23 Oct 2016

Red Vienna (and the rest too)

Vienna loves council housing

You may be surprised that Vienna, one of the greatest of European cities, is of a similar size to the Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow conurbations. Of course it is the capital of a small country, but the huge difference is that Vienna was capital of a vast multi-national empire which endured for centuries until its collapse in 1918. The legacy of the Habsburgs still shapes the city today.

Vienna loves art & architecture

It is tempting to draw comparison between the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early 1900s and the United Kingdom today. There are great differences but many similarities too. Both live(d) on past glories with a massive sense of entitlement and that fin-de-siècle feel of corruption and decay. Their aged and ultra long-serving monarchs provide(d) a flimsy fiction of unity for a country that is deeply divided in every sense. The rising consciousness of long subsumed nations threatens the break up of the supra-national state. Irresponsible oligarchic elites excite the country towards disastrous foreign policy whilst populist politicians play on insecurity and the fear of ‘otherness’: in Vienna the Jews, in England anyone who sounds or looks different. The pampered cosmopolitan capital cities are increasingly detached from, and distrusted by, the rest of the country. Both societies failed to solve their housing crises, Vienna before 1918, as London today, prioritizing luxury apartments rather than social housing.

Where Alexandra Road meets the Victoria Centre

Well, ok, we can’t push this too far. Austria-Hungary was atomized by war, not its internal contradictions, although these were in part responsible for the war. There is little of the far sighted late Habsburg investment in urban infrastructure in Britain today. I don’t see today’s London architecture, arts and music scene as quite competing with Vienna 1900. But Vienna does have lots of lessons for us, if only we were not quite so determined not to learn them. It consistently comes in the top two or three cities in the world for ‘quality of life’ and however sceptical one may be about aggregating a potpourri of data rankings to determine ‘best and worst cities’, Vienna is self evidently an extremely pleasant, self assured, welcoming and relaxed city.

The forces of darkness in Mittel Europa – The Beethoven Frieze

Vienna is quintessential Mittel Europa, the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, as is obvious from the departures screen of its airport. It is so very different from the rectitude of north Germany with all that Austrian Baroque and fluffy stucco, the onion domes of the Counter-Reformation and that very Imperial heritage. The medieval core of the city is at the confluence of the Wien river with a braid of the Danube, now the Danube Canal; to the west the mountains and to the east the great plain. Today the mighty Danube flowing eastward to the Black Sea is here tamed and straightened with railways and motorways along its banks. It is not very blue.

Hope, suffering, ambition

In the C18 the built up area expanded beyond the tight walls of the medieval city which had withstood Ottoman and other invaders. The walls were demolished in the 1850s and this broad swathe was redeveloped with the creation of the famous ring boulevards. These are lined with vast palaces, parks, the parliament building, city hall, museums, galleries, opera house – Westminster meets South Ken. It is all a bit pompous, overpowering and indigestible, a bit like those rich and over decorated café cakes. However many of the interiors are splendid like the Opera salons, partly rebuilt after war damage, and MAK – Vienna’s V&A. The art collections are superb. The very grand, brick, City Hall looks Hanseatic rather than Imperial, possibly deliberate symbolism.

Wagner's  culverted Wien and Stadtpark

In the 1890s the Wien river was culverted as part of a vast programme of infrastructure improvements for the rapidly expanding town. New urban railways were constructed including one alongside the newly tamed Wien, together with boulevards and new parks. The Stadtbahn linked the railway termini, which were inconveniently built beyond the outer ring of bastions, later demolished and replaced by the Gürtel (girdle) boulevards.

Otto Wagner

The key architect of these improvements was Otto Wagner, who became a leading figure of the Secession movement, the Viennese version of Jugendstil. His standard design for the stations of the Stadtbahn is a classic – simple, functional, elegant and very beautiful. More spectacularly decorated station pavilions built at Karlsplatz, and the Emperor’s own station at Hietzing, are now museums. Wagner also designed much other infrastructure including viaducts and the locks and embankments of the Danube Canal. Along the Wienzeile boulevard you find some of his extraordinary apartment buildings, like the Majolica House (the floral ornamentation actually designed by Ludwig) and the equally spectacular building next door with gilded façade and cornice by Moser, a key figure of the Secession. Later Wagner developed a more austere, functional (if beautifully executed) model for apartment buildings, as at Neustiftgasse 40. He still built elaborate villas for wealthy patrons in the suburbs; his own at Hütteldorf is now a museum. I was unable to see his much admired Church of St Leopold nearby which is only open on Saturday afternoons.

Not exactly the Manchester Metro is it? - Karlsplatz

And we use Trespa - Majolica House

Wagner gave Emperor Franz Joseph his own Stadtbahn station

Wagner’s most spectacular building is the Postsparkasse savings bank (1903-12), a key buildings of modernism. Externally it has a simple clarity, faced with marble mounted with aluminum capped bolts. Aluminum is also used on the canopy supports and for the amazing statues which crown the building. Yet more spectacular is the bank’s cash hall with its vast glass, iron and aluminum roof. This is complemented by the most beautifully and functionally detailed furniture and fittings. There is a small museum display of the building.

