When is a bus stop not a bus stop?
It looks like a bus stop. There’s a shelter, a sign and passengers milling about. There’s even a bus waiting.
If you look closely, however, there are a few clues that this is no ordinary bus stop: the people in hi-viz jackets, carrying clipboards and stop watches; the carefully choreographed movements of the passengers; the distinct lack of any other traffic on the road. And since when has any bus stop (at least in this country) had a bike track running behind it?
For this is no real bus stop. It is, in fact, a new ‘cyclist-friendly’ bus stop design being trialled as part of Boris’s vision for cycling in London.
When it was announced back in April that this research being carried out and they wanted cyclists to take part, I was quick to sign up. So many so-called ‘improvements’ for cyclists have been installed without consulting cyclists that I couldn’t pass up the chance to have my say – particularly if it meant I got to try out the ‘Dutch-style’ roundabout featured in all the coverage about the trials.
Sadly, I didn’t get to try that one. But I have tried out the new low-level cycle-specific traffic lights, and, most recently, the aforementioned bus stop. And, while they’re probably not as sexy as the roundabout, they’re no less important.
Bus stops are probably one of my biggest bête noires about cycling in London, (second only to having to cross four lanes of traffic to turn right). They’re often in bus lanes, which means running the gauntlet of the traffic in the next lane in order to overtake. If that weren’t bad enough, there’s also the fact that buses, as I’m sure you know, never travel singly. Having to overtake two or three – sometimes four – buses all lined up at a stop is seriously intimidating. I never know when one of the buses is going to pull out while I’m still going past: just because I can see their mirrors doesn’t mean the drivers will be looking in them.
So anything that can make this whole experience safer has got to be worth a trial. But is what they’re testing at TRL the answer?
The basic bus stop layout would be pretty familiar to anyone who’s been to, say, Copenhagen or Amsterdam. The key difference here is that the cycle track starts on the road before going behind the bus stop; it then spits you back out onto the road a safe distance on the other side of it.
I liked the fact that the track is physically separated from the pavement by a kerb, except when the pavement is lowered at a designated crossing point. I also liked the width of the track – wide enough for two cyclists to ride side by side. And of course I liked the idea that I might be able to bypass a bus stop without a bus pulling out in front of me.
However, there were some aspects of the design I had issues with. There were, for instance, no signs warning pedestrians about the cycle track or which way to look before stepping into it. It wasn’t clear who had priority at the crossing point. The bus stop island was too small – as a bus passenger, I’d probably want to wait there rather than the other side of the cycle track, and I suspect I wouldn’t be alone in that. In fact, the whole thing seemed a little small – fine if just one bus turned up at a time, but if two or three all arrived en masse I suspect it would block the entrance to the cycle track.
This last point highlights probably the biggest issue I had – which was less to do with the design of the bus stop than the trial itself. It’s all very well getting lots of cyclists to ride along the bus stop bypass again and again and again, and then ask them whether it felt safe and whether they would choose the bypass or the road. But when you take one of the key variables out of the equation – namely, road traffic – those answers become somewhat meaningless.
If I were cycling past a bus that I knew wasn’t going to move and my only obstacles were a group of pedestrians also taking part in the trial then I might prefer to use the road. But if this were a real bus stop on a real road, with cars going past and the bus likely to pull out any second, I might prefer to use the bypass.
Equally, if it were morning rush hour and three buses pulled up at the same time then I may prefer to stay well away from the bypass: even with all the signage in the world you can guarantee not all the passengers would stick to the crossing, nor would they all look before stepping into the cycle track.
I wasn’t the only trial participant who had misgivings about its usefulness. Interestingly, on the same day as I took part in the trial, I read a news story about phased traffic lights being trialled on an actual, real life junction in Cambridge. While I’m sure TRL no doubt managed to get some useful data from the trial I took part in, I can’t help but think the only way to get some really meaningful data about this bus stop design would be to build one and then monitor how people use it.