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Travelling by Bus in London

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A London double-decker bus in action on Regent's Street.

Travelling in London isn't easy. Places can be far apart, the tube is expensive and overcrowded during the rush hours, and the roads are full of people using their cars to drive everywhere despite the congestion charge. Thankfully, bus lanes are still going strong in many parts of London, and although the old Routemaster bus has been confined to a single tourist run in central London, a fleet of red vehicles of various shapes and sizes still continue to crawl along the many roads of the capital in an attempt to move people from one place to another.

The Buses

Without looking in any detail at the long history of the various types of London buses, the fleet serving London can be summarised thus:

  • Single-deckers - these are the smallest buses, and may have only a single door at the front for entering and leaving. However, these buses can follow routes which aren't navigable by larger vehicles, and thus serve routes which are either circuitous or have fewer passengers.

  • Double-deckers - one of the main symbols of London for many years1, big red double-deckers of various designs still serve many routes in the capital. These buses have an entrance door at the front and an exit door halfway along the side, with the staircases mostly sitting somewhere in the middle of the bus. The upstairs section consists entirely of seating, while standing room and room for a wheelchair or pram is available downstairs.

  • Bendy buses - a relatively new addition to the fleet, the bendy bus is 18 metres long with an articulated section in the middle. It has fewer seats than the average double decker, but has more standing room and boasts three doors, the rear two of which slide open rapidly to allow as many people as possible to be crammed onto the bus. However, the length of the bus means it takes up more road, can easily block junctions and can have problems navigating corners. Due to the fact that passengers do not have to pass the driver when boarding, tickets should be bought before boarding and fare-dodging occurs more often than on other buses. It is common for people to crowd into the first two-thirds of the bus while leaving space towards the back, so always check the rear doors of a crowded bendy bus to see if there is room.

The bus routes in London are managed by London Buses on behalf of Transport for London. However, the buses themselves are operated by several different companies (such as Arriva, First Bus, London General and Metroline), who have to share the different routes, with the tender for each route being given to the lowest bidder. This means that strike action on the part of one operator will put only some bus routes out of action, but is still a problem due to the drop in capacity it causes. Despite the different companies operating the buses, all London buses are painted red, with only the occasional exception2.

Tickets and Fares

Tickets should be bought before boarding any bus in central London, and are also required before boarding any bendy bus, in order to decrease waiting time at bus stops. Routes which require a pre-paid ticket are indicated as such on bus stop signs. Despite being run by the same companies, buses outside central London will generally still accept cash, though it is advisable to buy a ticket before boarding any London bus. Ticket machines are available at most bus stops in central London, but take only the exact change. Single and all-day tickets are available from these machines, and expire in the early hours of the following morning even if not used.

'Saver tickets' can be bought from newsagents at a reduced price, but have an expiry date. Fares have recently been creeping up and up, to the point that the off-peak fare seems to have been abolished in favour of a more expensive fare all of the time. There are various schemes dictating who can travel for free, with children under 16 generally being able to travel for free on buses while the elderly are supplied with 'Freedom Passes' by their local council. However, with the exception of younger children, most free fares are only available to Londoners.


The Oyster card, an electronic pass that has begun to replace paper tickets, can be used on all of London's buses, with paper tickets having recently been made more expensive in order to encourage passengers to use the card. Cards can be applied for through the post or online, with Adult Oyster cards also being available from Oyster Ticket Stops. The most simple way to use an Oyster card is pay-as-you-go, where the card is 'topped-up' online or at a touch-screen at certain tube stations and can then be used as a ticket, with the price of journeys being deducted from the card. If several journeys are made, the total deducted in one day is capped at a maximum. Oyster Cards can also be charged up with various Travelcards3 for either the tube or just for bus travel, the latter being cheaper but only available from certain newsagents (referred to as 'Oyster Ticket Stops'). If you ask for a zone 1-4 bus pass for your Oyster Card at a tube station, they will stare blankly at you.

Bus Routes

During the daytime there are over 700 routes in operation, with 6,800 buses carrying around six million passengers on weekdays. Bus routes in London tend to follow the main roads through the city, of which there are many, and most locations along main routes are served by a number of buses in both directions. However, there are also the smaller buses which follow more unusual routes - it is best to avoid catching one of these, unless of course you know exactly where it is going.

In the case of complicated one-way systems and in crowded areas such as Camden Town, there will be several ways in which buses will traverse the area. In these areas, certain bus routes will call at certain stops, making it necessary to stand at the correct stop in order to catch the right bus. Bus routes will generally head in a certain direction for most of the route's length, although some do not follow this rule and instead loop back on themselves either a little or a lot.

