Should bus lanes be shared?

Hoddle St bus lane, looking north (off peak)

The Government’s announcement this week that motorcycles will be able to travel in the bus lane on Hoddle St for a six month trial period revealed a surprising diversity of views about who should and shouldn’t be able to travel in bus lanes.

At present, only buses and bicycles can use the bus lane on Hoddle St (it runs on the south side of Hoddle between the Eastern Freeway and Victoria Parade – there’s no bus lane on the northern side).

The reporter for The Age, Jason Dowling, did his homework and canvassed a number of organisations with an interest in the matter. The Government and the Victorian Motorcycle Council evidently favour buses, motorcycles and bicycles, but:

  • The RACV says the lane should be limited to buses and taxis
  • The Bus Association says only buses should be permitted
  • Bicycle Network Victoria is against motorcycles – it says the lane should only be used by bicycles and buses

I can’t see any problem with motorcycles and scooters using the bus lane. They’re fast enough so they won’t hold up buses and they’re small enough that they shouldn’t present queuing problems at intersections.  Although they’re not without problems (noise and pollution from two strokes), they’re a relatively efficient form of transport compared to cars and low occupancy buses. If cyclists can successfully share a lane with buses that barely fit, contending with motorcycles should be a cakewalk. Motorcycles warrant space in the bus lane.

However the logic of the RACV’s argument that taxis and hire cars should be able to use bus lanes is hard to fathom. There’s no environmental or equity benefit to be gained from making a trip by taxi rather than by car. The only real difference is that in one case you’re paying for a chauffeur and in the other you’re doing the driving yourself (although for a traveller from one of the 10% of Melbourne households that don’t own a car the equation would be different).

Taxis provide an important service, but they aren’t “public transport” in the meaningful sense of a vehicle shared by multiple passengers going to multiple destinations (except sometimes at the airport). They are “public transport” only in the narrow sense that they’re available to anyone for a price. That’s also true of rental cars and I can’t see any reason why they should get access to bus lanes either.

If anything, bicycles are probably the least appropriate mode to share with buses. They’re slower and hence can potentially hold buses up, depending on conditions. In order to overtake a cyclist safely, a bus on Hoddle St will need to enter the adjoining lane, thus weakening to some degree the whole point of a dedicated bus lane.

Of course we’ve been having the “trial” of buses and cyclists on Hoddle St for around ten years, so it would be useful to see the views of both drivers and cyclists on how it’s worked to date. The opposition of the Bus Association to sharing bus lanes with any other modes suggests drivers might be unhappy. I hear anecdotally that there’ve been few serious incidents between cyclists and buses on Hoddle St, but then I also hear few cyclists are prepared to brave the bus lane.

There’s a wider issue here though. If cyclists can’t use bus lanes then an increasing proportion of kerbside road space is likely to be denied them. Another interpretation is that being shunted off with buses in a separate lane is a further sign that cyclists aren’t seen as legitimate road users. My view is buses and bicycles aren’t a natural fit – they can share more or less successfully while ever volumes of either mode are low, but once the numbers pick up it’s bound to get problematic. In the absence of infrastructure dedicated exclusively to bicycles, they belong on the road, not in bus lanes.

Bicycle Network Victoria’s approach to the proposed trial seems very insular to me. I’m a cyclist not a motorcyclist, but I think it’s more likely powered two wheelers (including pedelecs)  are going to have a bigger role in the future transport of Melbourne than bicycles.

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17 Comments on “Should bus lanes be shared?”

  1. Katie says:

    Great post. I agree with you that it’s a good idea for motorcycles to be allowed in the bus lane, to encourage such modes of transport. I’m a cyclist too, not a motor-bike rider. But I’d love to live in a city where there are perks to encourage people to choose smaller vehicles (or to take public transport). Sharing the bus lane is not ideal, but it’s definitely a start, making it more appealing for people to consider alternatives to the car.

  2. Daniel says:

    Yeah, I think the motorcycles are worth a trial to see how it goes. In contrast I really can’t see cyclists and buses mixing well (which is not to say some other provision shouldn’t be made for cyclists on Hoddle St.)

    Arguably a taxi/hire car has a passenger occupancy of zero when it’s between jobs.