Postsparkasse savings bank

Very early, and very swish, modernism

The most famous building of the Secession is its exhibition hall designed by Olbrich in 1897, a series of chaste white cubes topped by a fantastical ‘golden cabbage’. It caused a scandal, as it was meant to. Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibited there and was much admired. (Margaret MacDonald is on display at MAK). Klimt’s famous frieze, an interpretation of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, was displayed too and now restored is on permanent exhibition. It is a disturbing piece, not at all like those somewhat kitsch Klimt posters that used to adorn every student flat. His actual works appear much more nuanced than reproductions and are a real eye opener. But for me the stand out Viennese artists are Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl, who sock you in the eye with their raw emotional power. Both died in their 20s – Gerstl killed himself when Schoenberg’s wife ended their affair and Schiele was a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic. Visits to the Leopold and Belvedere galleries are an absolute must. The Architecture museum is very good too.



Adolf Loos famously rejected the Secession and declared ‘ornament is crime’. This is not entirely apparent at his American Bar, which incorporates marble, onyx, mahogany, brass and very cleverly used mirrors to transform a tiny space into a deeply satisfying and comfortable experience. It is a pity that the exterior, with its angular canopy featuring a stylized American flag, is compromised by a dreadful awning and crappy advertising. Vienna is not quite so respectful of its icons as you might expect – his Café Museum opposite the Secession has been buggered too. The famous ‘house without eyebrows’ opposite the Hofburg Palace, which so annoyed Emperor Franz Joseph, offended not so much by being proto-modern with its flat elevation having no sills or lintels as by its revival of classical forms which were anathema to the bourgeoisies. It is somewhat insensitive that the façade today is adorned with window boxes. You can wander into Loos’s Knize menswear shop on Graben, like a Tardis, and marvel at his manipulation of space (as well as the prices). Nearby are the Loos loos, a model of elegant simplicity. Loos’s capacity for provocation is also very evident with his villas in the swanky Hietzing district. Whilst Wagner’s students were designing amazing extravagances like the Schokoladehaus, with shiny brown glazed majolica reliefs, Loos’s nearby 1910 Steiner house presents a metal barrel roof to the street. His Scheu house of 1912 caused outrage with its unadorned façade and stepped flat roofs.

Loos House has no eyebrows, so why window boxes?

Ornamental restraint and similarities with Rennie Mackintosh

The Loos loos

Schokoladehaus, dark 70% cocoa 

Steiner house upset the neighbours

Scheu was a Social Democrat and the influential public housing movement met at his house. Vienna’s working class tenements were notoriously cramped and squalid and when democracy came with defeat in 1918 the new Social Democratic city administration put Scheu in charge of housing. ‘Red Vienna’ was responsible for a remarkable programme of council house building. In the decade before the Clerico-Fascist putsch of 1934 the city built more than 60,000 flats, re-housing about 10% of the city’s population. This was made possible by the Wohnbausteuer, a radical tax on more expensive houses and luxury goods specifically to fund social housing. I did say Vienna had a lot to teach us.

Karl Marx Hof

The success of the housing programme was partly because the Social Democrats pursued a pragmatic approach to design and construction, building on Viennese traditions rather than following radical theories like those of Corbusier or the Bauhaus. The construction is conventional brick and render, partly because Vienna had no tradition of new building techniques and anyway the objective was to provide work for as many of the unemployed as possible. The flats were small, based on model tenements derived from English example. They lacked bathrooms and central heating – these were too expensive at the time. The City bought land cheap and it benefitted from earlier municipal investment in the Stadtbahn, trams, gas, electricity, water, flood prevention and the magnificent sewers, a backdrop to Carol Reed’s late-expressionist masterpiece ‘The Third Man’.

No 'poor doors' here

The most famous icon of Red Vienna is the Karl Marx Hof, built on a vast scale and over a kilometre long. The name and its dominant, fortress-like presence are a deliberate and defiant statement of working class and Social Democrat power. The design by Karl Ehn was completed in 1930. At first impression it looks not so much Modernist as Post-Modern in its scale, bright colours and employment of large scale, simplified motifs like the arches. The arches are not structural but symbolic and give permeability; the grand arches opposite Heiligenstadt U bahn station were apparently provided to cater for football crowds heading for the nearby stadium. But they also present a real sense of grandeur for what was conceived of as a palace for the people. The Karl Marx Hof was very influential and its grand arch motif is imitated in many of George Lansbury’s LCC estates.

The neighbouring, more intimate courtyard blocks

The central courtyard blocks are nine stories high. Above the arches are displayed secular icons to freedom, knowledge, health and the community. Other courtyard groups are lower and more intimate but all are grouped around large gardens with playgrounds, schools, crèches, surgery, shops, restaurants, laundries and public baths (as the flats had no bathrooms). There was an agency to help residents furnish their small flats; Viennese furniture was too big and heavy, like that crammed into Goldfinger’s Willow Road terrace by his Austrian mother-in-law. The Karl Marx Hof was the scene of a battle in the brief civil war of 1934 and prior to recent improvements, including new insulation, you could apparently still see the bullet holes.