Having a reasonable knowledge of the layout of the part of London you are travelling through will help enormously when catching more than one bus, as you will then be able to recognise the names of places partway between where you started and where you are going. The maps at bus stops usually list all stops within the local area plus all the major places on the routes from that bus stop.

Night Buses

Compared to their daytime counterparts, London's night bus drivers have gained quite a reputation for being apathetic, unhelpful or just downright mean. Those wishing to board a night bus should hail them clearly (see below) and should have their ticket or Oyster card ready. Nothing should be done to invoke the wrath or general attention of night bus drivers, as they enjoy peace and quiet almost as much as librarians.

The Night bus route network is not as comprehensive as the daytime routes and the buses are much less frequent. Some bus routes now operate a 24-hour service, while other routes have a dedicated night bus service, indicated by a letter 'N' in front of the number. These usually run over an extended and slightly different route compared to the daytime route with the same number, and generally terminate in central London. Many night buses call or terminate at Trafalgar Square, and other hubs include Victoria, Aldwych, Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road (south end) and Camden Town. It is possible to reach much of Zones 1-4 of London using just two night buses.

Bus Stops

The London bus stop usually consists of a small shelter and a signpost detailing the name of the stop, along with a list of places towards which buses will head, the numbers of the routes that stop there, and the letter code (eg 'G') for the bus stop if there are other stops nearby. There will usually be a map of the local area and a guide to which routes travelling in which directions will stop at each stop in the area. The map will also give an index of local bus routes accompanied by the letter codes of the bus stops at which you might wait for a certain bus. If you're not sure which bus to catch, then use this index instead of panicking and catching a bus to Winchmore Hill4.

Some stops also have a 'countdown' dot matrix screen which lists the next few buses to arrive, but with varying degrees of accuracy. Some buses won't even appear on the list until they're within sight, while others will appear on the list but fail to materialise for some time, only for three of the same number to turn up at once5. Occasionally, a bus stop will be marked as being out of use, with a temporary bus stop being placed nearby or instructions on how to find a nearby stop being posted in the bus shelter.

Hailing A Bus

Some bus stops that for some reason are deemed less important are labelled 'request stops'. The only difference with these is that it is necessary to stick out an arm for a couple of seconds in order to request that the bus stop for you. In practice it is usually a good idea to stick out your arm politely whenever you intend to board an oncoming bus. In the case of night buses this is doubly necessary, and passengers travelling very late at night are advised to stick out their arm in plenty of time and to keep it out until they see the bus indicating to pull over. Meanwhile, some of the more unusual bus routes have Hail and Ride sections, along which the bus can be hailed from a number of stopping places. Signs marking recommended stopping places are scattered along these sections and act as minor bus stops, and are the best places to hail the bus from.

Despite being hailed, bus drivers can use one of several reasons not to stop for you, and may even accelerate a little in order to prove their point. The bus may be overloaded or at risk of being overloaded due to the number of people waiting at the stop, or the driver may be near the end of his route and will simply decide not to bother stopping. Other reasons include a slightly emptier bus being right behind the one you are hailing, or that you weren't quite at the bus stop when you stuck your hand out and so all the running you did simply wasn't worth it. Meanwhile, there are those irritating buses which display the route number you are waiting for, but read 'Sorry! Not in service'.

Getting On

In the case of single-deckers and double-deckers, passengers have to board through the front door and leave through the rear door if one is present. Drivers of these buses may refuse to move their vehicle if anyone boards through the rear door, as buses can otherwise become overcrowded by fare dodgers. While tickets should always be shown to the driver, those using an Oyster card can board bendy buses by any door, as there are Oyster card readers mounted in each section of the bus. Oyster card readers are round and yellow with a little logo, and will flash green and beep once if the ticket is valid. Naturally, this Entry advises readers to have a valid ticket or Oyster card, because in London ticket inspectors really do exist, and the fines can be pretty expensive.

If a double-decker bus is crowded, have a quick look as it arrives to see if there are any seats free upstairs. If you can't tell, then you may want to check upstairs once aboard, although the presence of other passengers standing on the stairs usually indicates that the upstairs is full. If you are only going to ride the bus for a few stops, do not bother heading upstairs, but instead stand around the rear half of the downstairs section. If the bus is well and truly packed, you may become stuck at the very front of the bus. This is not a good place to be because of the lack of things to hold onto and due to the fact that you may block the driver's view of the wing mirror. Take any opportunity you have to move rearwards, as more passengers may want to board.

