Tag Archives: m4

The M4 bus lane (repeat)

I heard Radio 4 news report that the Games Lane™ on the M4 in west London came into force today and that there had been “no noticeable effect on the rest of the traffic”. Of course there was no effect on traffic: the Games Lane™ is just the old M4 bus lane, de-restricted in 2010 by the then new government. The bus lane was just an engineering hack, and abolishing it was always a pointless political gesture that could do nothing to help the Motorist. This seemed like a good excuse to re-publish this 2 year old post on why.

I rather let the announcement of the removal of the M4 bus lane pass without comment during the busy period, but with work commencing on painting over the lines, it seems a good moment to revisit the topic. Because while the M4 bus lane was never a remotely important feature of the national or local transport system, and the effect of its removal will be negligible, it has always been of huge symbolic significance.

The short stretch of bus lane at the inner-London end of the motorway was introduced in June 1999 by John Prescott — one of our best and most progressive transport secretaries (one of those non-achievements like “best British cycle route” or “most likeable cab driver”) — and was something new and difficult to understand. The government tried to explain how it would help everybody, how Motorists themselves would benefit from it, but all anybody heard was that the amount of concrete that Motorists could put their cars on was going to be reduced for the first time ever. The media were desperate for it to fail. What if it set a precedent? Take this fabulous rant from a BBC correspondent, in the days before BBC correspondents had their teeth filed for fear that they might be accused of anti-Tory bias.

The M4 bus lane was the symbol of the first government that had ever shown signs of recognising that the country has a dangerous car addition; the first ever road policy whose entire purpose was not to make it easier for more people to drive more cars further and faster. And in the tabloid media fantasy world, that amounted to a declaration of war on the motorist.

The irony is that the purpose of the M4 bus lane was not any different to any roads policy that had come before. It was introduced to smooth the traffic flow: to make journeys faster, easier and more reliable for motorists on the M4. The issue is explained with nice diagrams here. I won’t try to explain the whole thing in words (well, I did try, and failed, and deleted it), but the take home message is that the rate-limiting step for this section of the M4 is a bottleneck at Brentford that can never be eliminated. Where that bottleneck occurs, three lanes became two, causing merging and lane-changing throughout the three-lane section — behaviours which are known to slow overall traffic flow. By effectively making the M4 consistently two lanes wide, the bus lane is in fact a clever hack to make the traffic run more smoothly and reliably. It needn’t be a bus lane at all, it only needs for this section to be consistently two lanes wide instead of three lanes merging into two.

And it works. Despite having less space, and despite the reduction in speed-limit that coincided with the change in layout, journey times for all road users fell after the bus lane was introduced. (Only by seconds — it’s a very short stretch of road — but you know how much a second means to a Motorist.) And with less lane-changing, accident rates fell. Even the Daily Mail had to acknowledge that it had been a successful implementation of an evidence-based intervention for improving journey times, reliability, and safety.

But this was soon forgotten, because it just didn’t feel right. An empty lane that you’re not allowed to use doesn’t feel like it’s helping you when you’re stuck in a traffic jam, especially given the absurd rule that allowed rich businessmen to sail past in their taxis from the airport to the city (and still allows them to do this in most remaining London bus lanes). And the fact that it was a bus lane, not a hatched-out or fenced-off wasteland, seemed to make an important difference to many people — the AA took the bizarre stance that the lane’s success could only be measured in modal shift; that any other beneficial effect would be a failure. By the time Philip Hammond decreed that in the name of ending the War On The Motorist the lane must go and the road revert to three lanes, no journalist could remember it being anything other than Prescott’s folly, a joke on a road that is barely used by buses, and the cause of much Motorist misery. No journalist mentioned that it had once been hailed as a great success independent of its role as a bus lane. No journalist questioned the received wisdom that the bus lane was a stupid, pointless, unfair, in-your-face ideologically anti-Motorist waste of money.

The lane improved journey times by seconds. Removing it will probably worsen journey times by seconds. It will affect cabbies marginally more, and every few days the Motorists will close the road by smashing up their cars when changing lanes. It doesn’t matter; it never mattered. But installing it had the symbolic significance of suggesting that the government might, for once, now and then, just consider transport policies that go beyond Motorism; to occasionally provide for more than just the car user. Its removal is the symbol of the opposite stance: that this government will continue to provide for the car, and nobody else.

But more than that. By removing the M4 bus lane, Philip Hammond is telling us that this government will happily pursue policies that hit the Motorist, so long as they hit the non-Motorist harder. This is the deliberately spiteful act of a government that cares for dogma not evidence.