The Reuman Hof

Matteotti Hof

Akin to the Amsterdam School – Matteotti Hof

The other major concentration of Red Vienna council housing is along the Margareten Gürtel, the ‘Boulevard of the Proletariat’. These flats are less monumental and fit into a pre-existing block structure but are nevertheless very impressive. They were built slightly earlier in the 1920s, in different styles by a variety of architects; Loos had been appointed as chief architect but his schemes were not accepted. The more purist German Social Democrats called the resultant lack of a unifying style ‘chaos’. The Reuman Hof, named after the first Social Democrat mayor, is fairly typical, built around a large garden courtyard with his statue in the middle. Like most of the Margaretan Gürtel flats it looks like the sort of mansion blocks you might easily find in Marylebone, possibly Nice or even Miami. This was deliberate – they were meant to be as impressive as the housing of the bourgeoisie. The Matteotti Hof, named after the assassinated anti-fascist Italian, is strictly modernist. What distinguishes the buildings as council flats is the proud lettering on their main façades, noting that they were commissioned by the City Council and paid for by the Wohnbausteuer tax. Today they have not been sold off and are generally fairly well maintained, although with some signs of stress around the edges. Some of the courtyard gardens are now gated, but fortunately most can still be visited.

This is not 70s sci-fi art, this is actually real, Alterlaa

Well maintained 

The Social Democrats regained power after World War II and continued a programme of building council house blocks, opportunistically on various sites across the city. In the late 1960s a grander building programme was deemed necessary which resulted in vast estates like Alterlaa. The scale of this is fairly mind blowing, as if Alexandra Road meets the Victoria Centre flats in Nottingham, but on steroids. The three gargantuan blocks designed by Harry Glück are remarkable with their stepped profile and stacked-up green balconies, but what is more remarkable is their beautiful and well maintained parkland setting – eat your heart out Alice Coleman. In fact the only part of the complex which is not well maintained is the crummy shopping centre between the U bahn station and the flats.

Courtyard enclosure ... 

... and impressive scale, Am Schöpfwerk

Next stop on the U bahn is Am Schöpfwerk – another massive estate but on a grid system around landscaped courtyards with mostly medium rise blocks. This is a more familiar example to British eyes, the difference being that it is far, far better maintained and has fantastic public transport connectivity. The design has an admirable simplicity of form and a clarity of organization. However despite the huge success of Vienna’s council house programme, in Austria today social housing has to be delivered by private developers. It is subsidized by the federal government but still ends up being much more expensive to rent than the city’s own council housing – which in theory at least is still open to all EU citizens.

Tram spotters' paradise

A striking thing about Vienna is the excellence of its public transport system, one of the best in the world according to UTIP. The foundations were laid before the first World War with the building of the Stadtbahn, originally steam like the Metropolitan line and electrified in 1924. Orbital railways provided the basis for the extensive S bahn network and a very comprehensive tram system was constructed. But extensions to the system had to wait until the 70s, since the Social Democrats prioritized the building of housing in the inter and post war years. In 1969 three new lines were constructed (U1, U2 and U3), which tunnel under the heart of the city.

The old platforms, restored ... 

...  and the modern, remodeled

The generously scaled city centre stations have expansive underground concourses and the platforms are spacious with wide exits at either end (which can lead to some confusion – you are signposted to your line in two different directions!). The platforms of the new lines are all to a very elegant standard design with a simple plastic form, I imagine conceived as a modern reinterpretation of Wagner’s work. At the same time the Stadtbahn was upgraded as lines U4 and U6. Wagner’s entrance pavilions were mostly retained and additional entrances with escalators or lifts provided at the opposite ends of the platforms, the platforms themselves often remodeled in the new corporate plastic style. Although retained, many of Wagner’s structures have been carelessly treated with inappropriate kit, tat and advertising but some such as Stadtpark are now being fully restored to the original designs.

The Vienna U bahn and TRON. Courtesy Marcin Skrzątek

The U bahn is frequent, very fast and uber convenient. It provides seamless integration with the S bahn and mainline train services (although there is a long walk at the new Hauptbahnhof). The tram system is amazingly extensive, frequent and a lot of fun but can be slow because the trams have little priority over general traffic. Buses mostly run as outer suburban extensions to the U bahn and tram lines, or as orbital routes. They are remarkably frequent, running every five or ten minutes. Needless to say ticketing is completely integrated and what is really civilized is that there are no barriers at stations, you just validate your ticket and the general presumption is that you are not a fare dodger, unlike authoritarian Britain. It is worth emphasizing that Vienna is a relatively small city – no London or Paris or even Berlin, more the size of Manchester or Birmingham. Of course it is pointless to speculate how investment in public transport on the Viennese model would transform those cities as this is simply inconceivable, but it would of course shoot them up the ‘quality of life’ and productivity league tables.

