Nothing's too good for ordinary people

There was a time when buses and Tube trains, as well as the architecture that framed them, were seen

No bus designer worth his diesel would ever have created the latest generation of London double-deckers. Boxy, ungainly and overweight, with interiors that appear to have been designed by a monkey let loose with a box of crayons, these unstately galleons boast windows as big as those at Selfridges, and few of them open. In summer, Londoners cope with upper-deck temperatures of up to 40oC, and the red roofs of these mobile saunas are being painted white to reflect away some of the infernal heat.

These aren't the only irritations. The powerful engines mounted at the back of the buses, which allow them to accelerate too quickly for anyone's comfort, are as loud as The Who were back in the days when no one was going to live beyond 30. To add to the cacophony, air brakes hiss like angry anacondas, and horns are sounded angrily as drivers hurl their lumbering charges around like stolen Golf GTIs.

Who cares? There are more new buses on London's streets than there have been for many years. Fares are cheap, waiting times between buses shorter, and the subsidy paid to Transport for London (TfL) to get privatised companies to operate these engineering, visual and aural offences is generous to the point of an accountant's migraine.

And yet why the downturn in design and engineering standards after generations of London buses as smart as guards on parade outside Buckingham Palace, buses that were once admired by such eminent critics and historians as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, author of the Englishness of English Design? In 1942, Pevsner wrote an obituary of Frank Pick (1878-1941) in the Architectural Review, in which he described the late former chief executive of the London Passenger Transport Board as the "Lorenzo the Magnificent of our age". Pick had done his utmost over many years to shape an integrated public transport system for London that was both efficient and a work of civic art. Nothing, he said, was too good for ordinary people. Not only must buses and Tube trains, stations, bus stops, posters, signs and typography work well, but they must be the best in the world, and continually progressing. Standards of service, as well as seat fabrics, must be as good for the shopping ladies of Knightsbridge as for shop girls and dockers commuting to and from the Isle of Dogs.

These buses and Tube trains, as well as the architecture that framed them and the standard of service they provided, added up to what Pevsner called "a civilising agent". The task of the London Passenger Transport Board - London Transport in its first and finest guise between 1933 and 1948 - was not just to run red double-deckers and Tube trains, but to make some real and positive contribution to the culture and identity of the city. And to design.

It is hard now to imagine, let alone understand, just how high standards were. London bus design, peaking with the elegant RT (in series production from 1946 to 1954) and the handsome RM (1959-68), was part of a unified, forward-looking process whereby London Transport engineers specified and designed their own vehicles, tested prototypes, rebuilt vehicles, as new, every few years, trained their crews to the same high standards and generally underwrote Pick's policy that nothing was too good for the Londoners they served.

The same meticulous standards were applied on the Underground. Tube trains, especially the gracious 1938 stock, featured very favourably in design, engineering and architecture magazines internationally, as did the distinctive stations created by Charles Holden (1875-1960), an arts and crafts man by training who shaped an architecture that was both ancient and modern, designed to weather rain and fashion at one and the same time. Arnos Grove Tube station on the Piccadilly Line, for example, is a Roman temple brought into the 1930s, a celebration of traditional English brickwork, a rational use of modern concrete, a well-planned utility and a thing of quiet beauty, a small joy for many years yet.

The rot set in with the break-up of London Transport in the Thatcher years, with the privatisation of bus services, the divorce between the running of buses and Tube trains, and with a general hatred of the notion of public service and the wilful undermining of civic spiritedness. Generations of intelligent and dedicated engineering, design, architectural and even administrative talent was washed away like so much effluence through the city's sewers.

In the 1970s and 1980s, London Transport had not been the exemplary organisation it had been under Pick. Its administration had ossified. It badly needed fresh blood; yet it did not deserve to be bled to death. Now it is hard for TfL to pick up the pieces. London Transport's in-house engineering and design tradition has been lost. Where LT once designed and in effect built its own buses - under contract, for the most part, to AEC at Southall - and designed and commissioned its own Tube trains, TfL has been increasingly forced to buy vehicles and stock off the peg.

Today we have reached a position where British bus manufacturers themselves have largely gone out of business. In our vibrant, 24-hour, accessible, cafe latte society, brimming with freedom of choice at every bus stop, we can have as much low-brow, poorly realised design as we can consume, but we cannot build a bus. Even if we detest making things in and for London today, preferring to shop and practise our, like, fledgling mockney accents, exercise our power of infinite choice and form new quangos instead, we could still aim high with the design of what survives of London Transport.

