In which I whine about Boris buses again

Here’s a really good post about public transport and design. I would add to their account of the genesis of the Boris-bus that it’s not enough to say that Johnson started out by saying he wanted a new Routemaster, rather than saying he wanted a new bus for London and deciding what would be best. This misunderstands Boris Johnson. Clausewitz says that strategy is the combination of successive actions that converge towards the achievement of a selected aim. The aim was to promote Boris Johnson in general and his political career in particular.

He wanted something that was visibly, palpably, new, and at impressive scale. This is simple enough – people in authority always want to build monuments to themselves. He also wanted it to project certain statements of style that associated it with the brand values of Boris Johnson. Specifically, it needed to be both new, and nostalgic.

Boris Johnson represents nostalgia, but not for a past where you’d be expected to believe in God, hand over your credit cards to your husband, or fill out an exchange-control form before going on holiday. His job used to be reviewing sports cars. His greatest pet project was a giant international airport on an artificial island. He is not a fake Victorian, but a fake 60s face dressing up as a Victorian fop. Very likely, he projects this because the political constituency he wants to appeal to – well-off baby boomer suburbanites – agree that they liked being young in the early 1970s very much. Precisely because of this, they are unlikely to appreciate any suggestion that they are getting behind the times. Hence the need to cut the nostalgia with novelty. It’s important to remember that this is harmonious, counterpointing, contrasting, in tension, or in opposition, rather than contradictory. As a style statement, it belongs to the category of aesthetics rather than logic.

Further, it needed to be good copy because Boris Johnson is a lifelong journalist. In pursuit of his aims as the chief promotor of Boris Johnson, he needs things that are good to write with, because his primary voice is his column. That the New Bus for London was the New Routemaster suited this. Even the word is nicely balanced and abstractly euphonious, something Johnson can be expected to appreciate. In a sense, the column and the talking points – even the harvest of below-the-line comments – came first and the bus was designed to suit it.

Amazon Web Services has a longstanding practice of starting any new project by drafting the final press release that will announce its launch into general availability. It’s worth stopping and thinking a moment about the similarities and differences between this practice and the process that gave us that bloody bus. As a design discipline, AWS’ process has the virtue that it forces you to identify what makes the project useful to the customer – the key design affordances – and what makes it useful to Amazon – the unique selling points – from the very beginning. The Boris process does half of this, the half that is useful to Boris. Cynicism aside, there is also a major distinction here between a bus and an API.

The bus is an object, embodying a service, that represents itself through its design values. The API is a purely immaterial service, that represents nothing but itself. If you say it will permit you to automatically provision additional virtual machines when the CPU load percentage rises above a user-defined value, optionally reporting the event by webhook, loading the specified machine image, and shutting them down when the load percentage is again normal, it had better do it, and we can write a unit test for each item before we get started implementing the thing. But it’s possible to enjoy the bus without ever actually getting aboard. As an aestheticised object, it has an audience beyond the user. As a politicised object, it has a purpose beyond the bus service embodied in it. There’s a reason they’re called Boris buses!

There’s also a reason why the lights went out at every stop on the one I took the other day. This secondary audience and function can dominate the primary one. By contrast, you give AWS money and it gives you a VM or three hundred, and there is no arguing with that. On the other hand, nobody in this exchange is talking about how much the employees of their tangentially-related bookshop get paid. Politics is more complicated than pure commerce, and that’s also a good thing.

4 Comments on "In which I whine about Boris buses again"

  1. There was also something about making a contrast between the “new Routemaster” and the Bendy Bus. An explict prioritisation of the aesthetic vs the utilitarian.


  2. Where are all those internet trolls who used to get angry about the amount of fare evasion on bendy buses?


  3. We can probably draw some sort of line from bendy-buses to Brexit. Even though London had them and voted Remain – in the same way that it is people in areas with low immigrant population that voted leave, people who have an Arriva single decker twice a week saw the Bendy Buses on the news and Boris heroically standing a blow for good old fashioned double deckers and thought, I want to sit on the top deck of a routemaster eating my corned beef sandwich and not hear the people in front speaking forrin.


  4. A Conservative Party candidate for mayor of London campaigns to bring back bus conductors.

    A Conservative PM says that she wants to take the UK out of the Single Market.

    Both appear to hold a grudge against the world that their (Conservative) predecessors created.


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