London double-deck bus ride for Boston shoppers

Boston, whose cobbled streets and sidewalk cafes help make it one of America's most European cities, may be going even more continental. The latest import: double-decker buses from England.

Those tall red buses, as characteristic of London as black cabs, bobbies, and bowler hats, may soon be swaying gently through the winding streets of this 351- year-old New England city.

And while they will add, in the eyes of the region's numerous Anglophiles, more than a touch of class, their purpose will be entirely practical: They will link the already-developed areas near the harbor to the new $318 million Copley Place complex in the Back Bay.

That project, now under construction and scheduled to open in 1984, will include two hotels, four office towers, more than a quarter-million square feet of retail space (including a branch of the up-market department store, Neiman-Marcus), and 100 housing units.

Sitting atop the Massachusets Turnpike near the Prudential Center, and accessible by car from the suburbs, it will also include parking spaces for 1, 432 cars.

And that, as a famous Englishman once said in another context, is the rub.

Given all the activity -- an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 people a day -- the retailers in Copley Place can expect what planners politely describe as a "shortfall" of at least 200 parking places.

Whichever side of the street you drive on, that translates into something both Londoners and Bostonians understand: You might not find a place to park when you come to town.

Enter the buses. They will link the city's two other lively retail centers -- Quincy Market and Downtown Crossing -- with the Back Bay, and help spread the burden of parking to other areas of the city. Along the way -- especially from those prized top-level seats at the very front, where the view is far better than even the driver's -- they will provide panoramic scenes of the mile of parks and streescapes separating these areas.

The idea for importing the used buses (of pre-1968 vintage because of air-quality regulations) came from the Back Bay Association, a group of businessmen within an area that includes posh Newbury and busy Boylston Streets. The association's executive director, Stuart Robbins, told the Monitor that he hopes the 9.5-acre Copley Place development will make Back Bay "the uptown of the downtown."

But some retailers -- whose shops include such well-known names as Lord & Taylor, Brooks Brothers, Bonwit Teller, and Shreve, Crump & Low -- have been worried about competition from a new complex adazzle with its mirrored walls, waterfalls, escalators, and skylights. They have initiated a $20,000 marketing survey, Mr. Robbins says, to find out who comes to the Back Bay and why. Whoever they are -- day-trippers, tourists, residents, or office workers on lunch break -- the buses, they hope, will help them circulate throughout the whole district.

The plan began with a suggestion that the city run the bus route. But, Robbins says, that was abandoned as the city (in marked contrast to the boom in the private sector) entered the turbulent fiscal waters in the past year. The plan now calls for a private corporation to buy and run the buses. Robbins thinks passengers will end up paying about 50 cents a ride -- the same as a subway token. Other revenue will come from advertizing carried on the buses.

So far the City Council has approved the route, although permits are still pending from other licensing agencies. Robbins expects the right-hand-drive feature of the buses will cause no problem. But one modification will surely be needed: a change in the doors. Without that, the buses would discharge passengers plump in the middle of the street. Safety regulations may also require the installation of a second staircase to the upper level.

And the color: Will he retain the bold, bright red that makes London buses instantly visible above the traffic?

"Absolutely!" Robbins says.

After all, Boston, for all its new glitter, still has a sense of tradition.

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