Friday, 20 September 2013

Bus lanes - why the arguments don't stack up.

Liverpool City Council is to decide next week on a "trial period" in which there are no longer bus lanes in the City. 

I've taken the time to read the Cabinet report on this as well as the media coverage and heaven help us if this is the basis on which decisions are taken.

Firstly it's worth saying that not every bus lane is necessarily needed.  The one at Horrocks Avenue for example was originally linked to a fast bus service to the airport.  That service no longer exists and people using that stretch of road generally feel the lane achieves no purpose.

However the fact that a few may be in the wrong place is not an argument for junking the lot.

The media coverage has focused on the Council saying that the lanes have not resulted in a shift from car use to bus use (the implication being that they therefore serve no function).  The Cabinet report claims that the purpose of introducing bus lanes was to get people to switch their type of transport (interestingly no earlier report is cited and I'd be happy to bet that that wasn't the only reason or even the prime reason at the time). 

Now the Council doesn't run the bus service here so it won't have figures for bus use.  Merseytravel however does passenger surveys and the bus operators must have a clear idea of use in order to get the money back from things like free passes.  The Council report tell us however that no local figures are available. Instead is uses national figures which , it's true , do show a decrease in bus use. 

But the media coverage implies that bus use (as a percentage of journeys)  has not gone up in Liverpool, and therefore the bus lanes have not achieved their aim.

So we have a lack of statistics turned into an assumption and then a piece of dodgy logic about causation thrown in for good measure.

The only way we could know whether or not there is a causal relationship between bus lanes and transport modes is by having

a. accurate figures for transport use before their introduction
b. accurate figures for transport use after their introduction
c. those figures adjusted for demographics (like population figures)
d. all other conditions being held equal (ie nothing else being capable of causing transport decisions or those effects taken out in a reliable statistical way).

And the Council report, and media coverage has none of this  (I wonder why they haven't at least tried to use Mereytravel or Arriva/Stagecoach figures - a case of not wanting the info to get in the way of a decision I guess. Or perhaps if you know a decision has already been made you don't need to waste time on data either way)

However, putting aside the Council's lack of logic here, there is another argument.  The Council report talks about congestion and the need for traffic to move smoothly.  This is not least because of air pollution, particularly in the City Centre. 

This is a valid concern.  It's not great for air quality or for carbon reduction for lots of semi stationary vehicles to be belching out fumes

However, as someone who walks around the City a lot, it's clear that among the most polluting fumes are those from buses that are not moving much (or at all) Try breathing in those fumes and you soon see what a problem that is.  With no bus lanes, those buses are likely to be slower (they can't possibly be faster!)  The Government has recently given some cash to make some buses on Merseyside less polluting, but that won't cover the lot by any means.

Of course if the pollution from buses has been measured against that from other modes of transport in a serious statistical way, this point might be answerable.  I have looked in vain through the Cabinet report for this information.

The coverage also tells us that often drivers avoid bus lanes even at the times of day they are allowed to be in them .  Signs for bus lanes are confusing and I am not surprised that drivers treat them as 24 hour just to be on the safe side.

The suggestion seems to be that the bus lanes will be suspended for a trial period.  This doesn't feel like a trial though, it feels like a final decision.  I can't help feeling that it would be better to review each bus lane , or group of lanes, separately and make separate decisions based on actual hard data.

Finally, I had to laugh when I saw that one suggestion in the cabinet report is that while the lanes are suspended, the Council will consider whether to put cycle lanes there.  So basically they make a bit of the road busier and then ask if it would be a good idea for people on two wheels to be directed to that space! (of course they could mean the sort of cycle lane which bans cars..but isn't that just re introducing the problem they claim exists now?)

I am pretty agnostic about bus lanes as a whole  I think some work and some don't.

But it's clear that the Council is about to make a decision based on virtually no hard data.

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