If you want to know where all the Underground is, you check a tube map. TfL print millions of paper copies every year, stick it up on station platforms and provide digital files you can take with you anywhere.
But if you want to know where all London's buses go, you can't. TfL have decided they can't be bothered to update their London-wide bus maps any more, nor print any further copies, and last week they removed the final set of digital files from their website.
This quintet of bus maps used to be updated every 6-9 months, but after January 2015 there was a gap of over a year until March 2016, and there haven't been any further updates since. Meanwhile dozens of bus routes across the capital have changed, indeed the diversion, curtailment and even removal of London bus routes has been particularly severe over the last 18 months. It is still relatively easy to find printed copies of the March 2016 bus maps in bus stations and travel centres, while stocks last, but each is now increasingly out of date.
Alas, as of Wednesday last week the Bus Maps page on the TfL website no longer links to the Central London bus map nor to any of the four quadrant maps. It looks like a very deliberate withdrawal - the original pdf addresses now only offer 'file not found'. There is still a map of 'Key routes in central London' on the Bus Maps page, but that's a dumbed-down selective diagram aimed at tourists (and also, if anyone's bothered, out of date).
What do still exist on the website are all the various bus spider maps, of the kind you might see pinned up in a bus shelter.
Whether you're in Trafalgar Square or Ruislip, Ilford or Chessington North you can download a weblike diagram which shows, reasonably clearly, where all the buses from that area go. All the bus stops within a one and a half mile radius are shown, plus important stops further out, presented in an approximately geographically correct layout. What aren't shown are any other buses, even those than run almost nearby, the map simply shows where you can travel to without changing.
TfL tried removing all the spider maps from their website when they updated it 2½ years ago, because they thought they had something interactively better. Every bus route was given its own webpage, with a Google map, which you could scroll around and zoom into to see all the stops. Also every bus stop now had its own webpage, with a Google map, which showed where all the bus routes at that stop were going and where they'd been. Here's the map for Bus Stop M in Bow, as an example, and perhaps you can see a few problems.
All the routes are red, with no way of distinguishing one from another. No route numbers are shown, not even if you zoom in or click on anything - the letter of the bus stop at the terminus is shown instead. Because this is a Google map it's really rubbish at showing placenames. Discovering the names of the bus stops only becomes possible at a ridiculously close level of zoom.
This is brilliant, TfL's digital team thought back in 2014, so nobody will need those spider maps any more. This is crap, everyone else said, and so TfL put the spider maps back almost straight away. If you've never used TfL's Google bus map overlays you are not alone, neither are you missing much.
Essentially, the only way it's now possible to view London's bus network is one route or one node at a time. The general web of routes, the actual TfL bus network, has now disappeared. In particular, the question it's no longer possible to answer cartographically is "If I get off this bus at X, what other buses can I change onto and where might that take me?"
So, what on earth is going on? Various people have tried to find out.
Jennette Arnold, a member of the London Assembly, asked a specific Mayoral Question.
I've never heard of these Travel Options leaflets, nor seen one in real life, nor are they available to download from the TfL website. I did go down to the bus stations at Stratford and North Greenwich to ask for one, but the information office windows were closed like they usually are, so no luck there.
What I do have is a leaflet from October 2012 which fits the description almost perfectly. It's called 'Your guide to buses from Stratford and Stratford City', and contains a spider map of buses in the Stratford area, a Legible London map of the area, an index of destinations and a list of first and last bus times.
It is, essentially, a location-specific travel guide. What it's not is a redesign of a quadrant map. What's more, if only seven of these are available, mostly in Zone 1, they do not in any way replace the large scale geographic maps that used to cover the entire capital. Whoever wrote that Mayoral Answer is a first class weasel.
When this Mayoral Answer was published in June, the Central London Bus map was indeed still available, if 15 months out of date, being particularly wrong in the vicinity of Oxford Street where most of the recent changes have occurred. As of this month, however, only the dumbed-down some-buses-only tourist map still exists online, which may be what the Mayoral Answer was referring to.
As for the trial of a new local area bus map in Barkingside, the key word there is 'local', and no way is it an improvement.
These new spider maps remove any semblance of geographical reality and instead present bus routes as straightened-out lines. They also reference fewer locations, so it's harder to work out which bus might take you where you want to go. They're dramatically over-simplified, in the same way a tube map is, except with most of the stops missing. They will never ever replace the quadrant maps, and to slip them into a Mayoral Answer on the subject reeks of desperation.
So the Mayoral Answer answers nothing. Neither has anyone yet had any luck with a Freedom of Information request, although Hugo had a go...
You might expect TfL to have an overall London bus map they use for internal planning purposes, but nobody's asked for that yet. Plus you have to ask really really carefully otherwise they always find some cunning reason not to share, or else they claim they don't specifically have what you specifically asked for.
Perhaps the real truth behind the maps' disappearance lies in this comment on The Bus Forum back in May.
When money's tight, as the Mayor's fare freeze ensures it is at TfL these days, cutting back on contracts deemed unnecessary can save the day. In this case the FWT team at Oxford Cartographers appear to have lost out, and without their expertise TfL don't have the talent, cash or inclination to produce a similarly complex set of quadrant maps.
Before any of us get too carried away, it must be remembered that the vast majority of Londoners don't give a damn. They don't use quadrant bus maps to plan their journeys, they use the Journey Planner, or an app of some kind, or have a regular route that doesn't require complex assimilation. The fact that hundreds of printed copies of the quadrant maps remain in travel centres 18 months after they were published is a pretty good measure of public indifference. You and I might be the sort of people who want to see in advance where all the buses in Walthamstow go, but most people don't care, or can wait until they get there to find out.
As a reader of this blog you're far more likely to be of the mindset that this is a ghastly abdication of public duty, a nanny-state withdrawal of crucial information that allowed intelligent travellers to plan their own journeys. But intelligent travellers are very much in the minority, with TfL's more populist approach being to spoonfeed routing via the Journey Planner on demand, based on the assumption that everyone has a smartphone these days.
I think the deletion of a London-wide bus map is an ill-judged mis-step. Whole chunks of the capital no longer have any useful visual representation of what buses run there and where they go. Perhaps more importantly in this age of the 2-bus 'Hopper', there's no longer any map to suggest a second bus you might want to change onto later in your journey unless a website or app has told you it exists. What kind of transport organisation doesn't provide a map of its network of bus services, or at least not one it'll let you see?
There is a privately-funded option - The Greater London Bus Map - independently created by Mike Harris. His latest map (the 36th since 1995) was published on 29th July 2017, and covers the whole of London in one go (in sometimes quite small type). If you want a full colour map with the correct buses down Oxford Street and which reflects all the recent upheaval around Orpington, Mike's your man. A printed copy of The Greater London Bus Map costs £2, or a digital download £1, plus all the profits from the enterprise go to charity. Thanks Mike!
But really, shouldn't TfL be producing a map, or maps, like this themselves? Not some unlabelled lines on a Google backdrop, nor some micro-focused Travel Options Leaflet, but something which shows where their buses, plural, actually go. Even in an age of digital enlightenment, when bus passenger numbers are falling, the last thing you should do is make your network invisible.