New Central station - the bit that is not all about shopping and eating

Vienna had various terminal stations like London, but main line trains now all go from the new Hauptbahnhof. This is part of a big regeneration plan which aims to overcome the great barrier between the inner and outer suburbs created by the tangle of railway lines into the old East and South stations. Early evidence for the success of this plan is not too encouraging. The Hauptbahnhof, designed by Wimmer, Hoffmann and Hotz, is like an inverted Birmingham New Street. You approach by long, wide subways like a shopping centre mall, all glitzy shops and eateries and nothing to do with trains. Eventually you find the platforms at the upper level, so somewhat better than New Street. The platform canopies are quite stylish, especially seen from a distance. The entrance from the (un-crossable) Wiedner Gürtel is glass and projecting canopies; simple, even sparse but a dignified refuge from the chaos of traffic and mall-dom. New development around the station is fairly dreary, all chain hotels and glass offices on windswept streets. However the new campus for the Erste group on the old South Station site, designed by Henke Schreieck Architects, is more promising: an arrangement of relatively low rise, curving glass blocks in subtle relationship to each other, possibly inspired by Vienna’s UN buildings. It is not great architecture but it is competent and confident, the height respecting the Belvedere Schloss nearby, a World Heritage Site. How very different from the approach at Liverpool Waters.

Erste group campus, very Sir Owen Williams

If you get the train from the airport you will arrive at the more central Mitte Station. (Don’t get the rip-off CAT express – the S7 is much cheaper and hardly takes any longer). Mitte was redeveloped in the 90s and is just like New Street, trains in the bowels of the earth and you emerge into a torrid and disorientating shopping centre. However it does have good U and S bahn connections and, if you can find your way out to the street, the building structure devoid of advertising junk looks quite impressive. The peaceful Stadtpark nearby is a welcome relief.

This Secessionist stuff is everywhere – Cafe Rudigerhof

Given the delights of Secession Vienna and the relevance of Red Vienna, we had little time to explore more recent architecture. We did not get to see the sculptor Fritz Wotruba’s extraordinary concrete church on the outskirts. We did see the Wittgenstein House, designed by Paul Englemann in 1926 for the famous philosopher and his sister. It is a modernist paradigm expressing ‘a vision of form perfection outside styles and times’ but like the Villa Savoye, it was not really a place to live in. Hermine Wittgenstein said ‘it seemed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than a small mortal like me’, and it is now a cultural institute. Relatively nearby is the eccentric Gaudi-lite Kunsthaus by Hundertwasser, which seems rather trite, like the Po-Mo which Vienna seems fond of, for example the 1990 Haas-Haus on Stephansplatz, opposite the very wonderful cathedral. Hmmmm.

All forethought and no play – Wittgenstein House

All play and no forethought – Kunsthaus by Hundertwasser

The Wien Museum on Karlsplatz, designed by Oswald Heartl in 1959, is beautifully detailed with fine internal spaces. The central courtyard has been roofed over recently. Amongst other displays is a modernist living room designed by Loos, and a small but exquisite collection of Vienna 1900 art. A major revamp and extension is planned. In the park between the Belvedere and the Hauptbahnhof you find the 21er Haus, a reconstruction of the Austrian pavilion for the 1958 Brussels Expo, which, when we saw it, was housing a beautiful wooden temple reclaimed by Ai Wei-Wei. The simple geometry of the 2002 temporary Kunsthalle at Karlsplatz also seems set to remain as permanent exhibition space. Rachel Whiteread’s ‘nameless library’ Holocaust-Denkmal memorial in Judenplatz to the 65,000 Viennese Jews murdered by the Nazis is very moving.

The Wien Museum - a study in time and space 

Austrian pavilion from the 1958 Brussels Expo

In 1955 Khrushchev agreed to Russian withdrawal from Austria on condition of its permanent neutrality. Vienna has used this neutral status very effectively to revive its position as a great international city. The United Nations has one of its largest headquarters there in the Vienna International Centre, established on the east bank of the Danube in the 1970s. This has its own station on the U1 but it is worth getting off at Donauinsel station on the immensely long, thin island park in the middle of the mighty river, largely populated by very polite punks and goths. From here you get a good view of the conurbation and the hills beyond. The UN is now subsumed into Vienna’s version of Canary Wharf, including its tallest building at 60 stories, the slightly wonky DC Tower of 2013 by Dominique Perrault with a shorter sibling under construction. The rest of the ensemble doesn’t merit much attention. The really awful thing is that there is no urban structure or public realm, although the covered way leading to the Austria Centre is quite elegant. Overall it is a non-place, but note the small church opposite the VIC U bahn station, trying to tell a very different story from the surrounding towers of Mammon.

Gary Neville would love this – commerce towers over United Nations

The UN complex is literally international – you need a passport to get past the gun-toting guards, so we only saw it from outside. The Lonely Planet guide says ‘ this complex was a picture of modernism way back in 1979; today it looks less than fab’. Designed by Johann Staber, the semi-circular towers with their powerfully solid ‘bookends’, arranged around an arena as a symbolic way of expressing international relations, are very dignified and appropriate. They still seem pretty fab to me.

At the centre of Europe and the World

Thanks to Owen Hatherley and Anne Lloyd-Thomas for their advice.

Dr. Christa Veigl gave us an excellent tour of Red Vienna www.wien-architektur-tour.at

Jannon Stein’s article ‘The Propaganda of Construction’ in Jacobin Magazine is very useful on Red Vienna. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/the-propaganda-of-construction/

Falter Verlag’s City Walks 1 on Viennese Jugendstil provides very useful itineraries covering most of the best Secession architecture and has good, short expositions on the movement.

