Buses, bikes, and congestion…

So I wrote something on the Begg report. I had been resisting it – others have critiqued its assumptions and in particular highlighted its inaccurate claims about cycling. But the issues the report tackles are important, and I hope that despite its flaws, it can prompt us towards a more honest debate and more productive sustainable transport alliances.

A step back. The Begg report is entitled ‘The Impact of Congestion on Bus Passengers’ and it’s produced by the bus industry, through the ‘Greener Journeys’ lobby group that it leads. In doom-laden tones it predicts the sector’s demise without action to speed up buses. The report makes the eye-catching headline claim that ‘traffic congestion is a disease which if left unchecked will destroy the bus sector’.

Is this really the case? Should sustainable transport advocates focus on fighting congestion?

Reading the report again, the ‘fight congestion’ stress – so often used as part of pro-car rhetoric – felt almost imposed. The report’s conclusions and policy recommendations don’t really align with it. Indeed, one recommendation is to extend bus priority, which may be seen as potentially increasing congestion for private motorists, by reallocating road space from people driving to bus users.

Such a reallocation has already happened in London on a large scale. While the report’s claim that cycle superhighways had ‘reduc[ed] road capacity in central London by 25%’ is way off, TfL have actually reduced private motorised [very important caveat!] road capacity in central London by even more than that, by 30% – primarily for buses. In London, the bus lobby has been impressively successful in the ‘space wars’ referred to in the Begg report.

TfL calculated in 2013 that ‘the proportion of network capacity for private motorised trips lost relative to 1996 [was] 30% in central London, 15% in inner London and 5% in outer London’. Much was due to the introduction of bus lanes and priority at junctions during the early 2000s, largely at the expense of space and time for motorists. In 2000, there was 162km of bus lanes on the London network, while by 2008 this had risen to 279. By contrast, the London Cycling Campaign has calculated there are only around 60km of protected cycle tracks on the capital’s roads.

I would agree with the report’s suggestion that falling bus speeds can put people off travelling by bus. However, speeds are always relative. People choose a mode in competition with other alternatives. So if the bus is going at chicken speed, but other modes are unattractive, unsafe, or slower, you may manage to keep your passengers. The Begg report acknowledges this by talking about ‘releasing [buses] from the congestion delays experienced by other road users’ (which is rather different to ‘tackling congestion’ in itself!)

Bus mode share plotted against bus speeds

Bus mode share plotted against bus speeds

The point is highlighted by a graph using data from Census 2011 commute bus mode share data against the latest TfL bus speeds by borough in the morning peak. I would say in passing that bus data availability outside London is a major problem. The system of competing bus companies means data is treated as commercially sensitive, even if sometimes – as in the Begg report – it is offered to sympathetic academics on an ad hoc basis. By contrast much London bus data is freely available. So, the graph is just London. (I’ve excluded City of London as so few people live there.)

What’s going on in the graph? London boroughs where bus speeds are low, have higher bus mode share!

What we’re not seeing, if we just look at bus speeds, is that comparison to other modes. The next graph calculates a ‘bus penalty’ (in relation to driving) by comparing the latest bus speeds with DfT data on motor vehicle speeds on locally managed ‘A’ roads in the morning peak (Table CGN0201a). It’s not quite comparing like with like but close enough to give a sense of the bus compared to the car, in terms of speed. And as the bus penalty decreases, bus mode share grows. What’s happened is that in many car-dominated parts of Outer London, driving has remained quick and easy, and even though buses move faster than in places like Hackney, they’re a lot slower than cars.

Bus mode share against bus penalty (difference in speeds)

Bus mode share against bus penalty (difference in speeds)

I wish the Begg report had included more detailed consideration of this issue, because even changes in bus speeds don’t tell you that much unless you know what’s happening to the alternatives. (Instead, we get a confusing graph on page 12, where the text and figure seem at odds, and source data is not cited). Because if the bus penalty matters more than absolute bus speeds, the implication is that reducing congestion may not help buses, if – by speeding up private cars – this maintains or even increases the bus penalty.

In many of our cities, as Begg acknowledges, congestion helps suppress demand for car use. Getting rid of congestion, by contrast, may encourage more people to drive. If we really want to cut both congestion and car use, we have to think radically, going beyond the most far-reaching solutions yet implemented in the UK. London still regulates traffic through congestion, despite having road pricing. Even the relatively radical steps taken in London, Nottingham or Bristol won’t be enough.