What could be done? First, we should reconstitute TfL as a public corporation, named London Transport, directly responsible for all public transport services in Greater London, a body able to raise money for high-quality investment in staff and infrastructure on the open market. Second, this body should be light on its feet and largely independent of government, local and national. It should be a plaything of neither dogmatic prime ministers nor elected mayors, both of whom will come and go with fashionable creeds, while buses and Tube trains run, unfashionably, as they should do, for up to 40 years.

Third, it should appoint an engineering manager and a design manager who would work together to found new ways of investing in the highest possible standards for all of us. And fourth, a revitalised London Transport would drop all forms of patronising marketing jargon such as "customers" and "customer service managers"; it would rid itself of demeaning play-school colour schemes, embarrassingly bad uniforms and the general air of sulky adolescence that pervades so much of its unfairly run-down culture.

None of these things is impossible, but they require a mature political will, a grown-up and responsible attitude towards the politics and administration of a great city. There are people working at TfL who are trying their best. But is their best working in the right direction? Until we address some of these fundamental issues and recreate not some cheap-skate customer-service-oriented facility bullied about by ambitious politicians, but an eagle-eyed, integrated and forward-looking public corporation, expect anaconda brakes, ape-like bus interiors and a hot and bumpy ride.

My favourite way to get around town...

Simon Jenkins I travel by whatever means gets me from A to B by the quickest and simplest route. If it is a Tube, a bus or a taxi, I go for it. I use each of them at least once a week. But virtually all my life, moving in London has meant a car - and since the congestion charge even more so. I shamelessly love driving in London. I am a taxi driver manque, seeking out new routes and discovering new alleyways. I have waited to be forced out of my car by price, law or convenience, as I would be in New York, Amsterdam or Paris. But London remains the world's most car-friendly city, never more so than since Ken Livingstone came to office. As for the invention of on-board navigation with one-way streets and congestion information - bliss.

Zoe Williams I can do cycling. I am a mean little cyclist.

Wendy Holden By boat gets my vote. It's wonderfully romantic, stress- and traffic-free, and there's no better time than in the summer. A boat from Westminster Pier up to Richmond and Kew may have tourists on it, not to mention the obligatory Cockney guide (I once heard one claim that the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square was electrified to keep the pigeons off), but that's all part of the fun. You get a powerful sense of history - the riverside is lined with beautiful old buildings such as Syon House and Lambeth Palace - and there's something intensely Tudor about riverboats. That bit in The Waste Land about Elizabeth and Leicester splashing oars - it goes on to mention Richmond and Kew, too. No mention of picnics, however - essential for any summer riverboat trip.

Andrew Billen The happiest travelling is by broadband: minimal waiting, few jams (depending on your printer) and you can do it in your dressing gown. Four days out of five, I let my e-mail do the commuting. On the fifth, I make it to the office via slam-door main-line train and erratic Circle Line. I prefer buses. The top deck provides one of the best tours of the capital for a pound. It's a proper bargain - although, to be honest, an expensive, slightly tipsy midnight ride back from the West End in a black cab beats it for me.

Will Self I've cycled for almost all solo journeys in London since I turned 40. It keeps me fit, it gets me there on time, and despite the best efforts of homicidal motorists, it remains curiously fun and relaxing. I always wear a helmet. I like buses, but the Tube has been a womb- cum-warren to retreat into ever since I travelled to school on it as a child. Increasingly car travel has become a form of sadomasochism rather than transport. I support all plans to enlarge the congestion zone, and I think the charge itself should be increased to £20. When all the cant and hypocrisy is swept away, what remains is a viable form of redistributive taxation, as well as a sound piece of environmental preservation.

Julie Burchill I only take taxis in when I am in London. For some reason I associate taxis with adultery, so they make me very happy.

Ann Widdecombe Nothing beats the London taxi. It drives speedily past long lines of crawling traffic in its own lane, its driver knows all the back routes, it delivers you to the door of your destination and the chances are the driver will have solved all the problems of the country en route.

Ian Jack I'm lucky to live in a part of London - Highbury - that's still served by a Routemaster bus. The number 19, Finsbury Park to Battersea, has a stop at the end of our street. I like Routemasters very much - their shape, the fact that they have a conductor and that you can jump on and off. All buses used to be like this, and now Routemasters are the only ones left. Conducting and driving skills have gone down, I'd say. Lots of abrupt braking and lurching, and not so many cheery conductors shouting out "British Museum!" or (my favourite) "Highbury Corner for Highbury Tube, and all international destinations!" But the worst news is that the Routemaster is doomed, save for a couple of "heritage routes". The people in charge of London's buses should think again. Routemasters are to London what the gondola is to Venice - a symbol of the city, recognised all over the world. The day they cease to toil up the hill to Highbury will be a sad one for me.