The gap

You may or may not have seen this fascinating graph from the Economist in 1981, shared with me by Graham Smith.

Economist graph

Minitram? Of course.

It’s an amazing insight into the way cycling had effectively disappeared as a serious mode of transport for short trips, in the minds of the establishment.

The ‘gap’ between walking and driving for trips of up to 3 miles apparently had to be filled by something – Minitram? with a suggestive question mark – without the apparent realisation that a perfect mode of transport already existed, and had thrived in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century.

We’re stuck with this legacy today, reinforced by a further three decades of failure to establish cycling as that mode of transport for the ‘gap’ between walking and driving. This ‘cycling oversight’ also has implications for the way we expect people to travel around without a car.

Local authorities expect people to walk to bus stops, rather than cycle, and that often means bus routes have to meander to where people live, rather than taking direct routes. Apparently many local authorities have a requirement that bus stops should be within 300m of anyone’s doorstep – that means the competitiveness and directness of the bus itself is sacrificed to accommodate short walking trips to bus stops.

There are two examples of this in Horsham, one in a large new development to the west of the town that is nearing completion, and another large development to the north of the town that is awaiting planning permission, but looks set to go ahead. The development to the west looks like this –

West of Horsham developmentThe new development lies in the shaded area. The red and orange lines are the (direct) driving routes for private motor traffic (a massive new junction, and extra lanes, have been added to the bypass, running north-south, that bisects the development). The wibbly-wobbly blue line is, sadly, the bus route, through the development, to the town centre.

Clearly the directness of the bus route has been sacrificed, to bring the bus stops close to all the properties within the new development.

The proposed development to the north of Horsham has a very similar bus route.

North of Horsham planAgain, the bus route is a wibbly-wobbly line (running roughly east-west, in blue) skirting all the way through the development, before heading south into the town centre.

Of course this indirectness (and delay in getting to where you actually want to get to on a bus) isn’t the only problem with this kind of ‘doorstep bus route planning’. It also means that buses will often have to fight their way through residential streets that (quite properly) are not designed for through traffic, according to Manual for Streets. We saw an example of this in a new development on the outskirts of Newcastle, on a Cycling Embassy Infrastructure Safari.

DSCN9798This isn’t really the kind of road a bus route should be running down – it’s narrow, has on-street parking, and pinch points and features designed to slow motor traffic. None of these are intrinsically bad things – indeed, they may be desirable on residential streets – but I don’t think they’re compatible with a bus route.

Having to take buses through residential areas, to pass close to doorsteps, effectively means pushing buses – which should be using through-roads to get from A to B – onto access roads. And this is something that Oxfordshire County Council (among others) are now complaining about.

Street design in new housing estates ‘too restrictive for buses’

Oxfordshire County Council has criticised the street design in some of the county’s recently-built housing estates, saying the main streets are too narrow and low-speed for efficient bus operations.

“The recent design orthodoxy for large residential developments in Oxfordshire has been far too restrictive for bus operation and this restricts the eventual range of bus services that can be operated,” says Oxfordshire.

The council’s comments reflect a concern of bus operators across the country that their needs are not being taken into account in the design of new developments, with designers promoting narrow streets and traffic calming features to reduce the dominance of traffic.

I think this is only half the story – clearly the solution to this problem isn’t to widen residential streets to accommodate bus flow, but instead to ensure that bus routes are run on (properly designed) through-roads, away from residential areas. Bus routes simply shouldn’t be running through access roads.

The story is very different in new Dutch developments – the buses run on the main roads that skirt the development, designed to take buses and through-traffic – with people cycling to the stops from within that development.

DSCN9257This means that residential areas only need to accommodate access traffic, and can be designed to slow it, without having to worry about how easy it is for buses to pass through efficiently. Because buses don’t pass along these streets.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 11.34.11And it also means that – unlike the ludicrous bus routes being proposed in Horsham – the bus is a fast, direct and attractive alternative to driving.

