Transport for London just cut its bus services. You probably didn’t notice

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

One of the biggest changes to London’s buses happened on Sunday 16 June – although Londoners won’t have realised the full implications until the following morning, when they tried to go about their morning commutes. Then, they might have been surprised and angered with how inconvenient the service has become.

Transport for London has a strategic plan to cut the total length of routes it operates every year to 2022, and then to start increasing them again. The idea is that, by 2024, services in inner London will have fallen, and services in outer London will go up.

The Central London bus changes are part of the Inner London cuts part of the plan. Transport for London says bus use is dropping, and the changes reflect demand. But if you take a closer look at the changes, they don’t make sense when you consider what people use Central London buses for.

The basic difference between inner and outer London routes is that the inner routes, as well as interchanging with tube and train for the last part of the commute, are able to get people from home to work in Central London; whereas the outer routes complete local journeys and connect to transport hubs.

There are historic reasons for this. Many inner London buses are the successors to trams and trolleybuses. Their purpose was to get people from the early suburbs to the centre of town. Because of their high frequency and competitive fares, they were so successful that they killed off a number of railway stations close to the terminals. If you look back at old tram route maps, you can still see the clear lineage to current routes.


Bus routes in London have experienced only a couple of major changes in their history. Perhaps the most significant is the Bus Reshaping Plan of 1966, which responded to traffic congestion in the centre by splitting up routes that crossed the capital into overlapping services. These were complemented by new bus routes that operated around suburban hubs that would not the vulnerable to central congestion. All this ended the ability to get from outer suburbs to central London in a single trip.

The last significant change came in 2003 when money from the new congestion charge was used to enhance bus services which crossed into the central charge zone. This was intended to encourage more journeys by bus: the improved service carrot to the stick of charging. These reforms saw an increase in bus passengers because the enhanced services could make use of the less congested streets.

The latest changes achieve the strategic plan operation cuts objectives by lopping off sections of routes near the centre. Without wanting to get stuck into too many examples, this means that many inner routes barely enter central London at all. The 134 from Finchley, for example, gets curtailed at the Euston Road instead of going along the length of Tottenham Court Road. The 45 from Clapham Park now turns back at the Elephant and Castle. There are numerous examples where the change makes no sense at all; Transport for London says the hopper fare will mean that you can changes buses to complete your journey at no extra charge.

People do not just use the bus because it is cheap. They do so because it is convenient, even if slower. Having to change repeatedly makes the journey longer and less convenient. Buses are subsidised by London Underground fares, and it is a good job they are: if everyone that needed to get from Finchley to Tottenham Court Road did so on the Northern Line and not the 134 the system would be in trouble.

The real losers will be anyone who finds it difficult to get on or off the bus or doesn’t want to wait around at night on their own. The rerouting of the number 40 completely away from Fenchurch Street exemplifies how the changes remove convenient and safe interchange. The station is already the only station with no direct tube interchange: now it has no direct bus link either, necessity a long walk to the nearest options.

A final thought on the changes: they have been communicated terribly by Transport for London. A few announcements on buses that people tend to ignore anyway, and not much else, unless you like to regularly trawl their website for information. Operators who make a lot of big changes all in one go have not been very popular since the May 2018 rail timetable change. Londoners might not be willing to put up with another transport planning fail.

Steve Chambers is an urban planning and transport consultant, lecturer and campaigner. He can be found on Twitter as @respros.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.