Should we consider very high charges to drive a car, perhaps, much higher than the current London Congestion Charge? This could be combined with parking levies like Nottingham’s, but higher and covering all types of trip, not just commuting. Politically difficult, and unless there is large scale reallocation of road space to sustainable modes, it can be seen as unfair, if car use again becomes very visibly the privilege of the rich.

Perhaps fairer, but also politically challenging, is restricting where private cars can go, making driving and potentially also parking more difficult, through a strategy like Barcelona’s ‘super-block’ plan. People who really need to drive can still do so, but discretionary motorised journeys are heavily discouraged, and cycling, walking and public transport made easy to use.
Restricting motor vehicle access, luckily, goes hand in hand with prioritising sustainable modes. A good example here is Manchester, where the Oxford Road corridor is being prioritised for buses, while supporting cycling and walking, including protected tracks. The infrastructure’s not perfect: but what other areas can learn from is the strategic planning that both prioritises and separates buses and bikes. Oxford Road – the heart of the University area – will no longer be a through route for private motor vehicles during the day; these must use alternative routes. Instead, there will be bus priority and segregated cycle tracks, alongside pleasant, wide pavements.

If Oxford Road looked like this when I was at university, I might have done some cycling!

Interestingly, in 2012 the original plans for Oxford Road included traditional cycle lanes, which don’t provide separation from buses, and disappear at bus stops. The local cycle campaign lobbied for Dutch-style infrastructure, and won their case partly because they convinced planners that mixing buses and cycles would be bad for both modes. To prioritise both, you had to separate them. (The cycle campaign incidentally also argued for stronger curbs on car use, to increase bus priority).

Cyclists would rather not share space with buses. It’s not just the injury risk – although just in London TfL buses hospitalise hundreds of people, mostly pedestrians, every quarter. It’s the fact that riding with large vehicles is scary and unpleasant. My research has found that cycling near misses – everyday occurrences in the UK – are particularly frightening if they involve buses or HGVs. But creating cycle infrastructure is still often seen as detrimental for buses, even if good for cyclists. The Begg report comments ‘While […] the critical importance of reducing cycling accidents through segregation is clear, care must be taken to ensure cycling improvements are not to the detriment of bus passengers.’

But could cycling infrastructure actually benefit bus passengers? The Manchester example suggests this could be the case, although it contravenes conventional wisdom on shared bus and cycle lanes. This – as in Cycling England guidance and a TRL research report – says shared lanes virtually never delay buses, because cyclists either speed up or move out of the way of buses. Hence there is no gain for buses from separating the two modes. This assumption has led to a perception in the Begg report and more broadly that cycle infrastructure is bad for buses.

But we are in uncharted territory now in many cities. The highest cycling flows considered in the TRL report were 100 per hour. Now on many London bridges and other main roads, we have cycling flows of 1000+ at peak, and the same will happen in other cities where cycling is growing. The impact on buses of 100 versus 1000 cyclists per hour will be different. For one thing, you get platooning behaviour at higher flows – and a platoon of cyclists simply can’t get out of the way of a bus in the same way that a lone rider can. Mixing with large numbers of cyclists is thus understandably frustrating for bus drivers. In the Oxford study that inspired my Near Miss work, bus drivers were particularly stressed by near misses with cyclists. They didn’t want to cause injury but the close mixing of buses with large numbers of bikes made them constantly scared of doing so.

A presentation I gave at the Modelling World conference (accompanying academic paper currently under peer review; available on request) further highlighted that if cyclist diversity improves (more women, older riders, and children) the slower speed of the new riders would further impact buses, if lanes are shared. Currently the 1,200 people riding over London Bridge in the morning peak are mostly young-ish men, almost all travelling at 30kph or faster, compared to more normal speeds of 20-30kph. Even so, the sheer numbers will affect bus speeds – but slower cyclists would do so more.

The potential for cycles to delay buses in shared lanes suggests an inconvenient fact for received wisdom: where cycling flows are high, some of the bus slowdown could be due to this. So the bus lobby’s tendency to oppose cycle infrastructure may be self-defeating in contexts such as London where flows are already high. You might block cycle infrastructure, but you’ll then have buses stuck behind platoons of cyclists. In places where cycling rates remain low, blocking cycle tracks may successfully suppress demand for cycling – which may help maintain bus ridership among those who might otherwise cycle some of their trips, but is hardly conducive to giving people a good choice of sustainable modes for different journeys.

Rather than sustainable modes taking pot shots at each other, we need an honest conversation about how to support them all. This will require radical and strategic thinking, and being open about gains and losses. But sometimes solutions are obvious. On London Bridge, two-thirds of carriageway space is allocated to private motor vehicles, when at least three-quarters of those travelling over the bridge at peak (excluding pedestrians) are on buses or cycles. Re-allocating space from private motor traffic to cycles would help both cyclists and bus passengers, removing a source of conflict and delay.