Disabled Access

Many London buses now have the ability to kneel6 slightly towards the floor to allow easier access for disabled persons, and all bendy buses and most double-deckers have motorised ramps which can be deployed to allow wheelchair users to board. However, bendy buses suffer from the fact that their ramps slide out instead of unfolding, and can thus become caught on the kerb, an errant paving slab or even a passer-by. Combined with the fact that the ramp system fails if anyone uses the emergency door release to escape while the driver is trying to deploy the ramp, this can make the whole thing quite an arduous affair, sometimes leaving the disabled passenger to wait for another bus.


Though the words 'please' and 'thank you' are not always heard on London buses today, there are still certain rules that should be stuck to. In terms of seating, those who can stand should give way to those who can't, and wheelchair users should always be given precedence over prams and pushchairs. Try to not use your mobile phone on the bus, especially if you have an exceptionally loud voice, and please don't play your favourite music for all to hear7.

Each passenger should have only one seat, regardless of the need for their bag to sit somewhere comfortable, and those with newspapers should kindly fold them over so as to avoid elbowing those next to them. If you are sitting in an aisle seat, be ready to let the person sitting in the window seat out. If you see a spare pair of seats and you feel you would appreciate the extra space, move quickly to the empty seats and then make a point of stretching out on them for a few seconds - you should never move to another seat in such a way as to imply you cannot bear sitting next to your previous neighbour. Do not fall asleep on the passenger next to you unless you know them extremely well.

Most importantly, do not leave your bag or other personal belongings behind on the bus. You may not be able to get it back without a lot of effort8, and if your bag looks suspicious it will be removed and may be destroyed. This, like some of the more obvious things such as not smoking and not smelling like a sweaty yak, are within the limits of most people's common sense.

Bus Lanes

Present on roads throughout the UK, including on part of the M4, the bus lane is designed to infuriate passengers by making them think the bus will simply be able to speed along without a care in the world. However, cyclists, parked cars, taxis, traffic lights, wide vehicles in other lanes and even other buses will be present to thwart your hopes of a speedy journey. Besides, most buses can't do more than about 35mph.

Getting Off the Bus

In order to get off at the next stop on the route9, press the little red button that says 'STOP' a short while beforehand. This causes the bell to ring and the word 'Stopping' to light up at the front of the bus. One ring of the bell will suffice, after which you should make your way towards the exit. London buses will usually only stop to let passengers on and off at bus stops.

If the driver starts to turn bus's lights on and off repeatedly, this is to indicate that the bus will terminate at the next stop. In this case there is no need to ring the bell, and you must get off at the next stop.


London buses have a high tendency to stop before reaching their intended destination, either due to a malfunction or because they are running late and need to cut out the rest of the route in order to make up time. In this case, passengers are entitled to board a second bus on the same route to take them as far as the intended destination of the first one. Those in doubt as to what to do should ask the driver of the original bus before alighting, although it is usually acceptable to board a second bus and explain to the driver that the previous bus serving the route had terminated early. In days gone by, the conductor would have been responsible for handing out replacement tickets, but with the current lack of conductors and the abundance of Travelcards many passengers will simply leave the bus without asking for a replacement ticket from the driver.

The Future

There are currently plans to improve the bus service in various ways, with CCTV already having been installed on most if not all buses. Onboard dot matrix signs indicating the route number, destination and next stop should start to appear in 2009, with automated announcements also being a possibility for the future. Meanwhile, the communications network currently used to provide the countdown system at bus stops is to be developed further, with GPS being used to pin-point the location of buses while various forms of wireless communication will be used to keep drivers, passengers and bus controllers up to date as to what is going on.

1The others being black cabs, red phone boxes and rain.2For instance, all-over advertising is sometimes used, and 50 buses were turned gold for Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee.3These are tickets which allow unlimited travel in a certain area during a given timespan.4Unless, of course, you're at Archway and need to get to Southgate, Whetstone or North Finchley, in which case this may be a good idea.5This is due to the first bus being delayed by having to pick up the most passengers, thus allowing the others to catch up with it.6This involves the bus being hydraulically lowered on its wheels so that the chassis is barely above the ground.7This doesn't just include those using headphones or earphones - some passengers actually bring speakers onto buses or play music through a tinny speaker on their mobile phone (also known as 'sodcasting').8If you do leave/lose something on a bus or any other form of London Transport, you should contact the TfL Lost Property Office, which receives over 600 items each day. There is a charge to claim back your property.9Due to the level of traffic in some areas, not all buses will stop at certain stops.

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