A homage to the humble bus

Buses that made history (clockwise from top left): London’s Routemaster 159 (right) on its last day of service; the famous Rosa Parks’ bus with President Obama as honorary passenger; San Francisco’s trolleybuses; and New York’s iconic children’s school bus (Credits: Wikipedia Commons and the US government)

The world may be in thrall to clever cars, stylish trams and high-speed trains, but in my humble opinion there’s no mode of transport that beats the good old bus.

Buses are usually taken for granted except when they’re late or don’t show up, but these under-appreciated workhorses of urban transport have changed the world in ways both practical and symbolic.

It was on a bus in Alabama in 1955 that Rosa Parks challenged America’s segregation laws (by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger), and became an international symbol of the civil rights movement.

It was boycotts against PUTCO, South Africa’s state-owned bus company, that gave ordinary black South Africans a means to protest against apartheid. And it was the privately run ‘minibus’ (typically a Toyota Hiace) that filled the resulting transport gap, transformed the lives of black commuters, and created South Africa’s first black entrepreneurs.

What makes the humble bus special is the very fact that it is so humble. Unlike trams and trains, which need tracks and special lanes (and the personnel to maintain them), all you need to run a bus service is a bus, obviously, and a relatively smooth track of dirt.

Yes, the bus is the ultimate people’s vehicle. It may lack the speed and glamor of trains and cars, but it is streets ahead of both as a symbol of urban culture, as Londoners or American school children will attest. The best way to see a city is from the window of a bus – my favorite pastime in London is sitting in the front of a red double-decker, above the driver, watching the world go by.

The best buses are unquestionably the electric ones, powered by those haphazard mazes of wires that stretch across the city streets. To some people, the overhead cables are an eyesore, but they don’t bother me.

On a wet night, an empty bus terminus always reminds me of those old black-and-white movies where jilted lovers wait forlornly in the rain for the last bus home. I’ll bet the street where Gene Kelly sang ‘Singin’ in the rain’ was served by a bus that would have kept him dry on the way home had he not been so keen on, well, singing in the rain.

In terms of efficiency, it’s true that those overhead cables leave something to be desired. In bad weather, they can be easily felled and, where I live, bus stops in busy places have to be equipped with long poles so drivers can re-attach the power supply to the overhead cable when it comes loose, as it does fairly regularly.

Like most machines, buses are not standing still. The latest innovation is a new fast-charging system, recently unveiled in Geneva, which charges buses with enough power at certain stops to allow it to reach the next flash charging station. That suggests the days of the clumsy overhead cable are numbered. That’s a good thing, but I already know that when the cables are finally replaced by neat, efficient fast chargers, I’ll feel a touch of nostalgia for the days when the skies above our streets were a little bit messier.

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About the author

Jonas Hughes

I am a writer and editor in the Corporate Communications department of ABB. I have worked as a journalist and communicator in Switzerland, Britain, North America and South Africa, and am interested in how technology affects the lives of ordinary people.
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