For the few, not the many?

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Claire Walters, Chief Executive of Bus Users, shares her thoughts on new proposals in Cambridge to allow electric vehicles to use bus lanes

Why do we have bus lanes – to make it easier for shared transport modes to run to time? To make sure that buses carrying large numbers of people don’t have to sit behind a queue of single-occupant cars? If that’s the aim, then allowing private cars onto bus lanes, electric or otherwise, doesn’t just go against the ethos of a bus lane, it pretty much renders it useless.

Cambridgeshire County Council is using an Experimental Traffic Regulation Order to trial electric vehicles and motorbikes in a Cambridge bus lane. The stated aim is to ‘improve air quality.’ If the trial is successful, the council plans to extend the scheme which has been widely condemned by cyclist, pedestrian and transport groups across the region.

The idea was considered, and roundly rejected, by TfL in 2019 following research that found it would lengthen bus journey times, deter people from using public transport, cause friction between drivers of electric and non-electric vehicles and, ironically, “not provide a meaningful incentive for people to switch to cleaner vehicles.” Given the cost of the average electric car, allowing these vehicles to use bus lanes is essentially just an excuse for those who can afford it to jump the traffic queue.

In reality, of course, if you drive in a bus lane during rush hour you have to stop every time the bus does – so you may as well be on board. And at some point, when the balance has shifted and the majority of vehicles are electric, our air may be cleaner but our roads and our bus lanes will be gridlocked. In fact, it’s not even true to say the move to electric vehicles will help achieve decarbonisation targets, with tyres on roads now producing more pollution than tailpipes. Reducing the number of vehicles on our roads is the only truly effective way to tackle air quality and congestion and that means prioritising shared, sustainable and active transport modes – not private cars.

While Cambridge is sending silent vehicles, whose drivers have no professional training, into lanes used by cyclists, most local authorities are working on strategies to promote active travel. There is an abundance of evidence to show that switching to public transport, even for a couple of days a week, can double the amount of walking done by normally sedentary car users. That means we need to be providing attractive, accessible, affordable and above all reliable transport alternatives and for most of us, that will be the bus.

So why is it so hard to get some local authority decision makers to take buses seriously? Probably because so few of them ever use public transport and their idea of bus travel is based on some vague childhood memory. They will have no idea that buses, on the whole, are now smart, comfortable and, in the light of Covid, a great deal cleaner than any private car. They won’t have experienced the great advances in technology, the live tracking and ticketing apps, the on-board WiFi and the audio-visual announcements.

Instead, they cling to the mistaken belief that electric cars are the way forward because it is easier than tackling the real issue – that there are just too many vehicles on our roads.

Reducing congestion will require effort, innovation, and the ability to think beyond an electoral term (and strangled transport budgets). But the solutions are already out there, like mobility hubs, clean, green, plentiful and affordable public transport, car, bike, even scooter share schemes, and on-demand and community transport. We need local authorities to work in partnership with all the key players including local employers, transport operators, healthcare and education sites and leisure and retail facilities. And we need the political will and funding.

We have an opportunity to develop transport solutions that are accessible and sustainable and tackle not only congestion and pollution but social inclusion, health and wellbeing. Transport should meet the needs of everyone in society – not just the few who can afford a new car.

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A spokesperson for Cambridgeshire County Council told CBW: “We are currently trialling an exemption for Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV) and motorcycles using the Elizabeth Way bus lane as part of our commitment to tackle air quality in the city.

“Accident data, bus timings and vehicle counts continue to be scrutinised as part of this trial to allow for rapid response to any issues. Several other cities already successfully allow ZEV use of bus lanes.

“Once the six-month trial has concluded all evidence gathered and public feedback to the ETRO will be examined and a decision taken on whether to expand the changes to other areas. This decision would require significant further work as well as approval from Councillors.”