by Matthew John White

I doubt that the brilliant gross-out teen comedy The Inbetweeners invented the term ‘bus wankers’, but it certainly dragged it into popular culture. In Series 2, Episode 4, which first aired in 2009, arch gross-merchant Jay shouts the insult in question from the window of a moving car. The phrase is now firmly mainstream. You’ll often see it in social media comments: “my car’s at the garage so I’m being a bus wanker today”, or “can’t wait to pass my driving test so i can stop being a bus wanker”. A Facebook group named ‘bus wankers!‘ is liked by 93 thousand people.

Derision of bus users isn’t always achieved with this phrase, of course. Just the other day, while discussing a trip to London over a pub garden pint, a friend of a friend loudly asked “Who over the age of 30 gets a bus?”, accidentally (I hope!) paraphrasing an apocryphal Thatcher quote in the process. Yet ‘bus wankers’ has become the standard, convenient, go-to expression for such mockery.

Even the staunchest motorist, who would never dream of getting the bus themselves, should be a fan of buses

The way it’s generally used is loaded with snobbery and classism, and the idea that nobody in their right mind would actually choose to ride a bus: it must be because they are too poor to own a car, or too stupid to learn to drive, or just too old, or perhaps have had their licence revoked.

Yet there are many good reasons to ride a bus. Buses benefit all of us. They fight air pollution, lower congestion, provide vital connections between communities, and thereby reduce social isolation. Because of stricter regulations, Grade VI engine buses create far fewer toxic emissions than many Grade 6 engine diesel cars – and that’s not even per passenger. And although taking the bus is obviously less exercise than more active transport modes like walking or cycling, it is generally a lot more exercise than driving – as people will need to walk to-and-from a bus stop. Of course, people with lower mobility may still struggle with buses – but they are becoming more accessible (since 2017, every single bus must be wheelchair accessible, by law).

Even the staunchest motorist, who would never dream of getting the bus themselves, should be a fan of buses – would they really prefer all those passengers to be driving their separate cars, adding further congestion to the roads, if the bus service didn’t exist?


In addition, the more people who shun car ownership in favour of buses (and other modes of transport), the fewer cars we’ll have parked on our streets. This means they will become much safer areas for children to play on, for people to walk and cycle along, and simply nicer areas to spend time on, gardening, chatting, or just watching the world go by: engendering stronger, happier, communities.

By refusing to use buses, and by denigrating those who do, we give tacit consent to the repeated cutting of bus services. English and Welsh local authority bus budgets were cut by £20.5 million in the last year, which is particularly disastrous for rural communities.

So, back to ‘bus wankers’. There seems to be a mass forgetting of how it’s actually used in The Inbetweeners. Firstly, we are supposed to be laughing at, not with, the boys. Their actions are too disgusting and desperate to elicit much sympathy. Secondly, our anti-heroes get their comeuppance for ridiculing bus passengers: when Jay shouts the phrase again, as they arrive in the capital for an ambitious night of clubbing and pulling, the car immediately hits a queue at some traffic lights, allowing one of strangers from the bus stop to come up and throttle him, growling “I’m a wanker am I??”.

The former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, once said “an advanced country is not one where the poor use cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

This concept – unrecognisable from our current state of affairs in most of the UK – is one we need to take to heart, for the health of our environment and our societies. We need to realise that we all have a vested interest in a strong bus service. Rather than poking fun at people who take the bus, we should be fighting for the kind of bus service that would make the very notion of car ownership laughable. A service that is municipally owned, fully accessible, with low fares, more regular services, increased routes, and zero emissions.

Unless we change our ways and start to see the value in buses, ditching unhelpful phrases like ‘bus wanker’, we will have no chance of achieving this dream. Our smugness now may be paid for later, and when we come to actually need a bus service ourselves, we could just find there isn’t one there.

Featured image CC0


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