Too many buses?

(Short answer: no.) Hoisted from comments – in an earlier post I complained that TFL and Haringey Council were making “improvements” at Bruce Grove (that’s in Tottenham, north London) that make things worse for both buses and cycling. But some say London has too many buses. Here’s what an anonymous commentator says about it (my response follows the comment, below):

“Do an analysis of bus services using that stretch of the A10 – how many are duplicated? What is are the timetabled journey speeds (at peak times especially – the 10 on Oxford Street is scheduled to average 4.1mph – its faster to walk briskly (4.5-5.5 mph) whilst TfL piles in 23 buses to operate a service which should require 9-10 buses to operate the service at off-peak journey times 37 minutes vice the 83 it takes at peak times!

“Check-out that wall of red buses and they’ll be less than 30% filled. Go to a city that thik thought its public transport, and the city centre will have a small number of frequent bus routes simple direct East-West and North-South, or circular that are free to use, simply because it costs less to do this than collecting the fares. Don’t have to travel far to see this as many UK cities do this – Manchester is a good example – TfL is simply stubbornly ‘old school’ thinking for bus operation.

“Dead simple to do – just set up a spreadsheet for the A10 and use the Londonbuses website that has all the details.

“As Tom K wryly notes New York City with twice the population of London uses half the number of buses to move them around, and world-wide London stands out as piling more buses into less road space in a massively inefficient way 4 bus services effectively run from Euston to Marble Arch over the same route (save for splitting to run parallel down Gower Street/Woburn Place at the Euston end, and the 2 routes via Holborn then join 3 routes that all run from Holborn to Oxford Circus where 3 of the routes ALL loop round via the cross roads where Tom was hit.”

(The Tom referred to is Tom Kearney, who was nearly killed by a bus on Oxford Street and has since campaigned tirelessly for better safety procedures, and accountability for safety, by Transport for London and the bus companies.)

My reply:

I think you’re raising two issues – one is the number of buses and bus routes, and the other is the relationship between buses and road space.

I’ll take road space first, since that’s the issue on the narrower sections of the A10: where there is heavy car and truck traffic together with bus routes, there should be bus lanes. I would say that about Bruce Grove even if there were far fewer buses there than there are now. A bus delayed by traffic is a punishment of both the poor and the virtuous; it is also an incentive to drive or take a taxi rather than the bus, which just feeds a vicious circle.

Far from being an archaic view, the proposition that buses should have dedicated lanes for precisely these reasons is accepted increasingly by progressive city governments on all continents, under the banner of ‘bus rapid transit’.

As for numbers of buses and routes: perhaps London’s buses are terrifically inefficient – I don’t know. But for several reasons your comment doesn’t start to convince me that they are. For London vs. New York, see the 2012 report by Singapore’s Land Transport Authority. They put the London and New York populations on a par, both just a bit over 8 million (a city’s population depends where you draw the line around it – you can find wildly different figures for New York’s population). London, thus defined, does have almost twice the buses of New York, but it has over three times the daily ridership, so it’s actually working the buses harder than New York.

Overall my experience on buses in UK cities outside London is that you wait a lot, and most people drive; according to the DfT, over half of all bus journeys in England are in London. Maybe there’s something technically great those other English bus services are doing that London should copy, but I don’t see it.

As a transport user I’d say a 30%-full bus may be working better than a full one that runs 1/3 as often, because I don’t have to wait as long and I’m sure to get a seat. Moving people isn’t moving freight – small waiting times have a real cost, and drive passengers to other modes. Even 30% full, a bus is still going to be a lot more efficient, in terms of both energy and road space, than a bunch of cars carrying the same people in ones and twos.

I want dedicated road space for bikes, but I don’t want it to be at the expense of buses. To reclaim urban road space for bikes and transit and walking, it needs to come from cars; to get it away from the cars, we need to encourage all of those other modes simultaneously. Sometimes, that won’t produce bike routes that would, taken in isolation, be the very best ones.

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