On Bus Lanes, Britain Can Learn from Los Angeles

The bus lane on the M4 motorway into London is under attack by the new Conservative/LDP government.  Some HT readers wonder if this is a fatal flaw of all forms of BRT that rely on highway bus lanes.  The BBC tells the story:

[The M4 lane] lets buses, coaches, licensed black taxis and motorcycles speed towards London, while the rest of the motorway’s vehicles often ended up crawling, especially at peak times. However, 11 years later it has been revealed that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond will announce on Monday that the bus lane is to be scrapped….

The [Automobile Association]’s Andrew Howard says: “We are very pleased to see this development, as we have campaigned against the bus lane from the very beginning. “It is always aggravating to sit in a traffic jam beside a bus lane that has nothing in it, and that is the situation on the M4.” The RAC Foundation was equally pleased, saying that scrapping the bus lane was a good idea because it was “so underused”. RAC Foundation director Stephen Glaister adds: “Most drivers on the M4 will wonder why this decision has taken so long.”…

M4 But if the BBC’s photo is any indication, the bus lane is working just right.  Even the one bus in the image is clearly carrying more people than an entire lane of traffic in the image, so it’s well worth the space it’s taking.  Yes, a properly functioning bus lane looks empty most of the time if you’re sitting right next to it in a stopped car.  The BBC goes on:

Despite the political row, the AA’s Andrew Howard admits that the removal of the bus lane may not ultimately change much. He explains: “When the bus lane ends, the M4 then reduces to two lanes for an elevated section. “So you are still going to see big queues going into London – getting rid of the bus lane will simply move them 3.5 miles to the east.”

As one HT reader laments:

Bus/HOV lanes embody an inherent dilemma. If they are functioning properly, they appear empty or unused compared to the congested general purpose lanes, even if they are carrying far more people/hour, and may even be aiding SOV [single-occupant vehicle] traffic.

It is too easy for populist politicians to appeal to motorists by opening bus/HOV [high occupant vehicle] lanes to SOV traffic, and that is apparently what is happening in London.

Yes, indeed.  I hate to say it, but the Brits need to put their well-honed fascination with Los Angeles to work, because the El Monte Transitway on Interstate 10 was the site of a similar mistake in 2000.  There, too, buses and carpools seemed to fly past stopped traffic, so that drivers of the stopped cars had lots of time to gaze at the asphalt of the bus-carpool lane, contemplating how empty it looked.  There, too, it was tempting for a naive politican to try to score some votes by appealing to these disgruntled single motorists.  Wikipedia:

In 1999, then state senator Hilda Solis authored a bill, Senate Bill 63, to drop the carpool definition from three occupants to two, which passed both the state Assembly and Senate and was signed by Governor Gray Davis on July 12, 1999. The bill was opposed by both Caltrans and Foothill Transit, as well as the Southern California Transit Advocates, a transit users’ organization. It received support from many cities hoping that carpool rates would increase. SB 63 went into effect on January 1, 2000. As a compromise, the bill was designated an experiment which would sunset in 24 months.

In fact, the actual number of people moved on the busway dropped, meaning that the lowered requirements did not attract new carpoolers. Instead, many carpoolers previously forced to triple up moved to two-person carpools, which increased the vehicle volume on the roadway and consequently resulted in severe congestion. As a result of the congestion, many individuals abandoned carpooling and decided to drive alone. Speeds on the busway dropped markedly from 65 mph (105 km/h) before the experiment to 20 mph (32 km/h) during the experiment, where speeds in the regular lanes did not change significantly (as a result of 2 person carpoolers moving to the busway), and actually dropped from 25 mph (40 km/h) to 23 mph (37 km/h), paradoxically making the busway slower than the regular lanes. Accident rates on the busway increased significantly from zero in the six months before the experiment to five during the experiment. Travel times along the busway increased by 20–30 minutes in each direction, generating over 1,000 complaints to government agencies, and requiring Foothill Transit to hire more drivers and stage more buses to provide busway service.

As a result of public outrage, Assembly Bill 769 was passed in July 2000 that was an emergency measure to terminate the experiment during peak hours. … Hilda Solis … did vote for AB 769, effectively admitting that her idea was a failure.

