Boris: Why Londoners should vote for me
It is one of the most tragic sights of the London streets. There she is, exhausted, in high heels, weighed down at either hand with heavy shopping.
And suddenly there is her bus, steaming past her to pull up a hundred yards ahead; and, as it overtakes her, she gives a sudden gasp of panic and breaks into a trot, and as she gets closer she sees the doors hiss open, and the passengers start to get on and off, and now the stream has turned into a trickle, and she lifts a bag-weighted hand to wave at the driver, because she is now close enough to see his impassive face in his kerb-side mirror, and they make eye contact, and her face turns into a rictus of entreaty and exertion.
Surely, she thinks, he is about to do the compassionate thing; and yet just as she limps up to the door, wheezing, on the verge of collapse, the system performs one of those acts of inexplicable malevolence on the consumer. The doors hiss shut in her face and the bus moves off.
How often have you seen it happen? How often has it happened to you?
I know some people who have been tempted to ascribe the phenomenon to a kind of bus-driver sadism.
There is one distinguished professor of education who has seen the pattern repeated so often, she concluded that the bus drivers must in some way hate the companies for which they work, because they seemed to be going out of their way to avoid taking on more fares.
As I have just discovered, the professor is wrong, because bus drivers are, in general, wonderful and put-upon people, and the explanation for this practice is blindingly simple – and it can be found in the contractual arrangements of the London bus companies.
Unlike the bus companies anywhere else in the United Kingdom, these London bus companies do not have a revenue structure related to the number of passengers they carry or the fares they receive: oh no, that would be far too commonsensical.
It is a stunning fact that the London transport authorities do not even tell their contractors – the bus companies – how much cash they are generating in fares, and the bus companies do not know exactly which routes are popular and which are not, because all that kind of detail is jealously guarded by Transport for London.
Instead, they are simply paid to ply the route, and they are paid according to a formula that depends on the number of miles travelled during the day; and so the buses’ real incentive is to whizz around London as fast as possible with as few passengers as possible, and certainly not to linger for a straggler.
So next time you experience that lung-bursting agony of running for a bus, and then see it heave out into the traffic just as you get there, ask yourself whether it might be possible to devise a more sensible system, with improved incentives – a system that protected off-peak services and yet stopped propelling buses as fast as possible from stop to stop.
At which point the reader may be forgiven for reaching for the emergency bell and asking me to explain why this column – normally so global in its concerns – seems to be delving into the detail of London bus routes.
You might expect me to be revolving such questions as whether Gordon Brown will have the guts to call an October election or whether – as I suspect – he will be a big girl’s blouse.
The answer is that I am campaigning to be the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, and, while I do not want to abuse my tenancy of this space, let me briefly say that it is high time the Labour incumbent was removed, and it is high time all 32 London boroughs – from Barnet to Bexley, from Hillingdon to Havering – received value for the average £288 every household is paying for the Mayor; and anyone who wants to find out more about our plans for less crime and improved housing and better transport should now dial up a website called Backboris.com.
But, in the meantime, I want to clamber back aboard that bus argument, and I merely observe that, if you could find a better way of paying the bus companies, then they would not only have an incentive to pick up shattered shoppers, they would be motivated to crack down on fare-dodgers, who are now epidemic on the bendy buses, and the general incentive to encourage fare-paying passengers would mean thinking about the number one problem: what to do about the scourge of some obstreperous kids, who are abusing the privilege of free travel for the under-16s and making life miserable for the other passengers, sometimes turning the buses into glorified getaway cars for their criminal escapades.
That is a problem that urgently needs a solution, and not a complacent refusal to admit that there is a problem at all; and when I think about the plight of that lady running for the bus, I have a final suggestion.
I have just driven a Routemaster bus for the first time, and everything about it is a joy: the riveted aluminium so redolent of Second World War aircraft, the indestructible floor of compressed rubber and cork; the way its flanks heave like a warhorse as it throbs into the life, the efficiency of its engine that can do 11mpg, as opposed to the 3mpg of its heavier successors.
Alas, I don’t think that current legislation would permit me to reintroduce the Routemasters as they were. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could design a beautiful successor to the cyclist-killing bendy-bus, a 21st-century Routemaster?
Not only could bus drivers operate under new financial arrangements, with an incentive to hang on for passengers who are only inches away, but we would once again have a machine whose speed of embarkation and disembarkation was one of the miracles of London – and the waiting would be less inconvenient for the rest of the bus.
Someone once said that “only a ghastly, dehumanised moron would get rid of the Routemaster”, and that someone, of course, was the man who got rid of it.