Oliver Cross: The shape of things to come, three at once

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The First bus company tells us in huge letters covering the sides of many of its buses: “We believe that buses are the future.”

Which is no more than you would expect First to believe, it being a bus company, but I do wonder whether this is one big fat corporate slogan which might embody a small truth.

For most of my life, the idea of buses being the future would have seemed ludicrous; they were jerky, noisy old things carrying the working classes – mufflers, headscarves and, on the top deck, Park Drives and Woodbines – to and from work.

Apart from in London, where they were red and swinging, they were, in my memory, monochrome, like the telly. Essentially, they were for people who couldn’t afford cars or interesting clothing.

Mind you, I also remember when buses were a great source of civic pride and each municipal transport department had its own bus livery.

A story told among older Leeds journalists, which doesn’t mean it’s true, is of a hard-drinking reporter who woke up one morning in a strange town and phoned the news editor to ask where he might be. “What colour are the buses?” the news editor asked. “...Ah, that’ll be Sunderland.”

Now of course, following bus deregulation, which was, in the manner of Chairman Mao Zedong, supposed to let 1,000 flowers bloom, nearly all buses are mainly painted white and owned by First.

The future, from a more general transport point of view, has also turned out disappointing.

We should, according to science fiction and Tomorrow’s World, be flying around in personal travel pods or breaking up and reconstituting our molecules so we can be teleported at the speed of light, although obviously buses are safer and less prone to the sort of error which might result in a traveller returning from a light-speed trip with someone else’s ears.

The truth may be that buses really are the future, which is First’s belief, but with the downside that the future is not the exciting place we once thought it was. In Leeds, for example, it doesn’t include trams or (as was once seriously suggested by the city’s transport department) an underground railway.

Basically, buses are the future because, in transport terms, the future will be very much like the past. Many people will be without a car, old people will travel around on their bus passes to keep warm, and I wouldn’t be surprised, particularly given this week’s weather, to see to a return to mufflers and headscarves.

It will take a couple of turns of the economic cycle, and maybe a recalibration of the whole capitalist system, to get back to a state where the foreseeable future is anything but depressing – not the time, perhaps, for First to crow about its buses being the future.

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