For most Londoners, the London bus is a nightmare. It’s the alternative option you never want to take, your last resort when late at night your phone dies and an uber can’t whisk you away from whatever house party/rave/ironic-disco/karaoke/actual-disco/rooftop bar you are trying to escape. Slow and meandering, the London bus (particularly in its nocturnal form) is more of a mobile rubbish bin full of crumpled cans of Carlsberg and greasy half-eaten boxes of fried chicken than a viable mode of transport. Yet to the rest of the world, London’s double decker bus is one of the capital’s most iconic features alongside the red telephone booth, the Queen, and pubs bustling with pints and patrons at 10 in the morning. Where did these quintessentially London vehicles come from and were they always littered with the nibbled bones of fried chicken?
The first double decker bus did not originate from London, but somewhat surprisingly, from Paris. In 1828, business man Stanislas Baudry set up the route, picking up passengers in a horse-drawn double decker omnibus. Inspired by the success of the Parisian bus service, George Shillibeer started the first London bus service in 1829, offering a route between Paddington and Bank. Shillibeer’s bus could carry 22 people and cost 1 shilling per journey (the equivalent of 5 pence in today’s money). While it seems cheap to us, the poor Victorians thought the shilling was far from a bargain.
The first engine-powered double-decker bus appeared in London in 1923. At this time, there were a shortage of buses in London and various companies competed against each other for bus dominance. By 1924 there were over 200 independent buses operating in the city, running along popular routes. Such independent buses were known as “pirate buses” (though, sadly, they lacked peg-legged men with eye patches). Not shackled to an official route, pirate buses would sometimes take side streets and alternative routes to get to destinations faster. It was because of the competing bus companies that London General Omnibus Company—the biggest operator in the city—painted their buses red to stand out from the competition. The Metropolitan Police approved of the red buses; the colour was so easy to spot acting as a warning to those crossing the street.
The most iconic version of the London double decker bus is the Routemaster, which most modern designs are now modeled after. Designed in 1956, the Routemaster bus operated for more than half a century in the capital. It was most famous for its open rear entrance, which also caused its eventual decline in use. The Routemaster was the cause of many accidents as people ran and jumped onto it whilst it was in motion or jumped off before an official stop. It was also very challenging for elderly and handicapped people to use easily. Eventually it was replaced in 2005 by modern double decker buses. That said, you might still see Routemasters driving through central London on one of the two heritage routes!
But why did double decker buses flourish in London more so than single decker buses? Single-decker buses offer a lot of pros: they can go through tunnels with low ceilings, they are easier for handicapped passengers, and usually allow for more standing space. But in a place like London with so many narrow passages and shifting roads, the length of a single decker was problematic; the arc of its turn would slow down and disrupt traffic. Besides, tourists and sightseers enjoy the view of double decker buses; which is why, even in cities like Toronto that don’t have double decker buses in their public transport system, still have open rooftop tourist buses for people visiting the city. And probably the biggest pro of the double decker bus is this: more seating space. Say what you will about the London bus, having a seat—even if its beside a drunk homeless man—beats having your face wedged into someone’s armpit on the tube.
But maybe the double decker isn’t enough… If a bus can have two floors, why not three? Turns out, the triple decker bus brings a lot of complications with it. Its height puts it in danger of crashing into trees and bridges for one. Though famously a triple-decker bus operated in 1932, going from Rome to Tivoli. However this triple-decker was a bit of a cop-out: as the third level was only at the rear of the bus. The most famous triple decker bus—complete with a full length third deck—is purely fictional and that is the Knight Bus from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Built for the third film, the triple decker bus is one of few in existence. Only available to wizards, the bus requires one to stick out their wand into the road like some sort of magical hitchhiker. The bus serves hot chocolate at the price of 13 sickles. As with real London buses, stretching back to their earliest days, this is far from a bargain.
Photography by Meredith Sherlock for Londnr