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The M4 bus lane

I rather let the announcement of the removal of the M4 bus lane pass without comment during the busy period, but with work commencing on painting over the lines, it seems a good moment to revisit the topic.  Because while the M4 bus lane was never a remotely important feature of the national or local transport system, and the effect of its removal will be negligible, it has always been of huge symbolic significance.

The short stretch of bus lane at the inner-London end of the motorway was introduced in June 1999 by John Prescott — probably our best and most progressive transport secretary ever (which is one of those non-achievements like “most reliable train operator” or “most likable cab driver”) — and was something new and difficult to understand.  The government tried to explain how it would help everybody, how Motorists themselves would benefit from it, but all anybody heard was that the amount of concrete that Motorists could put their cars on was going to be reduced for the first time ever.  The media were desperate for it to fail.  What if it set a precedent?  Take this fabulous rant from a BBC correspondent, in the days before BBC correspondents had their teeth filed for fear that they might be accused of anti-Tory bias.

The M4 bus lane was the symbol of the first government that had ever shown signs of recognising that the country has a dangerous car addition; the first ever road policy whose entire purpose was not to make it easier for more people to drive more cars further and faster.  And in the tabloid media fantasy world, that amounted to a declaration of war on the motorist.

The irony is that the purpose of the M4 bus lane was not any different to any roads policy that had come before.  In today’s favoured terminology, it was introduced to smooth the traffic flow: to make journeys faster and easier for the Motorist on the M4.  The issue is explained with nice diagrams here.  I won’t try to explain the whole thing in words (well, I did try, and failed, and deleted it), but the take home message is that the rate-limiting step for this section of the M4 is a bottleneck at Brentford that can never be eliminated.  Where that bottleneck occurs, three lanes became two, causing merging and lane-changing throughout the three-lane section — behaviours which are known to slow overall traffic flow.  By effectively making the M4 consistently two lanes wide, the bus lane is in fact a clever hack to make the traffic run more smoothly and reliably.  It needn’t be a bus lane at all, it only needs for this section to be consistently two lanes wide instead of three lanes merging into two.

And it works.  Despite having less space, and despite the reduction in speed-limit that coincided with the change in layout, journey times for all road users fell after the bus lane was introduced.  (Only by seconds or minutes — it’s a very short stretch of road — but you know how much a second means to a Motorist.)  And with less lane-changing, accident rates fell.  Even the Daily Mail had to acknowledge that it had been a successful implementation of an evidence-based intervention for improving journey times, reliability, and safety.

But this was soon forgotten, because it just didn’t feel right.  An empty lane that you’re not allowed to use doesn’t feel like it’s helping you when you’re stuck in a traffic jam, especially given the absurd rule that allowed rich businessmen to sail past in their taxis from the airport to the city (and still allows them to do this in most remaining London bus lanes).  And the fact that it was a bus lane, not a hatched-out or fenced-off wasteland, seemed to make an important difference to many people — the AA took the bizarre stance that the lane’s success could only be measured in modal shift; that any other beneficial effect would be a failure.  By the time Philip Hammond decreed that in the name of ending the War On The Motorist the lane must go and the road revert to three lanes, no journalist could remember it being anything other than Prescott’s folly, a joke on a road that is barely used by buses, and the cause of much Motorist misery.  No journalist mentioned that it had once been hailed as a great success independent of its role as a bus lane.  No journalist questioned the received wisdom that the bus lane was a stupid, pointless, unfair, in-your-face ideologically anti-Motorist waste of money.

The lane improved journey times by about one minute.  Removing it will probably cut journey times by about one minute.  It will affect cabbies marginally more, and every few days the Motorists will close the road by smashing up their cars when changing lanes.  It doesn’t matter; it never mattered.  But installing it had the symbolic significance of suggesting that the government might, for once, now and then, just consider transport policies that go beyond Motorism; to occasionally provide for more than just the car user.  Its removal is the symbol of the opposite stance: that this government will continue to provide for the car, and nobody else.

But more than that.  By removing the M4 bus lane, Philip Hammond is telling us that this government will happily pursue policies that hit the Motorist, so long as they hit the non-Motorist harder.  This is the deliberately spiteful act of a government that cares for dogma not evidence.

Weekly War Bulletin, 2 Oct

The exciting news of the week is that petrol head secretary of state for transport Philip Hammond has ended the War On The Motorist by announcing that John Prescott’s M4 bus lane will revert to an all-traffic lane.  Never mind the fact that this will do nothing to improve the actual journey times of Motorists, because a bottleneck further down the road determines its overall capacity.  This is politics, after all: no room for evidence in deciding policy.  Interestingly, this news has pitched private Motorists against cabbies, with desperate attempts to justify the presence of taxis in bus lanes.  Despite being the most universally hated road users in London, the taxis could at least rely on the politicians — who in turn rely on taxis to avoid mixing with the proles on the buses — for friendship and a free ride down the bus lane.  Now even Phillip Hammond has deserted them and told them to sit in the jams with all the other non-public transport.