Of course, this does involve the use of a mode of transport that fills ‘the gap’ between walking and taking the bus – one that allows people to travel distances of around 1-2 miles with ease, and allows bus stops to be retained on the direct routes for the bus.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 11.44.05Taking cycling seriously as a mode of transport would mean that buses would work much more effectively, and be much more competitive with driving – and would also keep buses out of residential streets that are (correctly) not designed to accommodate them.


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24 Responses to The gap

  1. Since people who are too disabled to walk more than 300m to a bus stop may also be unable to ride a bike, I have some sympathy with the requirements for bus routes to wander about, even if it does inconvenience other bus users and other road users.

    • bz2 says:

      Actually, this blog post doesn’t do Dutch designs justice. Look at a neighbourhood like Dordrecht’s Stadspolders, or Leiden’s Merenwijk. The only 50 km/h road with any amount of traffic is the one the buses go down, and those roads are designed to go roughly down the middle – similar amounts of residences on both the inside and the outside. Since this loop road is still not a through road (it only carries traffic to and from this particular neighbourhood) it isn’t an obstacle to pedestrians and cyclists, traffic intensities are such that there’s long gaps in traffic that make crossing easy and safe. The little sub-neighbourhoods on the inside and outside of the ring road are not connected to each other except for pedestrians and cyclist shortcuts, to ensure virtually car-free streets.
      This design (known colloquially as the ‘cauliflower’) hasn’t been used much since the 70s and 80s, but modern interpretations of it still pop up (Frankhuis in Zwolle, for example).
      Note that in smaller towns, bus operators tend to dislike the loop design, because it means you have to dedicate an entire route to that neighbourhood – you can’t serve anything after going around the loop. Modern designs therefore usually incorporate bus traps to allow dead-end 50 km/h distributor roads into an estate, which serve as through roads for buses.

    • Surely it makes more sense to design an environment that allows mobility for those with disabilities – using mobility scooters, powered wheelchairs, or even a bicycle as a mobility aid – than to attempt to bring buses close to everyone?

      I say that because only a minority of trips will be to bus stops – it would be hugely advantageous to open up independent mobility to all users.

    • davidhembrow says:

      Actually there’s no expectation that disabled people in NL should walk if they can’t. There are buses which will come and pick you up from home if you need that service. But they’re not the normal bus – more like minibuses.

      The same applies for children with a disabilities. There’s a child a couple of doors down the road from us who is picked up for school every morning by a minibus and taken to a special school, while other other in the street cycle to their schools.

      No need for a “one size fits all” solution. Actually it’s possible to design a system which works for everyone.

      • MJ Ray says:

        We have those minibuses here too, often under names like “Community Transport”. Making full-size buses wander around bendy housing estates is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist which actually causes more problems, such as undermining buses as efficient mass transport.

        Strangely, with cuts in Norfolk, it seems like some of the rural buses have switched to more efficient mostly-main-road routes, although the bus companies are still too keen to defeat themselves and accept funding from developers to divert routes into their bendy housing estates – I think that’s done so that the developers can claim there’s fewer private car journeys generated, but still avoid having to pay towards upgrading the current mostly-substandard cycling infrastructure. Is it seen as easier to pay for 3 or 5 years of buses than to pay for 4m wide good tarmac?

    • Mark Hewitt says:

      You have to strike a balance. When I used to get the bus to work it did just go along the main road into town and as such was relatively quick – and popular.

      But I lived 15 minutes walk from the stop, so when I bought a car (mostly so I could see my new girlfriend rather than for work!) I stopped getting the bus because I could drive to work faster than even the walk to the bus stop.

      In reality cycling would have been my best choice, but I never did it, and I’m not quite sure why.

      • MJ Ray says:

        Was there anywhere to park your bike securely at the stop? Or put it on the bus? Those are the usual two problems near me. Outside of urban areas, I only remember seeing cycle parking near bus stops at Narborough, Norfolk.

