DFT gets mixed up in the rush hour

THE DEPARTMENT for Transport appears to be run by a bunch of petrolheads. At the end of last month, while most people had their minds on other things, it quietly slipped out a rather worrying document, encouraging local councils to consider allowing cars to use bus lanes during the rush hour - on the condition that they carry at least one passenger.

If you're a regular urban cyclist, I've probably already said enough to start your blood boiling.

Although congestion in big towns and cities continues to be a real problem, the solution is clearly not to try to ease it by letting cars into lanes which are reserved for public transport and cyclists. The answer is to work on getting more people out of their cars and on to buses and bikes.

The fact that most city roads are at gridlock during rush hour at least acts as an incentive for drivers to think about using a different form of transport. And though the aim behind the DfT's plan - to encourage more people to car share - is worthy enough, the consequences would be disastrous, not least for cyclists.

Bus lanes are not a suitable substitute for decent bike lanes and signposted cycle routes. But they do at least provide some separation and protection from the rest of the traffic on the biggest roads at the busiest times of day.

While I could take back-road cycle routes all the way to work every day, I probably cut 10 minutes off my journey by taking to the main roads on two short sections. The only reason I still feel relatively safe is that I at least have the protection of being in a bus lane, and don't have to get caught up weaving in and out of the traffic. Admittedly, the attitude of bus drivers to cyclists varies enormously. But on the whole, buses that do have to overtake bikers are pretty good about giving us enough room (perhaps with the exception of bendy-bus drivers, who seem to have a habit of cutting me up). I'm sure I'll be inundated with e-mails from people who have had the opposite experience, but the bus companies do at least make an effort to teach their drivers to treat cyclists with respect.

This month, Stagecoach's staff newsletter carries an article by a member of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, which talks about how bus drivers can be more considerate to cyclists and vice versa. I doubt you'd ever see such a piece in a taxi drivers' newsletter.

As yet, it seems the only places in the country to introduce "high-occupancy vehicle lanes" (as the nerds at the DfT call them) are Leeds and South Gloucestershire - and these are at least both on busier roads on the edge of town. But expect to see other councils experimenting with the idea over the coming year.

Protecting what infrastructure cyclists have is well worth a fight. I still much prefer riding in bus lanes to the main flow of traffic. And there's an important environmental principle worth standing up for here, too. The DfT should be working to get cars off the road during rush hour, not trying to help them. It's time it got its priorities in order.

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