins the Chicago style hot dog experience. It's just not authentic to my mind, even if many places present a -- shall I say -- healthier fry presentation. And I feel it strongly.
So it certainly seems reasonable that people might feel strongly about the Routemasters. Other red double deckers, even if more practical, more accessible, just aren't the same. But this argument just doesn't work for the buses for the plain reason they are public transportation. You can go to another hot dog stand, but you can't go to another public transit system, generally. The principal is well established that public transit ought to be accessible to as many as possible. London does appear to be doing more than many places to encourage accessibility in transit or the changes would not have taken place. That should be acknowledged, but keeping a few inaccessible buses running on a couple of key routes isn't in the spirit of maximum accessibility no matter how iconic the vehicles.
The article also addresses a key issue supporters of less accessibility are bound to make -- that riders with disabilities are small in number. Why is that? One reason is there is still far from universal accessibility on most transit systems. You've got to have the right station. You've got to have the right line. And in this case, you've got to catch the right kind of bus -- at least on those routes. Andrew Braddock, formerly head of access and mobility at Transport for London, nails it in the article when he says "the total number of wheelchair users is inevitably small... but the number of trips being made by this previously ignored group is growing all the time."
(Photo of Routemaster by Rudi Ashdown via morgueFile.com)


At 9:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I can appreciate your passion about Chicago hot dogs. As a Chicago ex-pat I am always searching for the ever elusive, "Chicago Dog." I've found a few who come close, but you're right, nobody gets the fries right.

Regarding the Routemasters; it's a tough decision and I think you did a good job of presenting the argument; pro and con. It's hard to imagine London without those iconic buses tooling about, yet, things change. The Routemasters probably replaced an outdated electric streetcar system, which probably replaced horse drawn carriages and there were likely folks who bemoaned those changes.

It would be nice if London can find some way to keep the buses out and about in the city but you are correct; public transportation needs to accomodate handicapped citizens.

Can the Routemasters be retrofitted to conform to the needs of the handicapped?

At 5:46 AM, Blogger darrenh said...

I don't know for sure, but I'm thinking that retrofitting -- in some reasonable form anyway -- isn't an option or it would have been tried.

At 3:20 AM, Blogger Blue / Kay Olson said...

Mmmm, now you've got me craving a Chicago dog.

I have to say that I have no sentimentality or tolerance for inaccessible transportation kept for nostalgic reasons. I understand the allure, and when I went to San Francisco years ago to visit my brother over the holiday we did take some time on Christmas Eve to ride the famous trolleys. I had to leave my scooter at the place I was ugged onto the trolley, and a family member stayed behind with it. The trolley conductor allowed us to stay on roundtrip when usually all are required to get off at the turnaround point. All this was a blast, but had nothing to do with useful transport. It was basically a carnival ride for me. And I don't think public funds should be spent on maintaining inaccessible transport for general public use. Nor should an inaccessible transport get to take the place and time slot on the schedule, leaving those who can't use it to wait for the next accessible one to show up. Usually you end up waiting in the rain or intolerable heat, and in any case, that sort of inequality is what can make disabled folk less employable.

It's a different matter if the old inaccessible buses are being phased out and accessible ones are actively being invested in and added over time. I'm okay with the fact that things can't always change overnight so long as the commitment and action are there. And, if a municipality felt the need to keep on a bus or trolley for nostalgic purposes, and added an extra bus to a route so that inaccessible vehicle wasn't taking the time slot of an accessible one, I'd be okay with that as well.

At 2:10 PM, Blogger 49erDweet said...

Let me weigh in - a little - on the side of the Routematers as being used by TfL in London. I am a "bus" person, but also have disabilities, so can see both sides of the issue. The limited numbers of completely restored and refurbished Routemasters are being used to augment two existing routes during peak times. they do not replace the [fully accessable] regularly scheduled coaches, but are used to "assist" the newer coaches during crunch commute times by carrying some of the overload.

They are historically accurate and provide a taste of former times to those able to ride them. And in absolute fact their presence on the two routes that use them help speed up bus transit times that WOULD have been slowed down due to the extra time required to load wheelchairs, and others with disabilities. So in many rezpects their presence HELPS the disabled, rather than hinders it.

Would it be nice to modify one or two to accept wheelchair access? That has already been done, but those thus modified coaches were not used commercially enough to justify the expense.

In my view the restored buses are fine. A little taste of history. But a purist I am not. The UK is far too far behind the US on meeting access needs for the disabled, and are now trying hard to catch up. Good luck to them. More lifts at tube stops would be much more practical than replacing a few historic artifacts, IMHO.


At 10:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 11:18 AM, Blogger 新年快樂 said...


At 11:18 AM, Blogger 新年快樂 said...



Post a Comment

<< Home