There is no such thing as a free lunch in London, but thanks to changes to the burgeoning bus fleet, there is such a thing as a free ride. A survey last week found some 90,000- 120,000 Londoners avoid the GBP1 ($15) ticket on the new single-decker 'bendy buses'. It declared, rather diplomatically, that bus fares are becoming 'optional'.
The number of fare dodgers is growing each day, the Transport for London survey says, largely because of the rising number of bendy buses introduced by Mayor Ken Livingstone to replace the ageing fleet of hop-on, hop-off Routemasters.
The fabled, slim, double-decker Routemasters are due to retire from London's streets for good next year after nearly 40 years in service, largely due to spiralling maintenance costs, compliance with EU disability laws and the fact people tend to fall off the open back (five people head to the great bus stop in the sky each year, while survivors sue for damages).
The replacement - the long, three-door concertina single-decker bus that bends in the middle - was chosen because people can board and alight more easily, cutting stop times and speeding up London's snail-pace traffic. Unlike the Routemaster, the GBP200,000 bendy bus has no conductors to make passengers buy a ticket before boarding or to ensure that they swipe their pre-paid Oyster smartcard.
With such devices out of order or out of reach on crowded buses, and bus stop ticket machines either too slow to work, broken or vandalised, it is easier to dodge fares than pay.
Honest passengers are increasingly rare, because those silly enough to tell drivers the machine is broken are let off at the next stop to pay. The drivers - under pressure to keep to the timetable - then set off before passengers can get back on. Short of hiring conductors (too expensive), the only answer is ticket inspectors. But the bus system employs just 150 who catch, on average, only one fare dodger each per day - a ratio of 0.1 per cent of passengers, well below the 1-2 per cent average outside the capital.
One London Evening Standard reporter spent 10 hours travelling up and down one bus route. Not once did he pay, or see an inspector. Anyone who is caught is fined GBP10, way below the rate in other bendy bus cities such as Madrid and Berlin.
The news of such mass villainy threatens to blemish Mr Livingstone's otherwise spotless transport reforms which have cut car use, refreshed traffic flow and eased pressure on the overcrowded Tube. The buses have taken up much of the slack, with 4.2 million users in 2000 now swollen to 6 million a day (hardly surprising if they do not have to pay). No wonder Londoners call the bendy bus the 'happy bus'.