Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A private car service has released hilarious commercials making the city's after-hours transit look unruly. But that's exactly its enduring appeal.
A woman projectile vomits, men in inflatable sumo suits attack each other, two passengers engage in a rap battle and a girl gets a packet of cereal dumped on her head. Recently released footage from London’s "night bus" network certainly shows the city at its rowdiest. Uploaded to Youtube a week ago, the videos demonstrate some of the craziness that London’s after-hours buses are notorious for.
The clips are fake, of course. They were put out by Kabbee, a booking service for minicabs, as private-hire cabs are called in London. Kabbee is trying to promote its own service’s charms by highlighting the shortcomings of its competitors. They’re not entirely off the mark (more on that later), but my first reaction on seeing the videos (after laughing) was, "Screw them."
You see, London’s night buses are actually the great, unsung glory of the city’s travel network. Compared with cabs, they’re dirt cheap (they cost the same as a regular daytime bus), come extremely frequently and cover a wide area, and go quickly through the mainly car-free nighttime streets. This could be why they’re so popular, carrying 42 million passengers a year. There’s more to them than even all that: Night buses have played a huge role in opening up London’s nightlife to everyone, especially to people whose modest means or far-flung suburban homes make cab fares seem exorbitant.
In his book Modern Nature, the filmmaker Derek Jarman recounts how, as a young man in 1960s London, nights out ended either with an 11-mile walk home or with a nap in a 24-hour porn theater while he waited for the Tube to open the next morning. When I was a London teenager, by contrast, I never had to wait more than 15 minutes to get a night bus home, all for the price of a single skipped high-school lunch. Given that it’s often at night that city dwellers find “their people,” this amazing network has opened up people’s lives—mine included—and contributed to their freedom and happiness. People talk (rightly) of the liberating influence of punk in London, but 24-hour buses have done more than anything to wake the city’s nightlife from its former, sludge-brown Dickensian stupor.
It is true that night buses often smell of kebabs, London's alcohol-sponge of choice, and they can be noisy and crammed. They’re popular with a certain group of British exhibitionists that can only really enjoy themselves by seeing their revels reflected in other people’s eyes. “I exist! I’m fun!” their behavior screams, making fellow passengers disbelieve the latter and wish the former wasn’t true. You also rub up against people you might not choose to. I was part of one ugly incident in which some guys apologized for flicking ketchup sachets at my sleeping friend, explaining that they’d only done so because they “thought he was homeless." Still, the party-on-wheels thing can be fun, and almost cozy at times. A fellow passenger once sewed up the ripped hem of my friend’s 1950s ballgown, and I’ve been not-disagreeably hit on with the immortal opener, “Would you like a chip?” Most of the time, I’ve just sat down, not been bothered by anyone, then hopped off at my destination.
Are minicabs really better than this? Yes, chatting with drivers can be a fascinating plus. Still, if you bear in mind that having an audience usually reins in antisocial behavior, you can imagine what people get up to with only a driver (whom they’re paying) to keep an eye on them. A family friend who drives a minicab tells me he only avoids trouble with unruly passengers by smiling a lot and never saying no. Apparently, not meeting resistance is often enough to appease even the most capricious drunken demand, but it would take a pretty saintly driver to keep that act up for very long. Filled with the sort of people who get rowdy on the night bus, any cab can turn into a Sartrean chamber quickly, even if this hell is private.
Personally, I’ll stick with the bus. Provided it isn’t raining, that is.