May 09, 2014

We, the Busmen

All strike and no pay suck buses of their joy. Passing no judgement on the grievances of Underground workers or their negotiation methods, I lament the effects the Tube strikes have had on bus routes. Putt-putting through the city is as ‘London’ to me as ordering coffee from non-English-speaking baristas, and the red double-deckers have been rattled. The light of grey skies now blinding so many unearthed commuters clearly illuminates the culture clash between the Tubers and We, the Busmen.

Welcome to your new morning commute.

The bus is cheaper and slower than the Tube. It is also less populated and has far more personality. Anyone with a baby buggy, wheelchair, or ‘less able to stand’ must take the bus. During rush hour in the Tube, everyone operates with limited mobility; I cannot imagine navigating that labyrinth with a handicap. All are welcome and accommodated on the bus, co-existing harmoniously. Pensioners—the vigilante free riders—do not mind students presumptuously slouching in the reserved seats nearly as much as being offered said seats. Elders and students are joined by those who cannot go without phone reception for more than ten minutes. They speak all the world’s languages on their phones, loudly and stressfully. They too form a vital part of this fleeting community.

At each stop, someone will lean in to ask if the bus goes to a particular destination. They are those ‘less able’ to read color-coded pictographs. Someone always scrambles to pay the meager fare with loose change or a Boots Advantage Card. And someone always pushes the stop button vigorously between stops or at the route terminus. All these delays and eccentricities imbue the bus with a character not found underground.

The Tube is as much a part of London’s international image as double-deckers, but ‘mind the gap’ is as much a sociological warning as a safety notice. The overwhelming majority of commuters are Tubers, over one billion per year according to TFL. Excepting tourists, the Underground is overflowing with the headphoned masses. Disillusioned middle managers, dodgy loners, and dejected students huddle together on carriages hurtling through darkness. Hope for two adjacent empty seats is the opiate of these masses.

Nevertheless, just like the underwater Gungan city and the Naboo, the Tube and streets could not live without each other. What else but the Underground map could convince newcomers that London has a logical layout? How would we know the borders of gentrification without numbered zones? Imagine the chaos if no one knew to stand on the right and walk on the left! And I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t know the smell of sweet, carcinogenic Tube wind.

But despite their culture, when Tubers meet busmen, they invade. The crowds give me flashbacks to nightmare night buses. The ad hoc bus community I described does not exist past 8 pm, for the headphones come off at night, and the cacophony surpasses even the crowd. If you manage to get a seat amongst the city’s skulkers, you may well be sharing it with pub vomit.

The night bus really is the Bipolar Express. Besides the nightmare ride described above, for whose pickup you might wait forty minutes, there is the chance your bus will behave like a coked-up black cab—flying through normally congested streets and only stopping when YOU push the button. This might be the only time the bus outpaces the Tube.

Tubers are not the night bus crowd, but they are not the bus crowd I have grown to love. At some point the Tube will resume regular operation and travel patterns will return to normalcy, but the days I have walked my bus routes will not fade from memory. They have been better for my body and wallet, and I have matched or exceeded the speed of my buses. But I continue to look forward to boarding a double-decked horseless carriage once more, crawling down medieval cow paths hugged by Victorian facades.