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On the London Bus Ride

30th July 2013

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Buses run around the whole of the UK and, indeed, the greater part of the world. Yet I am reasonably certain that nowhere, and definitely in no part of the UK (I speak as a sort of very sad connoisseur), will you find a more bizarre or more eye-opening bus ride than in London.

You can try suffocating in the tube, scowling at all the other speed-freaks living too much of a jet-set, fast-paced lifestyle to get a less suffocate-y form of transport; you could consider hiring a cab and suffering the extreme neck pains associated with trying to look down your nose at pedestrians from a foot or two below their head-height; you could even pay the small price to hire out a ‘Boris-Bike’ and flash your throbbing I’m-a-salad-eater thighs at the world whilst sweating round endless streams of scornful traffic. You will never, however, find a better form of transport for seeing the real London and understanding what a bizarre creature she truly is. The London bus ride is the only way to really see the city.

And London is a truly, deeply strange city when you get down into the heart of it. The beauty (and often terror) of seeing London by bus is the continuity. The majority of people (your bemused self with its current what-the-hell-is-he-talking-about expression included, I’m sure), associate London with the press and bustle of the underground. You have visions of packed, sweaty carriages, grimy handrails, rumbling, deafening journeys, dimly-lit, grey-ish platforms flashing by, and finally, of the glare of daylight as you emerge into a crowded street in a completely different area of London to the one you started in. You don’t get a sense of the route from one place to another. To the tube-user, London is a set of completely separate, utterly different areas only connected by the rattle and sweat of journeys on the underground. To the tube-user, in essence, it’s just a slightly more lively Monopoly board, where this place simply can‘t connect to that because this is green and that‘s light blue. And this is how a surprising number of people see the sprawling city of London. Not so the bus-user.                                                                                                                                                                                 You can see everything the great city has to offer by bus, and everything it has to hide, too. As you may just about be able to tell, I’ve been riding a lot of buses lately, and I’ve been surprised - stunned, actually. When you travel through London by bus, you see the connections - the overspills. You see how one Monopoly property actually flows over into the next - how London blends together - what all its parts amount to when you put them all together. The modernist novelist Elizabeth Bowen wrote in To the North of ‘entirely moral’ bus routes - bus routes that were, unlike so many, ‘suitable for a young girl’ of a certain standard of education to travel on - routes with sights fit for the respectable, well-brought up mind. There may still be some of those routes about: the 88’s pretty sound. It covers Piccadilly Circus, Whitehall, Warren Street, and stops before you get so far north that you start having to deal with all those pesky poor people spoiling the view. Or, of course, there’s the 24 (now redirected since Bowen’s day), which good old Boris has recently upgraded to the new LT13 bus model, just to really plop the Marks and Spencer’s pre-stoned Morello cherry on top of its respectability.         

What I’m really getting at, unhappily (and probably by this point quite angrily) bemused readers, is what travelling London by bus will show you about the differences around the city - the contrasts it lays bare. There may still be one or two completely ‘moral’ bus routes (by which Bowen’s character almost certainly means ‘affluent’ bus routes), but by and large you cannot ride a London bus very far without seeing almost incredible, awe-inspiring wealth directly contrasted with extreme poverty, degradation and human suffering. It is these sights - these visions of London as it really is - that the tube-user rumbles under and does not see. It is these sights I would urge you to see.                                                                                                                                                                                                           In a report published earlier this year by the Greater London Authority, it was stated that ‘in London, the tenth of the population with the highest income have weekly income after housing costs of over £1,000 while people in the lowest tenth have under £94 per week’. It was further stated that ‘the gap between rich and poor is growing, with the difference between the average income for the second highest tenth and second lowest tenth growing around 14 per cent more than inflation since 2003’. In his 2010 book, Injustice: Why Social Inequality Exists, Professor Danny Dorling stated that the richest tenth of Londoners had an average wealth of £933,563, which was 273 times greater than the lowest 10 per cent, which had an average wealth of £3,420. He further claimed that this gap was worse than comparable cities, such as Tokyo and New York. He finally asserted that ‘we are getting wealth inequalities in London now that have not been seen since the days of a slave-owning elite.’ This was, I remind you, in 2010. All major studies since have shown that London’s wealth-gap is worsening. Riding the buses of London, you cannot escape the evidence of these problems. You are overwhelmed by it. Ride long enough on the top floor of one of London’s iconic red double-deckers and the city will open itself and its secrets to you; they are not pretty.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         So what have I come to, dear readers? What is the London bus-ride? The cheapest means for a poorly-paid menial labourer to travel to work from his cupboard in Tottenham and store up information to use in his student newspaper? Well, yes… but I won’t dwell on that too much. It is also the key to binding one of the world’s largest, most diverse cities together - to coming as close as possible to seeing it as a unified whole. And when you do see London as a whole, you see much. You see the most populous city of the European Union and also its most visited; a city with over 300 different spoken languages; a city that is statistically the third ‘most filmed’ in the world; a city with over 12,000 restaurants; a city with the largest concentration of universities in Europe.

You also see the city with the highest rents in the world; a city with the third-highest number of billionaires in the world; a city containing the most expensive apartment on the globe; a city with a greater wealth-inequality problem than any other comparable metropolitan area on the planet. A city with ‘wealth inequalities’ not seen ‘since the days of a slave-owning elite’. I could write chapters and chapters on the optimistic first few points, but I’m afraid that’s what travel agencies and Boris-sponsored websites are for. You will have seen the first set of statistics plastered over everything and everyone during the Olympics last year, and you can probably hear them from any government official now. It is, however, the latter set of statistics we really need to talk about and see, and there is no better way than on the London bus ride. 

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