11 Aug 2016

Bus Spotting – or why buses are important

The proud municipal livery of the former Birmingham City Transport

Train spotting is now officially cool. Who could resist Tim Dunn’s enthusiasm for that magnificent Black Five steaming alongside a Highland loch as seen in the strangely addictive ‘Trainspotting Live’. It is true that many of the anoraks have yet to catch up with Tim’s snappy dress sense and it is difficult to really get excited about a 40 year old IC125 belching out diesel as it judders you down to London. But I was a train spotter when I was about 11 or 12 and you never forget the magic.

The heritage Routemaster, a design classic

Bus spotters however are seriously unfashionable. There are surprisingly large numbers of the species about and whole sections of bookshops are given over to their esoteric picture books. I share the nostalgia for the old municipal liveries like Glasgow’s jazzy olive and orange or Hull's deep blue with futuristic white flashes. They gave specific identities to cities, and companies such as Midland Red or Crosville defined provincial fiefdoms unknown in earlier historical geography. I hate the bland uniformity of the big companies like Stagecoach and First with their shit liveries, the same everywhere in the country, from Aberdeen to Cornwall. But I have never been much interested in the vehicles per se. I am unmoved by a heritage Routemaster even if Nairn loved them although I seeth with anger at the sight of a Heatherwick ‘Roastmaster’, which perfectly captures Boris Johnson’s vainglorious, flash vacuity. What I am interested in is bus systems and their part in urban design and development.

Boris Johnson's hubris and Heatherwick's Roastmaster

Buses lack the dynamic excitement and raw, sexy, power of trains but they are important. For a start they carry many more passengers than trains. But trains are mostly used by the affluent, and particularly men, so naturally get much more political attention and a lot more public subsidy. Buses are predominantly used by women, poorer people and the old. So providing good bus services should be an important element of policies to improve social inclusion and equality. Yes – well there’s the problem – we haven’t got any. Attitudes to buses are a classic example of class prejudice, as captured in Mrs Thatcher’s pronouncement that ‘for a man to be seen on a bus after the age of 20 is a sign of failure’.

Glasgow's public transport policy still stuck in the Thatcher era

Of course this is absurd, especially as car use by young men is far less common in cities today than it was 30 years ago. Buses are used by a wide cross section of society in big cities like London, Edinburgh and many other places, especially those like Oxford and Nottingham with good networks and large student populations. Buses can and should provide the basis of high quality public transport, complementing metro and tram systems in larger cities. This is a fundamental of sustainable urban planning.

New housing at Upton, Northampton - all about the car

But unfortunately there is a huge disconnect between town planning and public transport planning and of course between public transport planning and privatized-bus-world. Town planning is essentially about physical development so planners like new trophy infrastructure like trams, new rail stations or possibly guided bus, all of which are good but rarely deliverable. In reality, for nearly all new developments, public transport is going to equal bus. Local plan vision statements always include fine words about the importance of public transport and transport consultants write reams of self serving bollocks in Design and Access statements supporting crap planning applications. The  promised improvements however are usually tokenistic. What is really needed is to design estates with road layouts that allow for simple bus routes at high frequencies and for good pedestrian access to bus stops. Most volume builders’ estate layouts are the obverse of this with winding distributor roads and cul-de-sacs, hopeless for buses to serve effectively. There are hardly any good examples of new developments designed around good public transport, at least outside London. Even urban design exemplars like Upton in Northampton are almost entirely car centric. And good public transport also requires improving bus systems as a whole, not just the bit within the estate. This is partly about bus lanes and bus priorities but essentially about more intangible things like ticketing, marketing and information, attractive frequencies and accessible buses. Planners mostly don’t get this.

Heroic London Transport - East Finchley, image courtesy Owen Hatherley

Arnos Grove, image courtesy Owen Hatherley

Buses used to be important to cities. In the early 1900s nearly all sizeable towns enterprisingly invested in electric trams. From the 1920s to the 1950s municipal buses replaced trams and their networks expanded into the inter- and post-war suburbs. Small rural and inter-urban bus companies were mostly consolidated into big groups and nationalized after the war. There was a period of chaotic competition to municipal trams from ‘cowboy’ bus companies but in 1930 the government regulated bus services. In 1933 a Conservative government set up London Transport which integrated tubes, trams and buses in a single public transport system and this became a model for the world.

Heroic London Transport - Stockwell Garage, courtesy socarra 

However 50 years later a dogmatic Tory government swept away bus regulation. Some ideologues had been to Jakarta and saw there a classic free market competition paradigm in the melée of minibuses, vans, bajajs and motorcycles all vying for passengers on the congested and polluted city streets. The Thatcher government saw this as the ideal way forward for public transport in Britain and particularly a way of slashing public spending on buses. Buses had been profitable in Britain but by the 70s, with increasing car ownership and congestion, patronage was going down and subsidies going up. Of course this was the case in all developed countries including American cities where public transport is heavily subsidized. Britain’s deregulation of bus services was unique and typically ideological and reckless.

London: an integrated, comprehensive and coherent bus service

Of course if the loony theory really held good then the greatest benefits would have accrued to London but Mrs Thatcher was too canny to experiment on the capital where free market chaos would inconvenience our rulers and the establishment. So regulation and integration of services and ticketing was retained for London Transport. That is why the plight and poverty of public transport in provincial cities is just not understood by the metropolitan-dominated political and intellectual elites.

