Catherine Max: This bus is about to move…

Catherine Max: This bus is about to move…

“The impetuous creature – a pirate – started forward, sprang away; she had to hold the rail to steady herself, for a pirate it was, reckless, unscrupulous, bearing down ruthlessly, circumventing dangerously, boldly snatching a passenger, or ignoring a passenger, squeezing eel-like and arrogant in between, and then rushing insolently all sails spread up Whitehall.” Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (The Hogarth Press, 1925)

A thankfully short-lived experiment by Transport for London last year involved an additional announcement on selected routes: “Please hold on, the bus is about to move”. As well as insulting our intelligence – we use buses to travel, not remain stationary – it was inevitable these announcements were frequently broadcast after the fact.

It’s true, though, that bus journeys entail risk, a degree of which has been part of the experience since their first appearance in London in the early nineteenth century courtesy of Richard Trevithick‘s 1803 London Steam Carriage and George Shillibeer‘s rather more successful Omnibus, imported from Paris in 1829.

Moving from front to back, let alone up and down the stairs, is often hazardous – one more reason to lament the demise of bus conductors, who, unlike their seated driver colleagues, at least had the motivation to protect themselves as well as their passengers. As far back as 1841, The Times published a guide to the “well conducted” versus “ill conducted” conductor. The former “never allows the driver to go on till the passengers are safely seated” whereas the latter, “always bawls out ‘All right!’ before the passengers have taken their seats, by which gross carelessness great inconvenience and even danger are often occasioned.” Acquiring “sea legs” (they called it that) was deemed important training for the first wave of female conductors or “Hurry-Along Girls” employed by the London General Omnibus Company in 1916 to fill the gap left by men gone to war.

A century later, Age Concern (as was) reported survey findings that there were over 800 falls per day on buses across the UK and that this was disproportionately prevalent among older people. But there were a number of unanswered questions. How many of these events occur but are not reported? How many are reported but the affected person walks away? How many end up requiring medical attention? There was also no evidence regarding the actual process of falling over in a bus, such as the relevant acceleration rates, how people resist these, and how this resistance changes over a lifetime. Nor were there any facilities that could really study all this at scale and enable the core feature of someone actually moving around a bus on the move.

Nick Tyler, Chadwick Professor of Civil Engineering at University College London (UCL), decided to do the research. So he bought a (hybrid) bus. He and his team instrumented it with accelerometers so they could find out what forces are generated when it is in motion and test these in different parts of the bus and with people of different ages. Participants were set up with a series of sensors – accelerometers, pressure insoles to measure the weight distribution on the feet as they walked, and pressure sensors on their hands to measure how they grabbed rails and poles. They were monitored walking along the lower deck, both towards the rear and towards the front, as the bus accelerated and decelerated at set acceleration rates, as well as ascending and descending the stairs whilst the bus was speeding up and slowing down.

Not surprisingly, the issue was indeed acceleration, and the researchers were able to indicate potential maximum rates of acceleration that would be less likely to induce instability that could lead to a fall. Moreover, they identified differences in how acceleration is experienced in electric or hybrid buses as compared with diesel buses. When the driver presses the accelerator in a diesel bus, the motor increases its rotation speed, creating a change in the noise and vibrations passed into the bus, before it starts to move. In an electric bus, when the driver presses the accelerator, the motor draws power from (usually) the battery and then the bus starts to move. There is no change in vibration or in the noise level before movement in an electric bus. As a result, passengers receive no warning. Could it be that this warning causes the brain, acting preconsciously, to alert the sensorimotor systems in the body in preparation for the motion a few milliseconds before it actually starts? As the electric bus has no such stimulus, is the issue one of surprise rather than rate? These are questions Professor Tyler hopes to be able to answer in future.

Since its first outing, the UCL bus has been deployed in a number of research projects, including investigations into energy use nearly stymied by the Department of Homeland Security because the hybrid bus’s electronic system, though British designed, was manufactured in the United States. If you live or work in Hackney, you may have seen or used the UCL bus without even knowing it, not because of covert operations, but because it now has another life augmenting the local fleet when not in use by Professor Tyler. The only way to identify it is by the fact that it carries no advertising.

Professor Tyler’s lab is behind a lot of the work that goes into making our journeys better, including designing a new tube train, testing commuter train boarding for Thameslink and exploring the physical impact of different footway surfaces. Aptly located on Station Road, Tufnell Park, PAMELA (Pedestrian Accessibility and Movement Environment Laboratory) is to morph into PEARL (People Environment Activity Research Laboratory) in 2021, a newly designed £50 million facility in Dagenham, jointly funded by UCL and central government. Envisaged as a fusion of arts, science and engineering, PEARL will combine technical capability, a performance space and community facilities. A long way from UCL’s historic site in Bloomsbury, the plan is to run some bus trips between the two locations, using the experience to connect people and places – possibly conducting some research along the way.

With thanks to Nick Tyler, and to Travis Elborough, Joe Kerr and contributors to Bus Fare (AA Publishing, 2018) who read at this year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Catherine Max is a health and sustainability consultant who helps organisations improve wellbeing and reduce health inequalities. Read her Sense Of Place blog here and follow her on twitter @catherine_max. is dedicated to providing fair and thorough coverage of London’s politics, development and culture. The site depends on donations from readers and is also seeking support from suitable organisations. Read more about that here.

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