Yes, from behind the wheel of your stopped single-occupant car, a well-functioning bus lane looks empty most of the time.  But at high-demand times, bus lanes easily move far more people than traffic lanes.  The question is: do all the users of the road matter equally?  If so, it should be a no-brainer to provide faster travel times to people who use limited capacity more efficiently.  That’s what bus (and HOV) lanes do.

19 Responses to On Bus Lanes, Britain Can Learn from Los Angeles

  1. EngineerScotty October 4, 2010 at 3:16 pm #

    Not being all that familiar with UK politics, how much of this is bashing of the poor?
    Much anti-transit activism here in the US seems motivated by the perception that public transit is a form of welfare, an alleged subsidy to an allegedly undeserving underclass, who instead ought to be encouraged to become productive, automobile-owning motorists.
    Sometimes the inertia of US politics can be frustrating, but it can also be beneficial when a retrograde government comes to power.
    That said–how many PPHPD did the M4 buslane move during peak hours? To win the argument on capacity-utilization grounds (ignoring other reasons to favor public transit, such as environmental outcomes or social equity), it’s useful to demonstrate that the bus lane moves more people than a corresponding lane of traffic. Which implies busses at 5-minute headways minimum, and shorter headways for lower-capacity vehicles.

  2. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org October 4, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    Scotty.  Re possible class-based politics underlying the move, note Margaret Thatcher's most famous statement on public transit:  "A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure." 
    (A great deal of interesting commentary on this quote, btw, is readily available.  I just googled "Thatcher man bus failure"

  3. Chris M October 4, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    I don’t think it’s a case of kicking the poor, so much as the minister taking advantage of a rare opportunity to pander to his own voters whilst only upsetting opposition party voters. Unlike most bus infrastructure in London this falls under the UK government, because the M4 is a national motorway. Normally the DfT can’t shut down bus lanes as that’s a local authority decision, but in this case Hammond can.
    The reason he wants to is because unlike most London bus infrastructure this lane solely benefits the poor of London (anyone relatively affluent in west London would take the train over these sorts of distances) who are Labour voters, and solely irritates the wealthy of the Home Counties who aren’t. The latter group usually get no say over bus lanes as they don’t live in London and don’t vote in local elections, but since this is a national piece of infrastructure their views count.
    So basically it’s not a case of damning all public transport and its users , so much as being able to get away at pleasing his base without spending a penny or losing a vote.

  4. Danny October 4, 2010 at 4:04 pm #

    Good post, but I was especially impressed by the fact that a politician tried something that she thought would increase welfare, and ended up realizing its failure and shutting it down. It isn’t often that politicians do that.

  5. Zmapper October 4, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    According to Chris’s British Road Directory, or CBRD, the bus lane improved travel for motorists.

  6. anonymouse October 4, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    “But if the BBC’s photo is any indication, the bus lane is working just right. Even the one bus in the image is clearly carrying more people than an entire lane of traffic in the image”
    And that’s the “bulk effect” in action. The cars are taking up way more physical space, so they seem more important, just like low-density suburbs or rural areas seem more important than cities because they also take up more space. It’s also a demonstration of one of the pitfalls of bus “flexibility”: because the bus can be made to run in mixed traffic almost as easily as in a dedicated lane, there’s a much higher chance of that happening.

  7. ws October 4, 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    So when anti-transit peeps bring up investing in buses as a solution to expensive rail projects — the end result is actually that “they” never cared about buses to begin with and it was just a big hoax to make an argument.
    That’s what I gather, at least.

  8. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org October 4, 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    Ws. Yes, that can be true. But not the converse of course. Not all
    advocates of less expensive bus solutions are anti-transit. Sometimes
    they're people who want to spread limited resources over more
    potential beneficiaries, or want to get something done fast, or see
    other mobility benefits to a bus solution such as the ability to
    branch onto existing infrastructure, as in Brisbane..

  9. K October 4, 2010 at 9:09 pm #

    What we need is some sort of bus that has an elevated body with wheels that extend down on either side of the cars. I reckon that would capture the imagination of people.

  10. Tom West October 5, 2010 at 6:42 am #

    I think those who see this as an anti-poor move are wrong. This is just populism (car users outnumber bus users).