  3. Nathan Alexander says:

    Alan, I’m a cyclist who is generally not afraid to mix with the traffic on many main roads in the inner suburbs. I used to live about 200 metres off Hoddle Street and can only ever recall riding in the carriageway once. Generally I could find alternative routes that were more pleasant, safer and just as quick. If I really had to ride along Hoddle Street, I’d use the footpath.

    I’d be hesitant to use the bus lane on Hoddle Street and even more hesitant to be stuck in one of the other lanes mixing it with cars travelling at 60 kms an hour. Peak hour when the motor vehicles are crawling along might be fine though! I certainly don’t see any great problem having motorbikes using the bus lane.

  4. Lynne says:

    I used to regularly ride down this section of Hoddle St 12-15 years ago, there’s probably more busses now but it could be scary at times even then. I’m not sure that pushing cyclists out between the busses and the normal traffic is such a good idea though, at least if you’re in the gutter you have a chance to bail on to the footpath. The near misses that I was involved in then were mainly with cars entering the bus lane to turn left or to use it illegally, I think this would be worse on a bike forced outside the bus lane. Passing a stopped bus was not fun and I generally avoided doing it. This would be my only reservation about motorcycles also using the lane.

    I also used to catch a taxi down there and it wasn’t uncommon for them to use the bus lane after coming off the emergency stopping lane on the freeway even though they weren’t meant to. It certainly saved me time and probably money but I’m not sure why taxis should be allowed this privilege.

  5. I too believe the motorbike trial to be a smart move and once again find myself questioning Bicycle Victoria. Bikes and buses are not a good combination, if you’re a bike rider behind a bus its a pretty big nuisance when they stop. If you’re a bus behind a bike, then the bikes speed is problematic.

    The very few times I’ve had to ride down Hoddle Street I’ve taken the only option I’ve felt was safe (which ironically enough is the illegal option), the footpath. There are plenty of other routes parallel to Hoddle that are more pleasant and a lot safer for cyclists, for most journeys. The footpaths are also quite wide in most places and could easily be classified as a shared bike/foothpath for the few journey’s that must be taken by bike.

  6. Rick says:

    I, like most commenting so far, also agree with you about motorcycles sharing; they are a good fit, are better density transport than cars from a congestion point of view, ok environmentally, and should have no trouble keeping up with the bus traffic.

    Bicycles are a harder one because they are a terrible speed profile to mix with buses yet we do want to encourage them in general.

    I disagree however about taxis. They are enablers for less car ownership; even if they are car-like at first glance they help (me) live without owning a car.

    • Simon says:

      I agree re taxis – they’re part of the non-car-owning ecosystem, and as such probably reduce traffic.

      But I still wouldn’t let them in the bike/bus lanes – as a cyclist my experience of them is that they strongly resent cyclists in these lanes and get very aggressive.

    • Alan Davies says:

      “I disagree however about taxis. They are enablers for less car ownership; even if they are car-like at first glance they help (me) live without owning a car”

      Not owning a car isn’t necessarily the gold standard. The women in Sex and the City use taxis like chauffered cars. 🙂

      On the assumption that you’d hopefully be using public transport much more than taxis, you wouldn’t want taxis holding up your bus in the AM peak. And it is a bus lane – there’s got to be an irony in letting taxis (i.e. cars) in when there’re all those buses whizzing along it!

  7. Oz says:

    The discussion should include the issue of safety for cyclists using Crashstat data for Hoddle Street.

  8. Simon says:

    Why do you call them “bus lanes” if they are in fact bike/bus lanes? I agree that buses and bicycles are a bad fit, and the solution is obvious – buses shouldn’t be allowed in these lanes. I’m quite serious – make the next lane over the bus lane, and narrow the bike lane a little to allow bus stops between it and the new bus lane.

    This is effectively converting a car lane into a bike lane, and as a bike lane has far greater capacity than a car lane, the overall capacity of the road is increased.

    • Alan Davies says:

      “Why do you call them “bus lanes” if they are in fact bike/bus lanes?”

      Because the one on Hoddle St is labelled as a bus lane (see here), but you make a fair point – they do double duty (and for that matter, parking too outside peak hour).

