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buses and bicycles (in Oxford)

Books + Ideas, Oxford, , — November 2019

Bicycles have featured a lot in my blog, but the other key to sustainable transport, in Oxford as in much of the world, is the bus. Buses are central to Oxford's existing transport and will need to play an even bigger role in any sustainable future. More generally, such a future requires the world to transition away from private motor vehicles, with perhaps an 80% reduction in car miles in the UK, and the bulk of that transport "hole" will have to be filled by bicycles and buses.

There are other public transport options. Metro systems are great, but they are extraordinarily expensive to build and not appropriate for a city the size of Oxford. Trains are already an important part of Oxford's transport mix, and the easier expansion options such the Cowley Branch line should certainly be considered, but building new train lines is really expensive. Trams have some advantages over buses, notably in being less polluting, requiring less road width, and being able to reverse. But they are less flexible in other ways, for example in not being able to route so well around roadworks or accidents, and are also expensive. They may be appropriate on the busiest routes in Oxford, but would likely be trialled with bus rapid transit routes. Cable cars are more specialised, but might work on a few routes in Oxford.

And there are no real alternatives to cycling — taken to include all forms of largely human-powered wheeled transport — for fast and flexible 1-5km trips. Walking is great, but slow. And minitrams or other such micro-transit systems aren't energetically sustainable — it's always going to be too resource intensive providing for individuals travelling on ad-hoc point-to-point routes.

So, let me turn to the relationship between buses and bicycles. I begin with the positive aspects and follow with the negative ones.

bicycles and buses are in many ways complementary

Cycling's sweet spot is for distances of 1-5km, while buses work best for 5-40km trips. For a handful of people it might make sense to catch a bus for a 1km trip, and a handful of people may enjoy 40km cycle commutes. And in between there is obviously considerable overlap. In general, however, bicycles are vastly superior to buses at shorter distances and most people will prefer buses at longer distances. (See below for a discussion of competition at intermediate distances.)

Cycling provides a near point-to-point solution. It is faster for most trips under 5km, once walking time to and from bus stops is factored in, and has low variability, being less affected than buses by congestion and service bunching. And it's significantly cheaper than regular bus use. The Dutch and Danish evidence is that if cycling is properly enabled and made accessible, then most people prefer it to even high quality public transport for distances up to 5km.

Given quality public transport as an option, however, cycling isn't going to be the first choice of most for long trips. Here I disagree with Gilligan and others about the extent to which cycling is ever going to have significant modal share at longer distances. While some people certainly can and do cycle 15km to work, the existing skew of people cycling to the fit and confident exaggerates their likely proportion in a future with mass cycling. The Dutch evidence suggests cycling commute rates drop off after 5km, quite fast above 8km. (The Dutch do cater for longer distance cycle trips, with high-speed intercity cycling routes, but this is an addition to their basic provision.) For these distances, public transport — mostly buses — is the primary alternative to the car.

E-bikes will change this a little, but not hugely. The average speed of the Dutch is 12.4 km/hr on pedal bicycles and 13 km/hr on e-bikes; the average trip lengths rise from under 3.5km to over 4.5km. (Netherlands Institute for Transport Policy Analysis, Cycling Facts, 2018.) So e-bikes may push popular commuting distances out from 5km to 7km or so (though that is dependent on there being infrastructure to make those routes accessible).

With buses, in contrast, there are fixed overheads involved — in getting to bus stops, waiting, paying, finding a seat — that make longer trips relatively more attractive than shorter ones. And ticket pricing is rarely proportional to distance.

there are synergies between buses and bicycles

Cycling is often integrated with rail trips: the Dutch do this systematically and even in Oxford by far the largest single concentration of bike parking is at the railway station. But cycling can also be integrated with bus trips. Cycling's highly reliable trip times makes it ideal for connecting to longer-distance bus services that may not run at high frequency, and avoiding trying to match those with infrequent, slow or unpredictable local bus services.