        • Mark Hewitt says:

          Nah I mean cycling all the way to work. As it was only about 5 miles or so. I used to walk it sometimes, in fact.

          I do remember considering cycling in, but it was/is nothing but busy road followed by busy road followed by busy road. These days that probably wouldn’t stop me, but back then it was different.

          • MJ Ray says:

            Oh I see. Riding only on busy roads doesn’t feel fun, though, does it? I can’t see myself doing that long-term but I’m lucky to live somewhere that I don’t have to 🙂

    • Not all people have to use the standard omafiets the Dutch use so often. They have a number of people on adapted bicycles or tricycles for them, that they can power with a hand crank, pedals if you are able to, or a motor. It is legal to ride a mobility scooter I think up to 30 km/h on a Dutch cycle path, and 6 km/h on the sidewalk. Assuming your arterial roads are spaced about 1.5 km apart, means that the furthest you could have to go would be 750 metres. At 30 km/h on a mobility scooter on the bicycle path, you can get to your stop lets go a little further to 1.5 km away, in 3 minutes. There will be a nearby wheelchair ramp so that you can get on the sidewalk and cross onto the waiting area for bus passengers. It would be a ways to walk, but even on a hand bicycle at 15 km/h, you can get there within 6 minutes. That should not add too much to your commute, and the ability to just go on the main arteries means that you have no real need worrying. And yes, modern Dutch infrastructure is designed for accessibility in mind, tactile paving, wheelchair ramps, even improvements over wheelchair ramps when you cross minor side streets with a level continuation of the footway, the cycle paths are designed with at least 2 metres of space, 2.5 metres prefered for one direction, 3 metres minimum, 3.5-4 metres standard width, with a smooth transition onto the access roads and intersecting cycle lanes/paths and when you cross roads. If you are not able to use a bicycle at all, or a mobility scooter, then a small minibus about 9 metres long, or a van, can help to take you where you need to go, which you can book.

  2. Good post, as always! What’s the role of interchange in public transport in NL? In Germany, the typical network design is that buses pass through residential areas, but then you normally change into underground or tram at the next station which gets you across town fairly direct and fast with very few stops, and then you may get another bus for the last 2 or 3 stops to the final destination (many people will cycle from home to underground station instead of taking the bus, similar to what you describe). At every tram or underground station, dozens of local bus lines come together from different directions, making changes easy & convenient.

    It seems to me that in Britain (at least in Edinburgh, where I live), the issue is not so much buses going through residential areas as such, but that there is no second level of faster connections that you can change to for the longer distances. There is a preconception that bus lines should be direct without change, get you from home to wherever you need to go, which of course means that they meander around town and take ages.

    The unwillingness to design the network around interchanges is also related to the ticketing system where you have to pay for each bus separately, whereas in Germany a single ticket is typically valid for any number of buses/trams/undergrounds for a certain time.

    • davidhembrow says:

      In NL, people usually substitute bikes for the part of the journey which you see as being done by buses. The extent of cycle parking at bus stops varies from just a few spaces at some rural cycle-parks to enormous numbers at some stops in towns. Railway stations always have huge cycle parks. Very few people would take a bus to the railway station. Perhaps if they are going away for a while or for some reason can’t use a bike.

    • MJ Ray says:

      I feel the ticketing system is more to blame than anything, although interchange timings are also a problem, with the Battling Bus Businesses that we have in most of England. I don’t think people would mind changing buses if we had through ticketing and decent interchange timings, but waiting for half an hour and then buying a new ticket sucks.

  3. Thinking of my own bus usage, it tends to be when I’m carrying stuff that’s too heavy or bulky to take on a bike, but possible to take on a short walk. And I see lots of women pushing buggies on buses. Can’t agree with you on this one, buses need to go near where people live, we can’t all cycle to a bus stop two miles away. Even those of us who can, can’t always do so.

    • I’m not suggesting that bus stops should be two miles away – that doesn’t flow from what I’ve written here. I’m simply suggesting that principle bus routes should follow direct lines, rather than meandering around on residential streets. In urban areas, at least, that will not mean 2 miles distance from bus stops; nothing like as much, in fact.

