Yesterday, as I was going down the stairs on the bus, it jerked to a halt and I nearly lost my balance. It often happens and, as usual, it wasn’t a sudden and necessary reaction to traffic: we had simply arrived at the bus stop. There are some bus drivers whose driving style is calculated to inspire terror in all their passengers, but this wasn’t one of them. Why then was he so careless of his passengers’ comfort and safety?
I think the answer is disarmingly simple: he was the driver, not a passenger. The experience of being a driver is not like that of being a passenger. Drivers do not walk around a moving bus. Drivers do not struggle to find a seat, and are not left to stand because they have failed in their struggle. What feels like very moderate braking when you are the driver feels very different when you are the passenger.
My recollection is that the old routemasters didn’t brake so sharply. Maybe my recollection is ruined with nostalgia. Maybe they didn’t have to brake hard because they had virtually no power of acceleration. But maybe it’s because there was a bus conductor.
The ostensible purpose of bus conductors was to collect fares. But as a by-product, they were quasi-passengers, having elements of the experience of real passengers, among them being thrown around by sudden braking. My entirely evidence free guess is that one reason that drivers of routemasters didn’t throw their passengers around is because their conductors were well placed to give them pretty pithy feedback.
Now there are no bus conductors. Now a potential source of feedback has been lost. Now it sometimes feels as though the bus is going round corners on two wheels.
Bus drivers presumably feel close to their buses. If they are not on the frontline of public services, who is? And yet they are impossibly distant from their customers.
What then of the rest of us?
Bus conductors can be invaluable – though even they can never be more than a proxy for actual customers. If you have bus conductors in your service, listen to them. If you don’t have any bus conductors, the silence does not mean that there are no messages to be heard.
And of course, we are promised the return of the conductor on London’s new bus of the future. How helpful of the mayor to arrange some testing of my hypothesis.
Picture © Paul Clarke, used with permission