With few public transport options in villages, or from outlying areas of county towns, cycling could play a significant role in getting people to bus stops to get into Oxford (or other centres). Being able to cycle to a bus stop instead of walking could easily cut ten minutes off a fifty minute trip for someone commuting from outer Witney to Oxford — or help remove two local car movements and a day's occupation of a parking space. This is poorly provided for at the moment, however: it really needs better and safer cycling routes to and within towns, and secure bike parking at bus stations and bus stops.

This also holds for trips out of Oxford. If I wanted to get to (say) Berinsfield, there is a reasonable bus service from Oxford, with the X38/X39/X40 running roughly every 20 minutes during the daytime, at least on weekdays. The bus itself takes about 30 minutes, but getting to a bus stop from my house requires either a 20 minute walk or a 20 minute (but potentially much longer) local bus trip. Cycling to the bus stop, on the other hand, takes 5 minutes. So it reduces a 50 minute trip to 35 minutes, as well as avoiding a walk or a potentially stressful bus-interconnect.

Cycling to catch buses is poorly supported in Oxford. The cycle parking at Oxford's bus station makes the insufficient and low quality cycle parking at the railway station seem palatial. And the cycling routes to get to the bus station are just woeful: coming from the east, I can cycle across the supposedly pedestrianised Gloucester Green (which works ok if there's no market on), brave George St and enter along with the buses (which I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to do), or go all the way around Beaumont and Worcester Sts to get to the bus station from the north-west (simply horrible). Or I can park on Broad St — if there is any parking there! — and walk to the bus station, but that's another five minutes added on to the trip, which doesn't help make taking a bus more attractive than driving.

on-the-road conflicts

On the road, buses and bicycles mix extraordinarily badly. Buses want to do 20mph (or 30mph) in between bus stops, then stop for some time for people to get on and off. People cycling want to do 10mph with no stops. Road designs that have them sharing space, either on roads like High St and St Aldates or in bus-bike lanes, are a bad idea.

A not atypical experience for me, cycling home. Coming west down High St, I slow to let a #3 bus out, but it gets caught at the Longwall lights and I end up in the "bike box" in front of it; it then passes me on Magdalen Bridge; I pass it at the first bus stop on Iffley Rd; it passes me again; I pass it again at the second bus stop on Iffley Rd — and then I turn off at James St, or no doubt it'd have passed me again.

This was on a Saturday out of term-time, with little traffic, so the bus driver could overtake me without either endangering me or being delayed — though the pass on Magdalen Bridge was close enough I wouldn't want a child or less confident cyclist facing it, especially with pedestrians encroaching on the cycle lane from the other side — and I could pass it at bus stops safely. But when there's a bit more traffic this is just horrible, both for bus schedules and safe cycling.

As well as creating delays, bus-bicycle interactions endanger people cycling. Bus drivers are in general better than car drivers but, because of their size, buses pose extra dangers. Their width means that they pass closer than cars to people cycling in cycle lanes adjacent to traffic lanes. (This is a problem with cycle tracks that are too narrow, and not separated from motor traffic, especially when traffic lane are narrow.) Buses can also prevent filtering and block sight lines. One obvious example where stationary buses are a problem in Oxford is on Magdalen St East, where parked buses block visibility to Broad St; another is on High St, where people cycling down Turl St often have visibility to High St blocked by buses, and sometimes physical access.

So even slightly poor judgement on a bus driver's part might pose a significant risk to people cycling. This places great stress on bus drivers, especially if they are also being pushed to maintain a schedule.

In a world with very few people cycling, and those mostly fast "road cyclists", this may not be so much of a problem. But this is not the case in Oxford, and should not be the goal elsewhere. Conversely, low frequency bus routes can coexist fairly comfortably with mass cycling on bicycle routes or residential low traffic streets.

In any sustainable future there are going to be both more buses and more people cycling — including many more children and slower adults — so the conflicts in shared bus-bike lanes or streets in Oxford are only going to get worse.

policy conflicts over modal share and space

As mentioned above, there are a range of distances where modal share is fairly evenly divided between cycling and public transport. There are trips which some people will prefer to cycle and others to take a bus (and some will walk or drive), or where people will make different decisions depending on the weather, the time of day, or what they are doing.

From a social perspective there should be no problem here: cycling and public transport both need to be enabled and made accessible, and people should choose what's most convenient. (Though public health would benefit from shifting marginal users to bicycles.) But the existing situation in Oxford, with cycling currently too hostile for a huge part of the population, means that the private bus companies have a clear commercial interest in opposing measures that would make cycling more accessible, even if they had no direct impact on bus services, since that would lose them a good chunk of their short-distance passengers. (There is also asymmetrical lobbying here, with concentrated and well-resourced bus companies facing scattered community groups and limited commercial cycling interests.)

There are also direct conflicts over resources, most obviously when narrow roads require decisions to be made about space allocation. Despite a notional hierarchy of transport which places active travel modes at the top, Oxford has clearly privileged buses over bicycles whenever push comes to shove: in many places people cycling are shunted onto sub-standard cycle tracks or forced to share with pedestrians in order to free up room for bus lanes. Money is also found to colour bus lanes but not bike lanes, even though the former merely helps drivers follow the restrictions and avoid fines, while the latter makes a real difference to the safely of vulnerable road users.

Wherever possible, these conflicts should be solved by taking space away from private motor vehicles instead. On Oxford's arterial routes, that means reducing other motor traffic so buses move freely without separate bus lanes, allowing space currently used for those to be reallocated to footpaths and bicycle tracks. The funding currently used for colouring of bus lanes could then be used to colour the cycle tracks instead.

This would still leave us with a problem in overloaded city centre routes such as High St and St Aldates. Given other constraints here, such as the pressing need to reduce air pollution and expand inadequate footpaths, something fairly drastic seems necessary: perhaps a one-way circulation system, perhaps a single mini-bus shuttle, or perhaps a drastic reduction in the number of services (with airport and inter-city services moved to peripheral bus stations). There are more options for bus services, in any event, so my feeling here is that enough space should be allocated to enable walking and cycling, and the bus companies told to find the best possible solution given the remaining space (and the air pollution constraints).

accessibility

Accessibility is often deployed as a kind of "trump card" by people opposing cycling infrastructure, but this is actually backwards. Accessibility is important, but that's one of the reasons we need high quality cycling infrastructure; it is not an argument for privileging buses over bicycles, but an argument for providing for both. For some people using a bus is more accessible than cycling; for others it's the other way around.

First of all, for many disabled people their cycle — possibly a recumbent or a tricycle — is a mobility aid, and using it is easier than walking, or even possible where walking is not. See Wheels for Wellbeing or the Oxford branch of Wheels for All for examples. Another group in this category are pregnant women: multiple friends have told me they could happily cycle miles in their last trimester, when walking any distance at all was nearly impossible. For some of these people, accessing buses is simply not possible.

Cost is also a real constraint on accessibility. I know people who can and do cycle, but for whom regular use of buses would simply be too expensive. From where I am, getting a family into central Oxford and back — 3km each way cycling — would cost over £10 on the bus. An annual bus pass covering Oxford costs £500 (£1700+ for a family of four) while a bike adequate for trips around town can be had for little more than £100. Cycling in the UK may be perceived as middle class, but it was traditionally the mode of the poorer. In countries where it is properly enabled that becomes true again — and the gender balance skews female.

The visually impaired may have problems with cycle traffic, but given the size of the risks they are less of a problem than roads with no signalled crossings, buses swinging over pavements, and so forth. This is also a reason we need to get away from "shared use" pavements and properly provide for cycling. That means either restricting and calming motor traffic so people cycling can share residential streets with vehicles (the goal of low traffic neighbourhoods) or on busier roads providing separate space for cycling, clearly demarcated from pavements with kerbing and provided with formal crossings for pedestrians where appropriate.

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