Follow that bus

It’s more than public transport—it’s a lesson for city planners worldwide
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[Urban Planning]

It’s more than public transport— it’s a lesson for city planners worldwide

In May this year, Mayor of London Boris Johnson revealed the final design for the new London bus. In gushing tones he praised the bus’s green credentials and futuristic styling and crowed that “our stunning red emblem of 21st-century London” will be the envy of every other city.

I couldn’t help but agree. Based on the classic Routemaster, the new bus employs innovative technologies to reduce weight and emissions and improve fuel efficiency. The exterior is encased in a sleek red skin wrapped with a sweeping ribbon of glass that picks out the staircases and brings light to the interior. Importantly the design reinstates the open platform (hallmark of the original Routemaster), heralding the return of a hopon, hop-off service and with it the sense of freedom that is the concession of most public transport services. All in all, this is public transportation that screams progressive city of tomorrow, current financial crisis notwithstanding. It is an urban icon made over to encompass a city’s vision for its future.

It’s a delicate matter redesigning a cultural icon; to be innovative and yet reminiscent of the original subject. The first Routemaster was very much a London solution to London transport issues. The open platform was a specific response to congested, slow-moving streets, allowing boarding and alighting away from stops and faster ticketing because of the supplementary conductor. The new bus design retains the spirit of the Routemaster but at the same time reflects both the practical and aesthetic demands of a 21st-century city. These complex conditions have been managed because of a commitment to a design-led process—and it is this that we should envy most.

So, what are the worthy aspects of the new bus development to take note of? First, it has been a considered process. It started two years ago with an open ideas competition, and the first bus is not expected to hit the streets until 2012. The final design represents hundreds of hours of research and assessment and it is certain that further refinements will be made as static mockups and the first working prototype are developed over the next year.

Further, the provision of the open platform (which requires a conductor) will have staffing and cost implications. While critics remain sceptical about the availability of this service, its inclusion is evidence of a total package approach that envisages operational adjustments as well as a new fleet.

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Last, this is a project with political backing for the design process—as distinct from a project motivated by political narcissism. Confidence in this approach has enabled a fit-forpurpose, fit-for-place solution that embodies the identity of the city. London has embraced innovation and championed design.

Cities around the world have become increasingly aware of the need to differentiate themselves in an effort to entice tourist dollars and promote economic growth. Iconic structures have become the currency of choice in this branding frenzy but so much of this type of building is little more than an architectural oneliner. In New Zealand, proposals have ranged from national stadiums to party passenger terminals to a Hollywood-style logo for our capital. Most have been conceived on the fly with little understanding or regard to the wider context in which they are to be set. Moreover, the timeframes have been contingent on one-off events, leaving little time for rigorous critiquing of the brief let alone the building.

Long-term thinking is critical to quality city-making. And so too is design that responds to the local circumstances. It seems to me that it is time to concentrate on selling our cities to our own citizens rather than striving to impress a global audience with notions of world class, whatever that means. To do this requires adopting a more considered approach: evaluating our existing form and envisioning our desired future context. Above all, we need to foster a culture of design to enrich both the level of debate and the quality of urban response. In doing so we may come to develop cities worth crowing about.

Natasha Markham is an architect and urban designer

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