  9. I’ve always wondered what the benefit to letting taxis in bus lanes is. Though if I could speculate, the one advantage I see of taxis over cars is that when they reach their destination they don’t need to find a parking spot, they just drive off to their next destination. This can prevent the congestion caused by cars driving around, looking for a precious parking space.

    Not sure if that’s enough to justify allowing taxis in bus lanes. Personally, I’d still lean towards no, unless maybe it’s a higher capacity maxi cab.

  10. Russ says:

    Julian nails it, I’ve ridden in a few bus/bike lanes (Victoria St, Lonsdale St, not Hoddle) and they are fairly awful if a bus is in it. In general the bus is a little bit slow if it is stopping, but it is nearly impossible to get around it (into traffic), and the last thing you want is it (or the one behind) chasing you. Parallel streets would be better, but they are problematically under local council control, whereas VicRoads is primarily responsible for the Principal Bike Network.

    I’m not sure motorcycles are appropriate either. Assuming the bus is stopping they’ll be wanting to go around it, which will again force them into traffic. Better to start in traffic and stay there.

  11. Rhys says:

    I was a cyclist in London when they opened up the bus lanes to motorbikes. From a personal point of view, I didn’t exactly welcome the fact I now had motorbikes and scooters buzzing past quite close at a greater speed differential. At least the buses drivers there were mostly courteous and would overtake safely, or not at all.

    But I appreciate in the greater scheme of things, having motorbikes in bus lanes might be a small inconvenience to me for a better transport outcome for all.

    Your comments about powered two wheelers having a bigger role than bicycles in Melbourne is interesting. Given that many people, esp females, say they don’t ride bicycles because it is not safe, why would they view a scooter, motorbike or other two-wheeled vehicle as safer?

    A quick look at my friendship group shows many females are happy to cycle. But none ride a scooter/motorbike.

  12. Adrian says:

    I have cycled this bus lane only during the off-peak when it becomes a parking lane. Compared to some other bus lanes, such as Lonsdale St or Victoria Pde, it is quite wide along Hoddle St. Cyclists can easily share with buses along the Hoddle stretch up until Victoria Pde, but I guess it’s still not fun riding close to the gutter and having a bus shave past you, particularly when I have been trying to make my cycling techniques better for my safety, such as taking the lane where necessary.

    Cyclists have to weigh up a) A more direct trip up Hoddle St breathing in exhaust fumes or b) Wellington St is almost parallel to Hoddle, provides bike lanes the entire way, but most likely a slower trip for more experienced riders, having to take care with door zone lanes and parked cars.

    With the wide lane, I think sharing with motorbikes can be beneficial as the motorcyclists are not risking being crushed between cars trickle feeding to close the gap in front of them.

  13. CyclingBrisbane says:

    So there’s five lanes of traffic and a 3m footpath (all presumably road reserve) – approximately 20m of available space and you can’t squeeze a 1m bike lane in?

  14. Dudley Horscroft says:

    From experience, when I used to either ride my bike or catch a bus to school, cyclists were very good at keeping up with the buses, and if the buses did stop, then that was the chance for a needed breather. Those were, of course, buses with open rear entrances/exits, with a low step for boarding passengers. Generally cyclists rode with the rear wheel within one foot of the rear of the bus. Negligible air resistance, and hence easy to keep up with the bus. Drop back and air resistance prevented keeping up.
    Perhaps cyclists were better riders then? Knew where buses were likely to stop and made allowances? Had better brakes than the buses?
    But cyclists should be permitted to ride on footpaths at all times, subject to always giving way to pedestrians. If necessary widen the footpaths. If you have a bus lane, you should never have parking in it – even stopping a car should be prohibited if there is a bus reasonably close behind.
    Recommendation is therefore that motorcycles should be permitted to travel in bus lanes, which should be wide enough at stops so they can overtake without encroaching into car lanes. Pedal cyclists should ride on footpaths where possible, in normal vehicle lanes when not – remember cars are far narrower than buses, so can overtake more easily.
    And trams should also travel in bus lanes, which is an argument for the bus lanes being in the centre of the road, and away from cyclists and pedestrians. Proper level access boarding safety zones to suit both trams and buses.


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