Vincent Stops: The cycling lobby has been allowed to ruin London’s bus service

Vincent Stops: The cycling lobby has been allowed to ruin London’s bus service

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.

On London strives to provide more of the kind of  journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for just £5 a month. You will even get things for your money, including invitations to events such as the one reported above. Details here.

Categories: Comment


  1. Debbie Seepersad says:

    I am sorry, but the greatest threat to the bus service is the increase in cars. A bus timetable has become alarmingly flexible. As Mr Stops said there are more cycle lanes, so that does not interrupt the bus service. It is cars, because they have 5 seats 90% of the time 4 of those seats are empty. They “nip” to the shops in their car. Dont attack the cyclist, you’re comparing a cycle to the blockage of a car. Why? Is this deeply rooted in an LTN protest? “Me thinks”

  2. Kevin Sheil says:

    The unintended consequence of the introduction of London’s LTNs have resulted in a large increase in traffic on the main bus route thoroughfares making post LTN bus travel SO much slower. This has shifted able bodied users onto the tube/bike reducing bus demand & resulting in the planned withdrawal of services e.g No. 4 bus service, to the detriment of the disabled who have little/no alternative to the existing available services.

  3. Rosemary Waxman says:

    I live in Walthamstow E17. There is a bicycle lane between the main road and the pavement, so one has to check when getting off a bus that no bicycles are going by. They do not have bells, and they travel quite fast.

    One day some time ago, I was getting off a bus at the stop near to my road and a little boy got off in front of me, and he nearly got run over by a bicycle. The lady cyclist was upset, so was the boy’s mother, so was I and so was the bus driver. Luckily, he was okay, but he could easily have been seriously injured or killed.

    It is really quite frightening, to have to cross a cycle lane, to get to the pavement and so easy for there to be an accident. I walk with a stick and am not very mobile, so I have to do my kerb drill when I get off the bus, and I always think of the little boy

  4. This is a brilliant argument with the focus on the most important transport system in London; buses. I have consistently argued with my local authority and been dismissed. I have pointed out that the cycle lanes dominating the roads have caused disabled and frail people to be housebound, and have caused those who have to use cars to get to important locations to drive up to 4 times the distance thereby emitting more pollution as well as giving even more money to the polluting petrol companies.

    It is striking that the affluent roads in London are now without any polluting traffic and the roads on which the disadvantaged and poorer residents live are experiencing twice or more pollution than previously. Most distressing, though, is the sight I have seen on many occasions while sitting in a stationery traffic jam watching an almost empty cycle lane of equal width with that for cars; I have watched ambulances, fire engines and police cars unable to get to their destination due to the traffic congestion and absence of any other route they can take.

    I await the first legal action on the part of a relative who’s family member has died as a result of these abusive cycle lanes blocking an ambulance from being able to attend someone in severe difficulties. The same kind of social neglect and discrimination on the part of the Local Authority as was manifest in the Grenfell disaster is presently playing out on the roads of London. Thank-you for putting the argument for a sensible, consultation-based plan for London traffic and for highlighting it by focussing on our most important yet albeit destroyed way of moving throughout London. Your words are even more powerful in that they are spoken by a cyclist.

  5. Marc says:

    It would be useful to see the stats demonstrating the “recent deterioration of London’s bus services” as I can’t see them from TFL’s published information. It would also be useful for the writer to give more detail on the cycle lanes of doom -only one location, Vauxhall, is mentioned.

    Does Vincent really believe the cycle lobby is “ruthless”? We still live in cities dominated by motorised vehicles. I’ve yet to see anything like the Netherlands in the UK – and why would that be so terrible?

  6. Bobby says:

    Cost of living going nuts and insane property prices means I cannot afford the use of a car. Getting older and having two kids means declining physical being no time for gym (can’t afford that either).

    The option has been presented to me that covers commuting while improving my health and fitness.

    Thank you “affluent minority” for these bike lanes, as it helps those of us that are not affluent…

  7. Peter Gibbs says:

    Nowhere is it demonstrated that demand for arterial road cycle tracking is proportional to the space now allocated in central London. Nowhere. It is asserted by cycle hobyists that reserving road space will unleash suppressed cycling. It doesn’t. This obdurate and self interested minority continue to pursue commuter cycling at the expense of the majority. Removing bus lanes for empty cycle tracks (most of the day) has been highly counter-productive. Fact.

    That’s not good enough. Commuter cycling is at best 0.5% of daily urban journeys and static. Public assets must be allocated to meet demonstrable demand. Helping a few cyclists to avoid public transport this way and whip along to the office during the commuter rush hour is not in the public interest, and cannot be sold to residents looking for reliable public transport. The reality is that hobby cycling has appeal but not on urban roads. No feasible tracking scheme will change that and the £ half billion already spent is demonstrably wasted money.

  8. Gareth T says:

    I hate the ‘floating bus stop’ design, very dangerous.

    I love cycle lanes for times I use my private eScooter. Legalise private eScooters ASAP. They are a safe and effective means of travel for those able to use them.

    I hate 24/7 bus lanes (pros and cons here for me…when I use my escooter I love them but when I need to use my car, all traffic forced into one lane and the bus lane is totally empty, I hate them).

    Not everyone can or wants to us buses. They are expensive, inconvenient, unreliable and time spent getting from A to B is double or worse than using private, more convenient personal transport like a car, van or moped.

    1. Tom says:

      No one is “forced” to drive. Bus lanes are usually there for the busiest times at least. If they can be there on those times, they can be there for all times. The only thing that happens when they aren’t 24/7 is that they are occupied by parked cars.

      Bus stop bypasses aren’t dangerous in any sense of the word. The Netherlands has them everywhere. They haven’t created any recorded issues in London either, unlike cars which kill and injure thousands every year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *