Between 2000 and 2008 London’s bus services were transformed. There were more buses, more bus routes and, critically, services were more reliable. An unreliable and often overcrowded service was transformed into one of the best in the world. Buses were fully accessible, operated 24/7 across the entire city and used for 6.5 million journeys a day. People visited from around the world to see how it was done.
The key improvements were contracts with the bus companies that encouraged reliability, a London-wide bus lanes programme known as the London Bus Initiative that speeded up buses, the Congestion Charge (which meant less traffic), better traffic enforcement, Oyster payment cards and Countdown bus information.
The recent deterioration of London’s bus services can be traced back to the arrival of Boris Johnson as Mayor. Following his election, a planned second programme of bus lanes was abandoned, along with further improvement of traffic enforcement. A contract to reward quality was abandoned too. Johnson had come to power promising to “keep London moving” but he focused on his retro design bus project the New Routemaster and installing bike lanes. The bus lane teams became cycle lane teams and the era of blue cycle “superhighways” was upon us.
The deterioration of bus performance – journey time and reliability being the key metrics – was accelerated after the appointment by Johnson of Andrew Gilligan, a media ally, as his cycling commissioner. Under the cover of what was called the Roads Modernisation Programme, the massive disruption caused by more superhighways swung a wrecking ball at bus journey times.
This led directly to the decrease in passenger numbers that continued unabated until the pandemic. A role in formulating policy was given to cycling bloggers, as described by the then deputy mayor for transport Isabel Dedring during an interview in 2015 (from 15 minutes in).
Johnson’s superhighway schemes took out major sections of bus lane, which meant buses more often sharing space with general traffic and sitting in congestion with them. This resulted in slower and less reliable services. Bus stops that had become fully accessible were altered to become part of the cycle lane itself – the so-called bus stop bypasses and borders that route cycles round the back of a stop or through its boarding, waiting and alighting area.
Protests from groups representing older and disabled people, though understood internally at Transport for London, were ignored and managed away with the help of manic campaigning by the cycle lobby on social media. Later, TfL’s internal Independent Disability Advisory Group described these bus stop designs as “polishing a turd”.
TfL did its best to counter the deterioration of performance. They brought in a few bus lane and other priority schemes, but these were only really a token. Twenty-one mitigations for the loss of bus lanes were proposed at Vauxhall, but only four were implemented and by then it was too late – the damage was done.
TfL also used its control of London’s traffic light systems to effectively hold back traffic entering central London at peak times, helping bus services by reducing congestion. Officially this was called Active Traffic Management. Colloquially it was called “gating”. Appearing on LBC, Johnson denied “gating” was having to be used. That was untrue.
And so it continued. Johnson was succeeded by Sadiq Khan who, during his selection process, had been encouraged by the cycle lobby to build more bike lanes, presumably without any understanding of the damage being done to the bus service.
Deputy mayors for transport have come and gone under Mayor Khan. All have bought into the cycle lobby’s bike lane agenda. Khan appointed a cycling and walking commissioner who has progressed cycle lanes with a nod to walking and latterly the importance of the bus.
TfL now has a bus action plan that includes bringing in more bus lanes, but it targets the same roads as the cycle plan. The cycle lobby will not truck any compromise with bus services, even on bus routes. They are well resourced and ruthless. Bus stop accessibility continues to be compromised and disabled people discriminated against.
Yet buses are vital for Londoners. They are the most important public transport mode, carrying far more passengers than any other. They are sustainable, the most efficient users of road space, the most important form of active travel – people walk to and from bus stops – and the only accessible service used by everyone. However, unless the Mayor stands up to the cycle lobby’s selfish and unachievable demands the future does not look bright for London’s bus services.
Vincent Stops is a former Hackney councillor and lead member for transport who worked on streets policy for London Travelwatch, the capital’s official transport users’ watchdog, for over 20 years. He cycles everywhere. Follow Vincent on Twitter.
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