Reporting from London — London wouldn't be London without its red double-decker buses. Icons on wheels, they're as much a part of the city's history as the landmarks and monuments they roll past, usually at excruciatingly slow speed.
But a bit of London's soul was lost six years ago when the last of the classic Routemaster buses, which came with a conductor and an open back platform for passengers to hop on and off at will, were retired from service after half a century's hard work. Like old-fashioned phone boxes (also bright red), another unique feature of British life seemed destined for the scrap heap.
So there was rejoicing this week when an updated version of the old Routemaster made its long-awaited debut as the first bus to be specifically designed for London since the original appeared in the 1950s.
For Nicholas Bennett, a 62-year-old born and bred in the British capital, it was almost like greeting an old friend.
"It's a historic day," he said excitedly after competing (unsuccessfully, alas) with dozens of other passengers hoping to take the first ride on the new bus Monday morning. "I think it'll be a worthy successor."
This being London, the occasion wouldn't be complete without a dollop of political sniping too, most of it over the cost of designing and manufacturing the new bus in an age of austerity. Critics call it an expensive vanity project of London's verbally dexterous but poorly coiffed mayor, Boris Johnson, who's up for reelection this year.
Still, applause greeted the first new Routemaster when it pulled into Victoria station in central London from the northern district of Hackney, disgorging a clutch of obsessive transport enthusiasts known as "bus spotters" and fellow passengers who looked at them slightly askance.
The new Routemaster sports a sleeker, curvier exterior than the standard bus plying London's streets, which looks more like a shiny bread box. Long banks of windows let in light, rising in a whoosh along the sides and the back so that passengers climbing the stairs to the upper deck can see and be seen.
The interior evokes the old-fashioned Routemasters by offering upholstered, two-across benches instead of individual bucket seats. And to comply with regulations that didn't exist 50 years ago, the new vehicles allow for disabled access, and are more lightweight and fuel efficient than the old-fashioned kind.
But they're also 9 feet longer, which made the rounded tops and edges even more imperative to designer Thomas Heatherwick.
"It could so easily just become a gigantic brick on London streets," he said. "We felt we had to carve its corners back as much as possible to reduce the perceived mass of it."
Heatherwick is an acclaimed designer who created the British pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, a 65-foot-tall building made with 60,000 transparent rods; an eye-popping bridge in London that curls up like a scorpion's tail (look for the video on YouTube); and the caldron that will house the Olympic flame for this year's Summer Games.
Transport for London, the transit authority, let Heatherwick's studio start virtually from scratch in designing the new bus. It was a chance, he says, to take all the 21st century requirements — the environmental demands, the health and safety rules — and integrate them into a coherent whole. The current crop of double-decker buses in use are just basic off-the-shelf models made in Europe and patched with ad hoc modifications.
"In a way, a bus is like a piece of mobile architecture," Heatherwick said. "If you come to London, you'll probably see more sides and ends of buses than you are going to see any one building. So we felt a huge responsibility."
Just how seriously many Londoners take their buses was evident when the last remaining Routemasters were put out to pasture at the end of 2005. (A few have been kept on as stodgy "heritage" buses on tourist routes through the city.)
Outraged riders lobbied against the phaseout. Residents' frequent and sour complaints about the bus system gave way to a sudden rush of nostalgia, a lament for a London of a bygone era. Bus conductors, many of them newly arrived immigrants, were hailed as British heroes.
Fans eulogized the buses' high and narrow design that allowed smooth passage through narrow streets, the rivets that recalled World War II airplanes, the cozy upper deck that required the tall to stoop, the ability of riders to hop off the bus when stuck in bad traffic. Altogether, 2,760 Routemasters plied London's roads, some lasting for decades.
Dave Paskell, a member of a Routemaster aficionados group, rescued one of these workhorses from imminent doom and now hires it out for weddings and other events.
"It's amazing to me how many people recognize the bus. Even driving through central London, groups of young Koreans or young whatever from any part of the world … spot the Routemaster and out pop the cameras," Paskell said. "We get admiring glances and loads and loads of photographs."
Eight of the updated versions should be in service by summer, with 600 expected to beetle around central London within the next three to four years, said Mike Weston, operations director for the bus system.
Heatherwick hopes his fellow Londoners embrace the new Routemaster. Not that he'll necessarily be on it.
"I love taking buses, but I'm also a cyclist," Heatherwick said. "I've just got to make sure I don't get splattered by one of my buses."