diamond geezer

 Monday, May 29, 2006

A Farewell

Something small but significant vanishes from the streets of London this week. The letter A. Or, to be more specific, letters at the end of bus numbers. There are tons of London bus services with a letter at the beginning (nightbuses for example, and most of the buses in Hillingdon and Walthamstow) but only one bus still has a letter at the end. There used to be scores of them. Not for much longer.

60 years ago there weren't just As after bus numbers, there were Bs and Cs too. Between Stratford and Forest Gate, for example, you could have ridden aboard the 25, 25A, 25B or 25C. But travel any further east and you had to know precisely which variant to catch (the 25 to Goodmayes, the 25A to Chigwell, the 25B to Becontree Heath or the 25C to the Woolwich Ferry). No wonder they've simplified things since. Thirty years ago there was only a single C remaining (the 77C, for what it's worth), while Bs faded away in 1994 with the disappearance of the 36B.

Which just leaves the 77A. The perfect, nay the only, bus to catch if you ever need to escape Wandsworth for the centre of town. Between Clapham and Vauxhall it shares the road with its twin the 77, then heads across the Thames past Tate Britain and the Houses of Parliament on its way to Aldwych. Just another ordinary bus, but with what is now an out-of-date route number. That A has to go.

Reshuffling bus numbers isn't easy. Almost all of the possible route designations from 1 to 300 are already taken, so planners have had to be cunning in swapping round some other routes to make space. In this case they've scrapped the old 87 (which has run for years between Barking and Romford) and simply extended the 5 to Romford to make up for the loss. A two-digit number ending in 7 is now conveniently vacant, and so from Saturday morning the 77A will be rebranded as the 87. No need to worry about which 77 goes where, because there's only going to be one of them. Much easier to remember, honest.

And letters aren't all that's disappearing. Lists of destinations on the front of buses are being cleaned up too. The future is big, bold and basic. The front of this number 13 bus is fairly typical of the new order. Gone is the list of intermediate destinations...
Finchley Road  Oxford Circus
  Piccadilly Circus  Strand
replaced by just the terminus and a giant number in a font size large enough for even the most myopic passenger. Apparently there's no point in listing key intermediate stops any more because (if you don't know London at all) there's no way of knowing whether or not the bus has already passed them. To work out where the bus will be stopping you'll need to check the timetable at the bus stop instead, assuming it's not been vandalised. It's getting more like taking the tube, really. The front of a Piccadilly line tube will only read Cockfosters, for example, and then you're supposed to work out from a map that the train's heading east and will be stopping at those nice museums, Harrods, Covent Garden and that big square with all the cinemas.

It seems that, in accommodating the Disability Discrimination Act, less is more. Accessibility is about so much more than just step-free access, it's also about having a dead simple system of route numbers and destinations. We must now remove information from the front of buses in case it baffles people. We need to write everything in really big letters so that the short-sighted aren't disadvantaged. And we can't have complicated bus numbers any more, because they confuse tourists and those with an IQ below 70. No matter that generations of Londoners have coped with such complexities before. Come Friday evening, letter-suffix extinction beckons. I wonder what they'll kill off next?

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