"As Long As 13 London Buses": The Curious, Spurious Comparisons We Find In The Media

M@
By M@
"As Long As 13 London Buses": The Curious, Spurious Comparisons We Find In The Media

The international space station with 13 buses on top
The ISS is as long as 13 buses. Image not based on actual events. (Background image via Nasa, public domain. Buses and dodgy photoshop by Matt Brown.)

A look at London stuff that often gets used in comparisons... and a few things that should be.

The mainstream media and, indeed, the niche media, love a good simile. It can't be assumed that everyone knows what a metre or a kilogram or a mile looks like, so commentators like to throw in their handy comparisons.

A typical blue whale, we're told, weighs the same as 25 African elephants, or 150 Honda Civics, or 15 school buses, or 1,600,000 slices of pizza. And that's just from page 1 of a quick Google search.

All well and good, but not everyone is familiar with the chosen comparators. I'm not sure I know what a Honda Civic is (a car, not a motorbike, right?). Are we talking American school buses, or British coach-style buses? Meanwhile, I have too much familiarity with the weight of a pizza, but I have no concept of the mass that 1.6 million of them might embody.

The typical simile is about as helpful as 9.23 chocolate teapots.

Quite often, these comparisons namechecks an object or place in London, on the assumption that most British readers will be able to relate. Below, we've rounded up some of the most common ones, and suggested a few of our own.

Length: The London Bus

Did you know that the International Space Station is the length of 13 London buses? Or that the world's biggest aircraft, the Antonov An-225 Mriya, stretches to seven and a half of the vehicles? The London bus is the universally acknowledged yardstick for length (when an actual yardstick isn't available). It's perfect — an object longer than a car that everyone is very familiar with. Everyone British at least. Well... everyone in London... who catches buses... but that's still a lot of people.

How long is a London bus? Modern double-deckers range from roughly 9 to 11 metres. However, the bus most associated with London is the classic Routemaster, which is typically 8.38 metres. That's one-thirteenth of an International Space Station.

In more down-to-Earth terms, a Routemaster is as long as 98.6 Oyster cards laid end-to-end, which is our choice of London unit for smaller distances.

Width: Also the London Bus

The Thames supersewer, we learnt on a recent, bizarre site visit, is the width of three London buses. Yup, buses can be used to measure acrossways as well as alengthways... or whatever the clever terminology is.

An alternative unit would be the Emerald, after Emerald Court in Bloomsbury. According to IanVisits, this is London's narrowest alley at "just 26 inches wide" (66cm in proper money). So we can say that the O2 dome, for example, is 553 Emeralds wide, or that your standing space on a packed Northern line train is 0.5 Emeralds.

A shot of Emerald COurt in Bloomsbury pointed out by an arrow
Emerald Court via Google Street View. IanVisits and his tape measure not pictured

Height: Nelson's Column

The most obvious tall thing in London is the Shard. But that's useless as a unit because it's the loftiest game in town. Any comparisons would be fractional ("it's a third as big as the Shard" etc.). A much better choice, and one that's often deployed, is Nelson's Column. At 51.59 metres, it is an impressively tall structure, yet small fry compared to many of London's buildings. So we can say that the London Eye is about 2.6 times as tall as Nelson's Column. The Shard, meanwhile, is precisely six times as tall as Nelson's Column.

Examples from around the web include the Temenos sculpture on the River Tees, the Titanic, and 5G phone masts in the British countryside — all of which are said to be "as tall as Nelson's Column". My favourite of all, though, is the distance between London King's Cross and Harrogate, which train operator LNER describe as "about 5,500 times as tall [sic] as Nelson's Column".

Area: Centre Court, Wimbledon

I don't think I've ever read a paragraph about the lungs without their surface area being compared to the size of a tennis court. The metaphor is so entrenched that it's even spawned an academic analysis, which largely debunks the comparison.

Sometimes the likening is more specific and Centre Court at Wimbledon is invoked. So we learn that Go Ape's Buckinghamshire treetop playground is "about the size of Centre Court". Terry Walton's allotment is "the size of Centre Court". And each of Ham House's lawns is "the size of Centre Court". In each case, its unclear whether the comparison is to the grassy bit alone, or the area of the entire court, stands and all.

It's all academic, though, because everyone knows that "the size of Wales" is the standard unit of area.

Mass: London buses... again

Three double deckers in a bermondsey railside yard
About a quarter of a fatberg's-worth of buses. Image: Matt Brown

The Brent oil platforms each weighed the same as 2,000 London buses.
The famous fatberg beneath Whitechapel in 2017 weighed as much as 11 double decker buses.
The litter picked up in London's Royal Parks in just one year weighs the same as 157 double decker buses.

There is no escaping the London bus. It is the Swiss army knife of comparators (and weighs the same as 124,000 Swiss army knives).

Time: The Tube minute

A special version of standard time, pioneered by the London Underground, which sees trains arriving much later than anticipated by the display boards. The time dilation effects are particularly keen on the Circle, District and Hammersmith & City lines, where an indicated "2 minutes" can take as long as seven of your regular minutes. Famously, the Premier League adopted the tube minute system for the 2023/24 season. This is why games now typically extend over 100 minutes.

Thameslink also attempted to switch to the system a few years back, but hit some temporal anomalies in the Luton area.

Thameslink train times with a 9999 minute wait
Image: Matt Brown

Age: The Totteridge Yew

The Totteridge Yew is widely recognised as London's oldest living inhabitant. Its gnarled form might have seen 2,000 summers, which would make it older than London itself. So we can say that Cleopatra's Needle is as old as 1.75 Totteridge Yews, while the Shard has stood for a two-hundredth of its lifespan (and Londonist has been bringing you silly articles like this for 1% of its lifetime). In truth, it's not the best benchmark against which to compare, not least because its age is a little uncertain. But we had to include it because nothing compares... nothing compares TO YEW.

Temperature: August on the Victoria line

The deep-level tube lines are a rotten place to be at the height of summer, but the Victoria line is worst of all. The route never emerges above ground and ventilation is poor. According to figures from TfL, the line typically runs at 24℃, even in winter. At the height of summer, it can easily reach 31℃ (and very occasionally as high as 34℃), which is when everyone starts trotting out the line about it being "illegal to transport cattle" in such heat. So next time you're stifling in your office or non-air-conditioned bedroom, you have a thermal yardstick against which you can compare.

Luminosity: Piccadilly Circus lights

"It's like Blackpool illuminations in 'ere," was a common if inaccurate observation of the last century, whenever anybody had more than a dozen lightbulbs in their Christmas decorations. The London equivalent would probably be Piccadilly Circus, with its famous glowing advertisements. The lights have been around in one form or another since 1908 but the current wraparound is so bright that we wouldn't be surprised to find Eros melting into the gutter from its intense glare.

Eros melting
"I'm melting, melting..."

We can imagine headlines like: "Astronomers spot supernova as bright as 0.5 Piccadilly Circuses," or "Rylan's new veneers seven times as luminous as Piccadilly lights."

Got a suggestion for another London measurement system? Let's hear them in the comments.

Last Updated 25 March 2024