A meaningless PR “study” finds that Clapham and Wandsworth have the most congested roads in London.  The AA say the problem is roadworks and a lack of “money thrown at the problem”.  Not too many cars, then?  The Evening Standard commenters actually fill me with hope for once:

What the lobbyists fail to mention though, is that there are simply too many cars in London. Why is that simple fact not mentioned?

You could a south London version of the Westway and it would still end up gridlocked. Road works don’t help in the slightest but it’s just a distraction from the true cause.

Of course, they won’t mention that, because in UK plc any attempt at tackling this problem is a “war on the motorist”.

– Ashley, Camden, 01/10/2010 13:57

The government has stumbled upon a clever scheme to keep good news about transport funding flowing: regularly announce that Crossrail funding is safe.  Everyone will forget that you already announced that last week, and the week before…

But Norman Baker, Minister for Pedestrians, Cyclists, Bus Passengers, and Other Unimportant Transport Users, has this week announced that Bikeability will not be allowed to go up in flames with the bonfire of the quangos.

The Met have expanded their Cycle Task Force.  There are some hilarious and presumably sarcastic comments from the mayor’s transport advisor: “the Cycle Task Force is a fundamental part of the cycling revolution the Mayor has delivered in London,” and “however there is always more that can be done to make London the best cycling city in the world…”

A hit-and-run killer dragged a woman under their car for a mile, around Belsize Park.  Meanwhile, a killer delivery driver in the city gets a suspended sentence.

Driver re-education courses, for careless driving and law breaking, won’t work.  Not that the £1000 fine given to hardened criminal Katie Price for careless driving and apparently texting while driving a horsebox on the motorway will.

The government has published its Manual For Streets, advocating shared space for the nation’s high streets.  Look forward to some of the ideas being implemented in the street regeneration plans that have been announced for Belfast, Bournemouth, Prestatyn, and Reading.  Also in the regions, Clay Cross in Derbyshire has been given conservation status; and Aberystwyth gets more money to spend on green transport (interesting that the BBC illustrate the story with a “cycling forbidden” sign).

Work begins on the next couple of “superhighways”.  Interestingly, they’re the ones to serve, erm, the two parts of town that already have superhighways.

Going places is going to continue to get more expensive.  (Unless, erm, you walk or cycle there?)  Lets all blame the government and ignore the rising prices of increasingly hard to obtain oil.

TfL aren’t very good at replying to freedom of information requests — or are good at procrastinating on them, anyway.

French towns are replacing their bin lorries with horse-drawn recycling carts.  This is still the least absurd modern transport solution I’ve heard all year.  The robotic high-density deep-underground car park in Birmingham being one of the many absurdities indicative of late-phase chronic car dependency.

South Wales are making more shock adverts about careless and dangerous driving.

Drivers who pass their driving test are safer than the ones who don’t.  Thanks, Professor Obvious.

Stratford Central Line westbound has an exciting revolutionary new platform where the doors can open on both sides of the train.  Magic.

Nobody is stealing hire bikes.  Well, five.  Of more concern is that the Independent have adopted the Evening Standard‘s awful name for them.

Segway owner accidentally rides Segway over cliff, falls to his death.

Smelly cyclists not welcome in New Forest tea shops.

Kingsland cyclist muggers arrested.

Anti-social Motorists in Guidford “block one-way system“.

Lorry collides with M6 at Coventry.  Car collides with M11 in Essex.  And the National Arboretum has opened a memorial to those who have died in the name of Motorways.

And a house has collided with a 206 in Hampshire, a Cafe has collided with a Vauxhall in Aberdeenshire, and three houses collided with a car in Sunderland.  Meanwhile a bollard has collided with a Nissan in Derbyshire.

Luxury cars torched in Dundee and Devon, and a “spate” of scratched cars on the IoW.

Australia have launched a National Cycling Strategy.  Lets hope they’ve looked at Europe and noticed which country’s strategy has succeeded and which is failing, and picked the one that works.

Finally, Google Street View now covers Antarctica.

Some moments of zen: Old man rides a bikeBear rides a train.  And, man carries carpet on mobility scooter — how irresponsible: that 8mph carpet could have been a danger to the poor Motorists…

“It’s a danger to himself and a danger to other motorists. If someone wasn’t careful, they could’ve hit him off and he could’ve got seriously hurt and his family wouldn’t like that.”