Earlier this year, as he was stepping off the back of a New Routemaster, a friend of mine had his knee twatted by a door mechanism that was channeling the till from Open All Hours. Reeling from the pain, he wondered whether it was the driver or the bus that was to blame. Actually, it was Boris Johnson's fault. According to a promise Johnson had made to Londoners, that door was never going to be there in the first place.
In his former guise as Mayor of London back in 2010, Johnson had pledged — as a flagship part of his manifesto, mind — that every New Routemaster would have a 'hop on, hop off' option, each vehicle manned by a conductor. It was going to be just like in the good old days. You know, when they had proper sitcoms like On the Buses and Love Thy Neighbour.
If that sounded too good financially reckless to be true, it was. By 2016, the open platform, and accompanying conductors, were consigned to the scrapheap. 300 employees lost their jobs. (The conductors' job, by the way, had never been to sell tickets, which they couldn't. It was, presumably, to ensure that the mayor's encouragement for Londoners to leap at moving vehicles with Flynn-esque derring-do, didn't end up in a flurry of law suits.)
This was just one of a litany of smashed promises and U-turns that have come to characterise the New Routemaster. And the parallels between these lumbering four-wheeled elephants, and the man who's since used his mayoralty as a step-ladder to PM, pretty much write themselves.
As the New Routemasters were rolled out onto London's streets in February 2012, the then-mayor of London hailed them as "the most high tech piece of motoring technology I've ever seen". (Clearly tech guru Jennifer Arcuri hadn't given him a heads-up about Google's self-driving Toyotas — also a thing back then.) This was Johnson's 'Make London Great Again' moment; a calculated throwback to the post-war London of 1950s — one where every day is another Festival of Britain, with spotted dick and lashings of custard for afters. The buses were good, honest, hard-working British buses too.
Of course, tweaks would have to be made to the original, beloved 1956 AEC Routemaster design. The new guard of Routemaster would have to tick the eco-friendly box, slotting in with Johnson's promise to make London a greener city. A diesel-hybrid engine meant that the New Routemasters were the "cleanest, greenest" buses in town. Admirable stuff.
Except, due to widespread battery failure, many wound up running purely off diesel, emitting 74% more harmful particles than the buses they'd replaced. This is the same Johnson, of course, who insists that he frets dearly about the climate crisis, but was recently replaced with a melting ice sculpture after failing to show up for a TV debate on the matter. In 2019, he also watched on as an unlawful ban on Extinction Rebellion protests took place in the capital.
The New Routemasters had a climate issue all of their own, too. Anyone who's boarded the number 12 on a hot July afternoon will know all too well the stifling heat, accompanied by an ever-present eau de micturition. Maybe you can't blame Johnson directly for this, but you can sure as hell imagine him poo-pooing the need for the windows in the first place. The windows were eventually, sheepishly, retro-fitted in a U-turn that hit up the taxpayer for a cheeky £2m. Another fine mess that Johnson got his successor, Sadiq Khan, into.
"Designed for Londoners," smarmed the New Routemaster motto, with a subheading that ran like something between a Hyundai advert and political strap-line: "Newer. Better. Sleeker." Well, yes, they were newer (duh). Maybe sleeker too. But better? Despite Johnson's behind-the-curtains Poindexter (Thomas Heatherwick, in this case, rather than Dominic Cummings) dreaming up one handsome-looking machine, with Ziggy Stardust-like streaks of black-tinted glass, the Routemasters were never practical. Heat aside, the legroom is stingy. The handrail on the stairs is too low. I think I've mentioned those lethal back doors.
In fact, these buses were designed for Londoners about as much as Johnson's calamitous Garden Bridge was designed for Londoners: they weren't. Like the Garden Bridge, these mobile vanity slabs — which came to be known, with sickly predictability, as 'Boris Buses' — racked up way more cost for the taxpayer than initially promised. (At least, I suppose, unlike the Garden Bridge, the New Routemasters do actually exist.) The New Routemaster was an unabashed dissertation in narcissism for one man. Since then, Johnson's stepped it up a gear; his latest vanity project is winning a majority to become one of the most powerful men in the world.
Even as I'm writing this, news has come in that, due to a surfeit of fare evasion (ah yes, something else that Johnson hadn't considered/didn't care about), the back and middle doors will be made redundant. Johnson is the kind of a man who promises three doors, and winds up giving you one.
Rotund, red and jolly good fun on the outside, the reality of the New Routemasters tells a vastly different story. Shambling, retro-fitted Frankenstein's monsters, they no longer know what they stand for. They are lies on wheels. They sold themselves to Londoners as one thing, and unravelled as a stinking coil of unpleasant surprises. The British company that made them has since gone to rack and ruin (British rack and ruin, mind).
And although plenty of Londoners retain a fondness for these buses — or the way they appear on the surface at least — TfL is through with them. It won't be buying any more. It'll be glad to see the curvaceous back of them. It won't be long before the New Routemasters are put out to pasture, to work on the transportation version of the after-dinner circuit; heritage open days. Making people laugh and revel in their silly rambunctiousness. But not actually playing an actual daily part in their lives. Hell not that.
Around the same time the New Routemaster's conductors were given the heave-ho, Johnson was making more bus-related promises. What the legacy of London's New Routemaster spells out — in massive Pantone 485 C lettering — is that we should think twice before believing any of the fumes emitted from the current prime minister.