  4. davidhembrow says:

    I’ve an older and more complete version of that graph which does include “bicycle” as an option. Mine comes from “The Engineer’s Conscience” by M Thring 1980. He gives credit for the graph to G. Bouladon, “The Transport gaps”, Science Journal, April 1967 p. 41 (or perhaps Oct 1967, p. 93).

    It seems that “minitram” is something that the Economist suggested, but was not part of the original work.

  5. T.Foxglove says:

    It is a typical piss poor attempt at transport in the UK, with the developers in collusion with the local authority to get new builds on greenfield sites.

    The site wouldn’t be sustainable if it just relied on cars & so shouldn’t get permission; the s.106 to make the development acceptable will say the developer has to pay for a bus/subsidise the route, the bus route is so convoluted & slow that very few people use it, after a bit the service is reduced to core hours due to lack of demand, eventually the Developer tries to get the LA to subsidise it but they won’t as it isn’t a key service & so it is removed & no one cares as they never used it as they drive everywhere.

    Local landowner gets profit, developer gets the profit, LA get the Council Tax receipts and all from applying the lightest coat of greenwash to the development.

  6. Mark Hewitt says:

    It’s a neat idea of course, but suggest to anyone that they cycle say a mile to the bus stop will be treated with incredulity.

    First of all you can’t take your bike on the bus and you aren’t likely to any time soon.

    So you have to have bike stands beside all the bus stops, ok, nice, but not going to happen any time soon since actually having a bus shelter seems beyond capabilities much of the time.

    Then the person involved has to buy a bike and associated kit, because chances are they won’t have it already, then because we live in a car centric society they’ll need to don hi-vis and a helmet otherwise be seen as a crazy irresponsible fool with a death wish.

    Then when they get to the bike rack they have to secure the bike using that big lock which weighs a tonne that there’s no place on the bike for? Then when you get back, the bike is stolen anyway.

    It’s a lovely idea of course, and a very sensible one but the practicalities of it in the UK are so far away at the moment you’d get more chance of enrolling people on astronaut training programmes than cycle to the bus stop.

  7. Jitensha Oni says:

    Arguments of the kind “well it can’t be done in practice because of excuses a and b” assumes that what is true at location x must be true at location y. I bet there are some locations somewhere in the UK where a few bike stands would work really well next to a bus stop. Cycle stands are realtively cheap – surely a few experiments are in order to find out where the best locations are? Why not start in Horsham*?

    *yes, I know. The point being that this is a mindset thing not a practicalities thing.

    • Cyclestrian says:

      Bluestar buses between Southampton and Winchester benefit from this infrastructure, boosting the catchment of each stop. Sheffield stands have been breeding near bus stops, usually attached daily to an old/cheap bike whose typical user seems to travel 0.5-1 miles without bothering with helmet or rubber nickers. I’m sure it soon becomes a no brainer – you get fed up wasting 30-40 minutes of your day by walking for the bus. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bus company has paid for the stands. After 30 or so bikes have come and gone, a stand has paid for itself.

  8. h2g2bob says:

    This is EXACTLY the sort of road a bus should be driving down: high density housing where there isn’t enough space for everyone to own a car. Here is a large group of customers, and the bus company (hopefully) provides a frequent service, encouraging use. Your real problem is the cars parked on double-yellow lines!

    The picture from the Netherlands is low density housing and I would expect little or no service.

    Requiring a bus stop near everyone is the ridership v coverage debate from

  9. Dermot says:

    The Segway was initially marketed as a device to fill this gap. Inferior to the bike in most important ways (not least price and ability to leave it parked unattended), but the bike is probably too simple for technofuturists.

  10. fIEtser says:

    Reblogged this on iNLand fIEts and commented:
    After decades of lopsided investment, America has only two options for all journeys: automobile and aircraft. But it doesn’t have to be that way, we can have nice things too.

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