Neil Greig: Time to move it up a gear

As new bus lane cameras lead to huge tailbacks, Neil Greig suggests the council needs to make some vital adjustments

By Neil Greig
Tuesday, 8th May 2012, 1:00 pm

For years the majority of Edinburgh drivers have sat and simmered with rage at those selfish “chancers” who have been using the city’s bus lanes as their own personal short cut.

At last salvation seemed to be at hand in the form of bus lane enforcement cameras. The Scottish Government cleared the way for their use recently, and Scotland’s cities have adopted them immediately.

But as with so many transport policies in Edinburgh the detail of their implementation has been another bumpy ride. The same story happened in English cities, and Edinburgh could have learned valuable lessons from their experience.

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The key one is that drivers don’t trust cameras. They know they act in a black-and-white way with no leeway for the shades of grey that are a daily part of keeping traffic moving in a busy city. Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a driver more than the thought of a ticket landing on the mat due to a moment’s inattention or a misunderstood sign. The result is absolute adherence to the law and more congestion as old established patterns of behaviour change.

Edinburgh City Council needs to ensure that the signposting of bus lane timings is clear and consistent. Drivers also need to be reassured that the camera only operates at the required times and not a minute more.

In London, one camera alone raised £1 million for Lewisham Council despite local drivers claiming it was impossible not to stray into the lane in order to keep traffic moving. The detail of where and how the camera is located is crucial to build confidence that revenue raising is not the key driver for the council.

The ideal camera issues no tickets because the bus lane is kept free and everyone accepts the law. However, no camera should be placed where there is any doubt about entering the last few yards of a bus lane just to rejoin traffic, to turn left or even access a property. Technically, such infringements may be breaking the law but if it keeps the traffic flowing it’s much better for stress, pollution and the economy.

In one infamous example in London, every member of staff in one company got a bus lane ticket because they had to cross the lane to enter their building right where a camera was sited. At least they had a right of appeal, which is another function that Edinburgh City Council should highlight to show it will listen.

Road safety is another concern. Taking the obstructions out of the bus lane can tempt bus drivers to go a little faster, which is bad news for the increasing number of cyclists being directed to share roadspace with some of the largest and heaviest vehicles around.

In English towns many drivers found it impossible to turn left and right safely across bus lanes due to heavy traffic and fast approaching buses.

The result was they found it easier to turn into the bus lane for a short distance and merge in a safer way. They then got a ticket for trying, in their view, to be safe. In some instances the appeals were allowed and cameras have even been removed – but in every case the hassle and stress factor was high.

Emergency services should be using the bus lane but, if a blue light user does come up the main lane, drivers will have doubts about moving over that, crucially, could lead to delays.

So what can the Capital’s transport experts do to turn this into a positive story? Firstly, they must review camera and signpost locations to make sure they have got it right. Secondly, they must reassure drivers that the technology is fair, reliable and matches the bus lane operating times and that there is a right of appeal. And thirdly, they must link this policy with the bigger picture – which includes a thorough review of bus lane operating times. For example, is it really necessary to have bus lanes active in the middle of the day when they are nearly always empty? Are the short lengths of bus lanes – such as the tiny one on inbound Gorgie Road just before the Chesser Avenue junction – really working?

If money continues to be raised from bus lanes cameras at the current rate then transparency is needed to show that 100 per cent of the income is going back into improved roads and transport services. Filling in a few more potholes won’t suddenly make this a popular policy but it will help. Finally, are bus operators really making the most of this opportunity?

Edinburgh has one of the best bus-based park-and-ride systems in Scotland. Uncongested bus lanes should lead to punctual, reliable and quicker buses.

But, until buses are made cheap enough and attractive enough to become the default choice for journeys into the city centre, then this war of the bus lanes looks set to continue.

• Neil Greig is director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists

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