Ubiquitous First (Worst) bus liveries, here in Bradford

The Thatcher government quickly sold off the publically owned National Bus Company subsidiaries, along with those of the Public Transport Authorities, set up in the bigger conurbations after 1968 on London Transport lines. Often sold as management buyouts at knock down prices, bus companies were quickly consolidated into three big groups – Stagecoach, Arriva and First (Private Eye’s Worstbus) that dominate the industry today.

Such a waste: the closed Northampton Corporation Transport Offices

The effects of deregulation have been catastrophic. The number of bus passengers has declined by 50% since 1985 across the big conurbations like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, West and South Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear. Over the same period  bus passengers on London Transport have doubled. The reason is obvious - Transport for London specifies the routes, service levels and fares and the system is fully integrated and adequately funded. The differing performance however does partly reflect the increasing economic dominance of London over the last 30 years and also the car centric policies of many of the big cities with fast motorway access and cheap parking lure drivers away from public transport. An ironic example is the huge open car park opposite Centro’s HQ in central Birmingham where you can park all day for £4.

A bus station with design effort – Southampton University

In the Shires the decline in bus usage began in the 50s with the advent of mass car ownership, so that the networks were already pretty threadbare and the decline in patronage since 1985 has been less dramatic. Some medium sized cities like Edinburgh, Nottingham, Oxford and Brighton have managed to buck the trend of bus decline through strong planning policies favouring buses. And, importantly, Edinburgh and Nottingham still own their own bus companies.

Stagecoach to Lincoln's Ermine Estate; no local identity, no evening buses either

The huge problem of deregulation, competition and privatization is the loss of integrated planning, comprehensive route networks and ticketing. The split between public transport planning, which is done by transport authorities, and the operations of the commercial bus service providers resembles the internal market in the NHS. Under arcane competition rules bus companies can only operate ‘commercial’ routes which are profitable and they should not cross-subsidize less profitable services, such as to local shops, hospitals, schools or work places off the main bus routes. Transport authorities must fill in these socially necessary routes with tendered services. Since councils are strapped for revenue they usually specify a very infrequent and basic service and tenders are mostly given to low cost, low quality small operators. So the tendered services are excluded from the publicity and ticketing of the main companies, greatly reducing their usefulness.

A sad joke: Weston Favell, Northampton

The fragmentation of services is so chronic that often the privatized companies don’t even run less profitable evening or Sunday journeys on their main routes. Some cities like Bristol pay them to run later buses to get you home whilst Greater Manchester tenders separate evening services, usually from different companies which won’t accept your return ticket. First provides even a big city like Leicester with a pitiful skeleton evening service whilst in Swansea, amazingly, there are no buses at all on Sunday evenings.

Swansea Bus Station is good but you'll have a long wait on a Sunday night

Deregulation and selling off publically owned bus companies resulted in huge changes in the bus industry, but did not usher in the perfect world of competition that the free marketeers had anticipated. New small competitors did enter the market but, rather than establishing new routes and innovative services, they usually attempted to cherry pick the most profitable routes of the big companies. Often using old, polluting vehicles and employing part time drivers on low wages they could undercut the established companies, but the big boys fought back, becoming more ‘efficient’ by cutting out marginal services to focus on the main ones and forcing down drivers’ wages and conditions. Their main weapon was to use their bigger resources and financial muscle to flood routes with buses, far more than patronage could possibly sustain, and hence to drive out the interlopers. Usually after a period of turbulence the big companies reestablished effective local monopolies and the small companies eked out a business by taking over services abandoned by the big boys, together with low quality tendered and school contracts.

World class Manchester University - third world bus service

The big companies have been successful in some places like Cambridge which had very poor bus services before. By investing in new buses and introducing new simplified high frequency networks with good marketing and publicity they have managed to grow the market. And there are some very successful and innovative companies, like Brighton and Hove, which have extremely high patronage and satisfaction rates. But in the big Northern cities, where integrated public transport should be providing the basis for urban planning and sustainable development, bus services have been decimated (in the figurative sense – the numerical decline is much, much worse). Here competition between the big companies as well as with many smaller competitors was fiercer and longer lasting. Dirty, empty buses clogging the streets was especially a problem, most spectacularly in Manchester where the city centre was brought to a standstill by bus wars during a Conservative party conference. The previously integrated Greater Manchester network is now fragmented with First dominant in the north, Stagecoach in the south and 30 or so other smaller operators all vying for passengers. There is a bewildering array of tickets, only one of which is valid on all buses, trains and the trams. You can see why getting a London-style franchise system is high on Manchester’s Northern Powerhouse wish list. Rural areas too have seen a catastrophic decline in their bus services. And since they rely so heavily on Council tendered services, rural communities are particularly at risk from austerity spending cuts.