  11. Rational Plan October 5, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    I actually live near here. There are two different sections. The Picture shown is the spur from the main motorway down to Heathrow Airport and is used by a few airport shuttles and long distance coaches. The section to be removed is to the east of airport towards the elevated section. There used to be regular hold ups where the road narrowed to the elevated section. The M4 bus lane was extension of the airport spur. The problem apart from long distance coaches no buses actually use the route. We have an extensive commuter rail system, there are few express commuter buses in the UK.
    The M4 bus lane was used mainly as an express routes for Taxis from the airport. It was not an HOV lane. Besides London has hundreds of miles of bus lanes, but they are actually on streets where buses are actually run.

  12. Tobias October 5, 2010 at 9:57 am #

    Buses should never run on motorways in the first place. Buses are meant to serve areas where people live, work or shop. A motorway is quite a distance off such areas (for a good reason). So these bus routes just run through on motorways but they shouldn’t.
    For fast services with greater stop spacing there are railways. The real travesty and anti-poor policy in London is the price structure of TfL which forces the poor to take buses even for long trips. Abandoning this bus lane isn’t.

  13. Pete (UK) October 5, 2010 at 10:39 am #

    When I first read the press reports I was saddened but not surprised at this move. A typical Tory transport policy. However after reading @ational Plan and Tobias’s comments I have cheered up. They are right, for travel between Heathrow and central London people use rail. London Underground’s Piccadily Line, or Heathrow Express to Paddington. On a more positive note bus lanes are appearing all over the city where I work as the Greater Bristol Bus Network plan proceeds. This is even funding HOV lanes that I will be able to use on my daily commute.

  14. Pete (UK) October 5, 2010 at 10:45 am #

    Maybe a more useful application of motorway bus lanes would be on the M40. This route supports the most frequent express coach service in Europe. Two competing operators both provide services up to every 10 minutes.

  15. Wai Yip Tung October 5, 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    It seems unbelievable. But I have garner from other sources that says HOV indeed have much high capacity than other lanes. Experts and decision need to better communicate this fact to the people!
    Besides a single occupant car takes up more space, I think the determinant factor is that a clotted lane has much lower throughput than a free flowing lane. The image might look like there are a lot of people (actually cars) using the freeway. But the truth they are not moving fast. Whether as the bus lane is carrying several bus load of people per minute, possibly beating the combined throughput of other lanes.

  16. Rational Plan October 5, 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    But not many buses actually use the bus lane. It is mainly used by Taxis and motorbikes. The few HOV lanes in the UK have come about by restriping existing lanes in most cases, to some controversy. I’ve never seen the appeal of spending £100 Millions to build new HOV lanes when you could spend that money on commuter rail and mass transit.

  17. Jonathan October 6, 2010 at 3:48 pm #

    I’m rather impressed with several of the comments, particularly Rational Plan’s (on the use and structure of that thing, which make me feel a little better about its disappearance) and Chris M’s on the political realities. It may also be that relatively few people used the HOV lane (car-sharing agreements, knowledge of the bus schedule), but more used the car lanes only once a week or so. That would give the drivers more political clout despite the HOV lane’s greater use.
    Also, since the lane mostly goes to an airport that this government has denied permission to expand (in favour of rail, huzzah!), maybe a net-loss of access capacity is no bad thing.
    PS: I’ve never really understood why taxis should be able to use HOV lanes anyway, unless they have the required number of people in them anyway.

  18. Ben Smith October 11, 2010 at 8:34 am #

    This is brilliant! Just imagine if we converted not just bus lanes and roads to open use, but railways and subways as well. We could cure all our gridlock problems!
    Seriously though, why not improve parking near stops along the route, so that drivers can take advantage of the busway services rather than want it killed.

  19. John April 22, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

    This is the appeal of congestion pricing and HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes. These lanes let buses and carpools in for free, but charge variable pricing for single occupant vehicles. As congestion in the HOT lane grows, the price for SOVs goes up. More decide to stay in the general purpose lanes, so the HOT lane keeps moving. The result is enough vehicles in the HOT lane that isnt empty, but not so many that it slows down.