In January 2010, Heatherwick Studio joined the team commissioned by London’s mayor to develop the design of a new bus for London. Once production of the Routemaster ceased in 1968, London’s buses were ordered from catalogues of existing designs. Apart from being red, the design of these vehicles became increasingly compromised and uncoordinated.
This would be the first bus to be designed specifically for the capital in more than fifty years, but the brief was not to replicate the Routemaster, which was inaccessible to wheelchair-users and difficult for people with prams. As well as being three metres longer than a Routemaster, this bus would have two staircases and three doors. It would have a conductor to look after passengers and an open platform, which would give Londoners their freedom once more to get on and off the bus at will, but this would be enclosed outside peak hours. Having set the environmental target of using 40% less fossil fuel than existing buses, the team developed a hybrid vehicle, powered by both electricity and diesel, seeking to make it as lightweight as possible.
The geometry of the vehicle developed from a series of pragmatic decisions. It was in order to minimise the perceived size of the vehicle that its corners and edges were rounded. It was to allow the driver to see small children standing next to the bus that its front window was angled down towards the pavement. And, with its three doors on one side and two staircases on the other, it was the functional asymmetry of the bus’s internal circulation that led to its asymmetrical geometry. The windows form two ribbons of glass that wrap around the bus, corresponding to the two staircases, which transform the stairs from a dark constricted tunnel to a different kind of space.
In recent years, bus interiors had grown increasingly chaotic, with their peculiar seating arrangements, fluorescent yellow handrails, over-bright strip lighting and protruding lumps of machinery encased in mysterious fibre-glass housings. The aim was to recalibrate the countless compromises that had accumulated over the years to create an interior that felt as calm and coordinated as possible. Using a simple palette of colours and materials, a family of details was developed that included new stairs, lighting, hand poles and stop buttons. We argued for a return to bench-type seats that two people could share and designed a new pattern of moquette, the tough woollen fabric that is used in transport upholstery.
The design for the new bus was unveiled in May 2010 and a prototype, developed and manufactured by Wrightbus, was launched in December 2011 by the Mayor of London. The first bus entered public service in February 2012 and a further 600 buses were ordered by Transport for London in September 2012. This fleet are the largest order of hybrid buses ever placed in Europe and will be delivered in its entirety by 2016.