Taking a broader strategic view, in cities I think we should be considering a more ambitious network of bus or tram rapid transit corridors, which would often exclude private motor traffic, and which should be accompanied by protected infrastructure for cycling. In other parts of the network, we might separate bus and bike routes entirely. This can also help buses, by encouraging cyclists off bus routes and onto higher quality infrastructure. It’ll already be happening in London as cyclists divert from parallel bus corridors to the Embankment cycle tracks.

The key is for walking, cycling, and public transport advocates to lobby together for more priority for all these modes – not to join the car lobby’s campaign against congestion. The Begg report bemoans the weakness of the bus passenger lobby: something I’d agree with, but with a caution that the interests of bus passengers and bus companies don’t necessarily coincide. Bus companies are large, powerful private organisations, and they can often get their voices heard. That’s one reason why we have hundreds of kilometres of bus lane in London. But it’s true that those affected by bus operations – bus passengers, and those injured by buses, or affected by air pollution, as well as those who drive buses – are not heard so much.

If people have more sustainable mobility choices, so much the better. If people feel ‘forced’ to walk, cycle, or use the bus or tram, they may instead take the opportunity to drive, if they get the chance. With cycling’s growth, some new trips will come from the car, others from buses or walking, while others will be entirely new journeys. We shouldn’t be fixated on the short term shifts: sustainable transport gains if we create networks of infrastructure that prioritise cycling, walking and public transport. This happened with Seville’s cycle track system, where initially some mode shift was from buses to cycles, but mode shift from cars to buses then meant public transport’s mode share actually also grew. The long-term goal is a societal transition away from the car, locking in multi-modality (walking, cycling and public transport as desired options) for future generations.

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4 Responses to Buses, bikes, and congestion…

  1. Good piece.

    I would say that the bus lobby (although you’re right that there is a difference between this and bus passengers) is a lot more powerful than the cycling lobby. I would also say that in terms of health and sustainability we shouldn’t be afraid to say that cycling is better. It has less external costs than bus usage and is therefore worse off.

    One bugbear I have is that Freedom Pass holders get a good few hundred quid a year subsidy. I’m not against this, but where is the equivalent for over-60s cyclists?

  2. admin says:

    Thanks Bob. Agree with you on some kind of incentive for older cyclists, especially given their under-representation. In London this could be simply done by giving them free access to hire bikes, which – combined of course with improved cycling conditions – could help encourage a cultural shift. We so often assume older people won’t ride bikes, but in high-cycling countries cycling rates often rise at older ages.

    Also agree that active travel has particularly high co-benefits – particularly for older people who get massive health benefits from physical activity. But even if we get to a point where most people cycle some trips, there’ll still be a lot of demand for other modes and best if those other modes are more sustainable than cars 🙂

  3. Mike Robinson says:

    As I understand it, TfL contracts bus companies to run particular routes, but TfL holds the revenue risk, that is, if there is falling ridership hence fare income from buses, this affects TfL coffers, not the bus companies.

    The bus companies are incentivised based on a variety of measures including reliability, driver and engineering quality and customer surveys.

    My guess is there may be a battle between TfL and the bus companies when it comes to “reliability”. TfL will want to penalise the bus companies for reliability issues under bus company control (like mechanical failures and driver shortages) but my guess is the bus company will be looking to absolve themselves for issues they can blame on TfL (like the cycle routes…)

    Some bus routes will inherently have faster speeds than others for a range of reasons so from a bus company perspective, the key measurement will be the speeds (hence waiting times) being used to assess the bus company for a particular route. While TfL do publish average speeds for bus routes, clearly they don’t publish the bus company targets.

    One way to understand behaviour is to look at incentives and for TfL, falling revenue from buses may be a threat to some parts of the organisation and for the bus companies, if they aren’t meeting performance targets, that may be a threat to the bus company and a cause of friction between them and TfL.

  4. Matthew Phillips says:

    Of course the big concern that bus companies have with congestion is that to maintain a service frequency of, say, 15 minutes, on congested roads you need to deploy more buses and employ more drivers. That might not be balanced financially by any increase in ridership which might result.

    But entirely agree with your conclusions, that radical repurposing of streets is needed. Living in the north of England, I am always on foot or public transport when I visit London. I have never understood, given how easy it is to get around without a car, why almost all of London’s streets seem to be open unrestricted to motor vehicles. It would be easy to accommodate a parallel grid of dedicated public transport, walking and cycling space if only there was political will.

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