Tom Eckersley's Poster for the National Bus Company

The deregulation and privatization of buses was of course part of a much broader assault on public control of local services, and of government centralization. The impoverishment of local democracy, the loss of local accountability, initiative and public enterprise was just the norm. The Labour government of 1997 could hardly conceal its lack of interest but pressure from the cities did result in a new Transport Act in 2000. This sought to deal with the worst excesses of deregulation and privatization through ‘Partnership Working’, but without fundamentally changing anything. The problem was that, whereas councils sought real improvements and control over rocketing fares, the bus companies wanted to maintain their near total control and large profits. And the bus companies held all the cards. So, for example, transport authorities now had the power to require joint ticketing between operators, but they could not specify the fare levels. So bus companies simply sabotaged joint ticketing by insisting that joint tickets cost more than their own tickets.

A further Act in 2008 for the first time opened up the possibility of Councils franchising buses London-Transport-style, but this had to be a last resort where ‘partnership’ could be demonstrated to have failed. The process requires all sorts of complicated ‘tests’ to make it difficult to succeed and specifically transport authorities would have to prove that the potential disbenefits to the bus companies were outweighed by benefits to the public. In other words this was writing a blank cheque for the big bus companies to claim for loss of profits if franchising was introduced. It was clearly intended to make re-regulation a dead letter.

Nexus at least trying to make a difference; Gateshead Bus Station

Despite this, Nexus, the combined transport authorities of Tyne and Wear, pursued the case for regulation. This political commitment was heavily influenced by the fact that the big bus companies were making huge profits of 18-20% on what are effectively monopolies. Clearly competition was not working. In the northern conurbations bus fares had gone up 59% since 1995, compared with 36% in regulated London. This effectively represents a regressive tax on the poorest in society who depend on buses. Also bus companies are raking in public subsidies through fuel rebates, public contracts and concessionary fare payments. Nexus argued that a franchised network would be cheaper and fares lower. But the bus companies refused to provide the financial information required for a detailed business case so a government Tribunal turned down the Nexus bid in 2015. Embarrassingly this decision came only a few months after Osborne had signed the DevoManc deal which included his commitment to introducing bus franchising in Greater Manchester. The DfT was told to change the rules, so there is now no longer a requirement to compensate bus companies for lost profits. However the route to effective local control over bus services and fares is still fraught with huge difficulty and endless delay.

Hull's bus station is part of grand Paragon Station

It is no coincidence that probably the most successful city bus networks in Britain are municipally owned. Although Mrs Thatcher sold off the PTA bus operations, non-metropolitan authorities were allowed to retain their buses. Most councils, including big places like Leicester, Hull and Southampton subsequently sold their bus companies and no doubt regret it today. But there are still a dozen municipal bus operators, the largest being in Edinburgh (Lothian Buses), Nottingham, Cardiff and Reading. Counter-intuitively, they have the advantage of not being part of a bureaucratic inter-council ‘Combined Authority’ but rather have a strong political relationship with a unitary city. Hence they are much more able to take a corporate approach to wider transportation, planning and economic development strategies. Their boards still have a public sector ethos and as far as possible try to deliver a comprehensive service for their citizens, not just a profitable one. However they have to be run commercially as ‘arms length’ companies. This is a problem when it comes to plans for integration and joint ticketing since they act in the company interest, seeking primarily to protect market share and profits, rather than the passengers’ interest or the wider public interest.

Lothian Buses, Edinburgh and the magnificent Museum of Scotland

Edinburgh, with nearly 750 buses, is by far the biggest municipal. It runs an extremely comprehensive network of routes serving all parts of what is a polycentric city, with big business parks, shopping centres, hospitals and universities on the periphery. Lothian, having successfully beaten off Worstbus in the face of aggressive and protracted ‘bus wars’, has now extended the network into adjacent Midlothian and East Lothian towns. It runs an impressive network of night buses and Edinburgh is the only city in the UK where buses run every day, even on Christmas Day – suck that London. Real time information is provided at most stops and Lothian has a very good phone app. The contrast between the bus service in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, where it is provided by First and a multitude of small operators, is very striking, although Glasgow does of course have a large suburban train network and its famous circular Subway.

New buses and new tram kit on Princes Street

Edinburgh’s public transport strategy has been focused on building a new tram - highly contentious as it was years late and horribly over budget, although now is exceeding its patronage forecasts. The tram is a political football and hated by the Edinburgh bourgeoisie. The general consensus is that it wasn’t needed because Edinburgh’s buses are so good. Well yes – up to a point. But the Edinburgh bus system does have significant weaknesses. Firstly the City Council is unwilling to give buses and pedestrians the priority they deserve. Edinburgh, like London, is a capital city where the establishment and elites are feted and appeased, so cars and taxis are allowed to dominate. Yes there are bus lanes and some bus-only streets, but congestion makes bus journeys slow and unreliable, most especially in the Festival. Lothian’s smartcard system is pretty clunky too and because you can buy your ticket from the driver, who spends a lot of time answering queries as bus stop information is very poor, buses take ages to load. So bus journeys can be very time-consuming and frustrating. There are other frustrations too. For example Edinburgh City Council tenders some socially necessary routes, like the number 13 bus which serves the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, but as this is not run by Lothian Buses you cannot use your day ticket or smartcard, which is pretty silly.

