Dedicated bus lanes have been used to successfully control traffic congestion and air pollution in towns and cities across the UK. So why does Birmingham City Council want to get rid of them?

As many of you will be aware, the Tyburn Road bus lane was 'temporarily' suspended, i.e. opened up to all traffic, last summer while road works were carried out on a section of the M6.

In September, Councillor Len Gregory, cabinet member for Transportation and Street Services, then decided to continue the bus lane suspension under an experimental traffic order with a view to making the suspension permanent. This was undertaken with the bare minimum of consultation: only those residents with frontages on the Tyburn Road were consulted while the needs of bus users were totally ignored.

Surveys have established that in the peak periods bus use on the flagship 67 route to Castle Vale which uses the Tyburn Road has decreased by 15 per cent in peak periods, which is hardly surprising, since delays to bus journey times have increased by up to 11 per cent compared with the same period last year.

The scheme to upgrade the 67 route to showcase status was a good one as it involved bus lanes being established within an existing dual carriageway, with no road widening involved, unlike some of the other showcase bus scheme proposals (such as the Outer Circle 11 route and the Hagley Road). Part of the funding came from the Department for Transport (DfT) following the submission of a Local Transport Plan by the local authority. Operators Travel West Midlands (TWM) have invested millions of pounds in new 'bendibuses', and Centro have installed new bus shelters with real time information displays. Needless to say, neither TWM or the DfT are particularly happy with the situation; nor for that matter are the hundreds of bus passengers who are left with a less reliable bus service.

Since the end of November, Birmingham Friend of the Earth, along with Bus Users UK and Transport 2000 West Midlands, have been campaigning for reinstatement of this bus lane. With the help and support of Travel West Midlands, we have been travelling on the 67 bus talking to passengers and collecting signatures to a petition calling on the City Council to reinstate the bus lane. Support for our petition from the bus passengers has been overwhelming; many of them tell of their frustration at having to wait up to forty minutes in the peak period for a bus service which should run at least every 8 minutes. The petition will be presented to the City Council at a suitable opportunity later in the year.

It appears to be part of a Birmingham City Council policy of reviewing all bus lanes to see if abolishing them or converting them into High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes would benefit traffic flow. This negative attitude towards bus lanes is a reflection of national Conservative Party policy which regards bus lanes as an infringement motorists' rights.

Very few other local authorities in the UK have given HOV lanes serious consideration. The only HOV lane on an ordinary urban road in the UK is on the Stanningley Road in Leeds which was established as an HOV from the start, rather than being converted from a bus lane. HOV lanes require disproportionately more resources to police than normal bus lanes. Technological fixes involving sophisticated lasers are available but could prove horrendously expensive. Even then, detecting the number of passengers in this way is never going to be foolproof, so is it really worth the effort?

Task force
Last October, Cllr Gregory decided to set up a 'Congestion Task Force' to investigate ways of improving traffic flow in the city and review opening up bus lanes to other traffic. We now hear that the City Council, following pressure from the Midlands Business Transport Users Group, is in talks with Centro and Travel West Midlands about the possibility of allowing heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to use the Tyburn Road bus lane; a pilot scheme is mooted.

HGV lanes are few and far between in the UK. Although they may be justified on certain stretches of road, such as certain strategic routes and sections of motorway, they are entirely inappropriate for densely-populated residential areas. We fear that an HGV lane would attract lorries away from more suitable routes, such as the parallel M6 and the Heartland Spine Road, and would make the lives of those living along the Tyburn Road a complete misery. There would also be serious safety implications for all other road users, particularly pedestrians and cyclists, from HGVs attempting to overtake buses as the latter slow down for bus stops.