Jam today, jam tomorrow

The Transport Parliamentary Select Committee recently published a report on road congestion titled “Out of the jam: reducing congestion on our roads” during which they took evidence from Mike Penning (roads minister) and Norman Baker (local transport) who seemed to present express coach as more of an irrelevant nuisance than as key tool in tackling congestion. They both implied that the fact that the M4 Bus Lane was used by express coaches rather than buses was an indication of it’s failure and was justification enough for its removal! Penning went on to explain that taxis should also not expect preferential treatment because they after all paid the same ‘road tax’ as private cars (road tax ended in 1937). They both claimed that the M4 bus lane wasn’t working even though their own research found that 21% of people coming into London made use it in a measly 7% of the vehicles. Penning ended by confirming that they had indeed been an unfair ‘war on the motorist’ and that motorists paid a lot of money for the privilege of driving and deserved better.

The tragedy of all this is that the approach they are proposing where low-occupancy vehicles have equal rights to inter-urban roads as high-occupancy vehicles is a certain recipe for jam tomorrow and for jam well into the future! What was encouraging however was that the committee didn’t seem to buy the argument. They questioned the ministers about coaches on a number of occasions and then recommended that “the Government publish early next year a detailed assessment of traffic flow on the M4 in the year since the bus lane was scrapped. If the evidence shows that the bus lane contributed to faster movement—taking account of all travellers—it should be reinstated.

Here are some key clips from their evidence.

Highways Agency publishes the M4 bus lane research

Some time ago I commented that various Freedom of Information requested that had been made relating to the M4 bus lane had not been responded to within the allotted time. I am pleased to be able to report that the Highways Agency has finally responded to their two requests.

The first request was for the earlier reports produced by the Transport Research Laboratory in 2000 and 2002, including the one year report, a three year report and an 8 page summary of the three year report. These very detailed and clear reports show in considerable detail the benefits to both bus lane users and also surprisingly for non-bus lane users. This graph from the 3 year report showing the huge benefit in reliability for bus lane users following the introduction of the lane. Reliability of journeys for public transport is very important. Where there is unreliability the operator and users of the services need to added more time added to the journey ‘just in case’. Remember that 21% of people traveling into London use the bus lane in only 7% of the vehicles so this is a big group of disadvantaged people.

M4 bus lane reliablity

In addition to reducing the variability, it did of course also reduced the journey times themselves which followed the green line before the lane opened and then dropped to a consistent and much lower level afterwards.

M4 bus lane journey times

The second request was for the research underpinning the decision to remove the lane. These have now been published on the Highways Agency website and consist of:

Do notice that the business case and various other relevant reports were published subsequent to the announcement on the 2 October of its removal. In one respect this appears an odd way round,  however it is not really so odd when one considers that this was a political decision rather than a technical one. In the same speech Philip Hammond pledged to ‘end the war on the motorist and it seems to me that this decision was a symbolic one. As a symbol it is not a promising one for this vision of a huge switch to express coach supported by new coachway interchanges.

A noticeable absence from these recent reports is any estimate as to the impact on the bus lane users which a cynic might think was because the information was not helpful to the decision that had been taken. I am, however, pleased to see that the ‘before and after monitor’ specification says: “Average journey times and the variability of journey times are key indicators in examining the impact of the removal of the M4 Bus Lane….  Additional pressure has recently been brought to bear on the TechMAC contractor to ensure that the MIDAS loops on the M4 eastbound corridor are functioning and providing data”.

This same government has of course also made very clear commitments to open up data and make government more accountable which is a huge step forward which is going to ensure that the the very near future politicians will be able to base their decisions on far more information.

And it is also trying to make huge saving in public expenditure. Personally I see a very interest debate taking place over the next year or so. In particular I look forward to seeing more recent versions of figures 10 and 14 for the periods immediately prior to and subsequent to the removal of the bus lane in due course.

Where is the M4 bus lane research?

Today saw the removal of the first section of the M4 bus lane between Heathrow Airport and central London as promised by the new government at the recent Conservative party conference. A ‘Whitehall Source’ said at the time that “The business case shows time savings for all current non-bus lane users during the morning peak period, with more savings during the evening peak. There is no significant change in journey times for existing bus lane users.” Sounds great.

M4 bus lane

However.. after the lane was created in 1999 the Transport Research Laboratory wrote two reports for the government (in 2000 and in 2003) which evidently found that the scheme had reduced rush hour journey times by 3.5 minutes for buses and even reduced times for cars. It also estimated that 21% of the people were able to benefit from the lane even though they were only using 7% of the vehicles.

Motorists loathed it! Jeremy Clarkson called it a ‘stupid pinko bus lane’. The Sun described it as ‘insane’. The AA described it as a ‘White Elephant’. When announcing its removal Philip Hammond, the Secretary of Sate for Transport said that ‘Nothing is more symbolic of Labour’s war on the motorist’ and  that motorists ‘sit sweltering in traffic queues watching an empty lane by the side of them with just the occasional vehicle going down it’.

Heavy stuff, so what is the truth? You may have noticed that I was careful in my description of the TRL report, I said that it ‘written for’ not ‘published by’ because it has never been published.

A total of 7 Freedom of Information requests wer made to various organisations on the same day as the announcement. They asked for the 2000 and 2003 research by TRL to be made available and also the more recent research underpinning the claims made about it’s removal. After 20 days the Highways Agency has asked for more time to respond due to ‘the complexity of the request’. The Department for Transport has not acknowledged receipt of the FOI request or responded. Transport for London responded saying that they had not been consulted on the recent decision and therefore couldn’t help.

I believe that the humble coach has a lot to offer the UK. It believe that the coach can build an intercity public transport service that rail can never deliver. It resolves congestion very effectively, it is energy efficient and it allows people to relax and work which traveling in a way that they can’t while driving.

However, we won’t get there without basing our transport decisions being based on what the data is telling us rather than what Mr Clarkson is telling us. The prime minister has spoken frequently about the importance of transparency and ‘open source planning‘. A great start would be getting the M4 bus lane research from 2000, 2003 and 2010 published as requested through FOI.

There are other sources of information. Taxi companies have of course be logging data GPS data from the route for years so that will be another route to truth. No doubt there are also many logs for coaches, motorbikes and normal cars. The bus lane is going to be out of action now for 18 month and will then be reinstated for the Olympics which will given us another opportunity to collect a load of data at which point we should be able to make an informed decision about the future of this very political bit of tarmac!


I am pleased to report that the Highways Agency published the requested information on 10 December 2010 which I have done a separate post about.