Nottingham City Transport: amongst the best public transport services outside of London

The largest fleet of electric buses in Europe

It's all connected: trams, trains, buses and cycle paths

Nottingham is an example of a more holistic transport and development strategy. In addition to running the municipally owned Nottingham City Transport (NCT), Nottingham has developed a tram network (NET), recently extended with two new lines. This is partly funded by a Workplace Parking Levy (WPL), the only one in the country. Despite the opposition of much of the business community and the instinctive hostility of the Tory government, the introduction of the WPL was approved because it had gone through all the steps required by Cameron's short-lived Localism agenda, so ministers were hoist by their own petard. The WPL and other innovative funding mechanisms also pay for the Link bus network which complements the commercial network of NCT, serving local communities, workplaces, hospitals and colleges. And the really impressive thing is that these routes are all operated by electric minibuses – the biggest fleet of electric buses in Europe. By January 2017 electric single deckers will take over the P&R services too.

So why is Nottingham City Transport competing with the tram? 

Nottingham undoubtedly has one of the best public transport services outside London but deregulation and competition law still cast dark shadows. They conspire against integrated networks and ticketing and the best, most convenient service for passengers. The most absurd outcome is that the City, having procured and significantly underwritten the NET tram system, finds its own bus company NCT is directly competing with the new tram. The NET tram route does not even appear on the NCT map, which is beyond ridiculous.

The bus wars are still ongoing. This is not Yourbus, it is privately owned

Then there are still, periodically, bus wars. At present ‘Yourbus’ (sic) runs a number of routes that simply duplicate pre-existing bus services, so there are far more buses than passenger demand. The established companies take a defensive and preemptive approach to such competition, often stuffing timetables with unnecessary buses to keep rivals off stops. The upshot is that city centre streets are often choking with too many buses, which is self defeating as it makes services slow, inefficient and expensive and so less attractive to passengers.

At last! An Oyster Card outside London, but could be better

But Nottingham is the only city to have a travel card like London’s Oyster card – one that can be used on all buses and trams and which has a daily cap on fares. Getting the agreement of the operators to the Nottingham Oyster (inevitably called the Robin Hood card) is a triumph. But it is still something of a compromise and undermined by lack of co-operation from the bus companies. Although the main operators NCT and Trent Barton are innovative, run high quality services with new accessible buses, frequently win awards and don’t go in for bus wars, they still compete. NCT runs the great majority of the buses in the City and immediate suburbs, whilst Trent Barton provide services to adjoining towns and commuter villages. So they compete along the main roads into the city where Trent Barton can be the more frequent service. Both companies offer their own tickets and smartcards and aggressively promote these exclusive tickets rather than the integrated Robin Hood card, which they insist must have a more expensive daily cap if more than one bus company is used. So, for example, interchange with the NET tram is penalized. And because, unlike TfL, the City does not control the on-bus ticket systems there are constraints on how effectively the Robin Hood card can operate. You can’t for example top up on-line, although there will soon be a mobile phone top up.

Realtime display ✓ , Timetables & Maps ✓ , Maintained Shelter ✓

Although the City provides comprehensive information about the bus network at stops, including good real time information, this is fighting against the different publicity of the bus companies. Each company has separate web sites, timetable leaflets, maps and mobile phone apps. The separate apps only show real time information for the single operator, so you frequently have to consult two apps to check the next bus from your stop.

All Nottingham City Transport services, but why the different colours?

This bus is green but not Green Line. Confused? I'm not surprised

And strangely a preoccupation with branding makes the bus network even more complicated and difficult to understand. Trent Barton, confusingly, give their routes names rather than numbers, like Mainline or Pronto and each has its own branding and distinctive livery. NCT buses have numbers but are also colour branded by the main roads they serve, so those going to West Bridgford, where I live, are ‘Green Line’ and painted green. But their competitor ‘Mainline’ also has a green livery. The punters are not surprisingly confused to be told they can’t use their tickets on different green buses serving the same stops. You even get the same number bus on similar routes but run by different companies with non- interchangeable tickets, as Owen Hatherley was bemused and angry to find in Leicester.

A unified visual communication system was axiomatic

This focus on the individual route not the network and over-busy branding is of course completely at odds with the philosophy which made London Transport the model for the world. Holden and Beck deliberately used a standardized suite of high quality designs for infrastructure, liveries, typefaces, publicity – all the elements of the public transport system – in order to create the image of a comprehensive, unified whole. Even when London buses were franchised, so actually operated by private companies, they were forced to retain the famous red livery and logo. In Nottingham and elsewhere the cacophony of branding, marketing and different tickets creates the opposite – a fractured system. A regulated, franchised bus system would do away with such nonsense and allow the City to concentrate on developing its public transport strategy more effectively and enable better forward planning to increase public transport use and promote sustainability.

Fun with the system: Abram Games's Poster for London Transport

But at a time when this country appears to have pressed the self destruct button it may seem quaint to suggest that providing high quality, integrated and efficient public transport for cities should be a priority. It is even sadder that we may come to see Osborne’s city devolution prospectus as a brief ray of sunlight through the thick dark clouds of Whitehall indifference and centralization. With a new government that seems to have no economic or transport ideas whatsoever the future looks very bleak indeed. So it turns out that the bus spotters, with their anoraks, Ian Allen lists, cameras and rallies of old buses are far more realistic and down to earth than me. Alas.