M4 Bus Lane: For and against

For: Lobbyists have won the right to sit in longer jams - by Stephen Joseph

It is true that – as with cycle lanes – there are useless bus lanes, put in to deliver targets rather than to help solve traffic problems. But unfortunately for some in the motoring fraternity, road space is limited and we need to make the most efficient use of it.

Buses, coaches and bikes make rather more efficient use of it than cars, especially those carrying only one person, so bus priority makes sense. But it is also about making buses a real choice – only with priority measures (not just bus lanes) can buses be a reliable and attractive alternative to cars. Of course, other things are needed. Buses need to be clean, affordable and with well-trained drivers, but the evidence from many cities is that, once buses get priority and other improvements are made, people do use them rather than cars.

I'm sure this will be debated, especially by the die-hard motorists who would rather sit in traffic jams than have anything to do with buses. And when it comes to the M4 bus lane, it is these people who have won.

It has symbolised a supposed "war on the motorist", been labelled "Prescott's Folly", and has been an obvious target for a Government intent on ending this "war". But in fact, abolishing the bus lane will make things worse, not better, for motorists on that stretch of the M4. The bus lane was actually a very clever solution to the intractable problem of the Brentford flyover. Here the M4 narrows from three lanes to two, causing major tailbacks as traffic jostles for position.

The highways engineers came up with a neat solution: moving the point where general traffic had to merge back to junction three, where lots of traffic leaves the M4 anyway. Using the extra space as a bus lane was merely an addition to what is really a traffic management scheme.

Instead of supporting this clever piece of engineering, motoring lobbyists clamoured for its removal, demanding, one presumes, to be allowed to sit in bigger and longer traffic jams once more. This is a triumph for "common sense" over science, and a failure to think about transport strategically.

Stephen Joseph is director of the Campaign for Better Transport

Against: It sounded like a bad joke – it was, and still is - by Sean O'Grady

There have been many acts of petty spite perpetrated against motorists by the public authorities in recent years. The mania for pedestrianisation; vicious parking fines; clamping and towing; hidden speed cameras that do nothing to cut speeds and everything to generate revenues; taxes and duties on owning and fuelling a vehicle. And – how can one forget? – bus lanes.

By far the most egregious and pointless assault in the long war of attrition against the motorist has been the M4 bus lane. When I first heard about it – a bus lane on a motorway – it sounded like a bad joke. It was, and still is. This "innovation" generated (from nowhere) vast amounts of congestion on an already crowded artery into London, and for minimal benefit to the few buses and cabs that plied it.

Like many others, I have spent hours sitting there, long enough indeed to spot a bus come by – a rare event. Even if you costed the wasted man-hours at, say, the minimum wage, the losses suffered by the economy must have run into billions over the past decade or so. The main beneficiaries are tourists taking a black cab at inordinate cost into town. It just does not add up.

Nor, I suspect, do most bus lanes. Like hearing the F-word on television, we have become accustomed to it, but that doesn't make it right. I can remember the outrage I felt in the 1980s when bus lanes first appeared, creating traffic jams where previously cars ran freely. The more the congestion, the stronger the case for more bus lanes and so it went on. It was a con.

The bus lane has lately been garnished with a few sprigs of environmentalism. The M4 was the ultimate example. Rather than spend the necessary billions upgrading roads or investing in rail, John Prescott decided to just lop a lane off the M4 and declare a green victory.

It has taken a hard-headed businessman like Transport Secretary Philip Hammond for common sense to trump gesture politics. Meanwhile, Crossrail and other sound infrastructure projects will rightly go ahead. In this area, if no other, the Government seems to have got its act together.

Sean O'Grady, Economics Editor of 'The Independent', is a former motoring editor

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