Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Bikes in Bus Lanes

After years of 'trials' with delays and reviews, Transport for London have finally opened up many of London's bus lanes for motorcycle use.

However, this doesn't allow a 'free for all', 'get out of jail free card' approach to riding a bike in buslanes.

You're still at risk from pedestrians and cars at junctions - and you'll need to watch out for diesel spills too.

Kevin Williams of Survival Skills posted the following on The Rev Counter forum:

London Bus Lane Etiquette

As bus lanes operated by TfL have been opened to bikers in London, it seems a good time to discuss safety issues when using bus lanes.

This isn't a new idea, some London bus lanes have been open for some time as part of a trial, and of course in other parts of the country bus lanes have been available to PTW’s for some time.

But it's important to emphasise that this privilege could be withdrawn if we abuse it or if the accident rate turns out to be unacceptably high. So the onus is on us as riders to use them sensibly now to ensure we can continue to use them! Using an empty bus lane as an excuse to blast to the front of the queue at high speed is not likely to further that end.

Some riders have questioned the benefits, but many of the routes that are open are along main roads into London and a careful ride down the adjoining bus lane is definitely quicker than sitting in a four mile queue of standing traffic and rather less stressful than filtering down the outside of that queue.

Although the trials have been a bit indeterminate on whether there are fewer risks to riders, my gut feeling is that it’s probably safer, provided some simple precautions are taken by the rider.

A key consideration whether you are an experienced commuter or recreational rider who’s decided to try his hand at riding into town rather than drive or take the train, is that whilst bus lane access offers new opportunities to riders, it also means there are new dangers to think about, and some new wrinkles on hazards we should already all be aware of.

The first thing to remember is that we do not have exclusive access to bus lanes - we’ll be sharing them with other road users including pedestrians crossing the road, buses (obviously), taxis, bicycles, car and van drivers using the lane illegally and last but not least other bikers on a variety of machines from 50cc scooters to sports bikes.

The second important point is not to forget that other road users will not be used to bikes in them yet, so extra attention is needed whilst everyone gets used to the new system. Even bus drivers will have to get used to the speed that bikes appear compared with the average cyclist.

The third point is that most of the hazards that might catch us out are common to any multilane road, but there is one important difference - the traffic on the bus lane is more than likely to be moving relatively freely whilst the lane on our right is often slow moving or stationary. This difference in speed is known as lane shear and leads to most accidents in queuing traffic. The greatest danger is when the lane alongside us is stopped.

So what problems can we expect? I can foresee several areas:

vehicles stopping ahead of us
vehicles emerging from the left
vehicles encroaching on or entering the bus lane
vehicles, cycles or pedestrians crossing our path
problems when we try to leave the bus lane ourselves

Vehicles that will stop in the bus lane
We need to remember that the buses and taxis use bus lanes. They stop; regularly! Buses stop at bus stops, but taxis can and do stop anywhere, and rather suddenly at that! And we will also encounter other vehicles that are parked or unloading, perhaps legally in a bay or illegally outside the paper shop or at the cash point machine! If they stop just ahead of us or the bus we're following, they can bring the lane to a halt unexpectedly. Keep a good following distance - too close and we not only lose our own chance of seeing ahead, but no one can see us either.

Vehicles emerging from our left
One worry I have is that drivers emerging from our left will tend to glance down the bus lane and if they don't see a bus, will then focus on the main flow of traffic to look for a gap and pull out without a further check. Meanwhile the approaching biker thinks "they must have seen me" and carries on without any precautions.

Drivers see what they expect to see - and they are looking for a bus in a bus lane, and to a much lesser extent, a cycle. It'll take a while for drivers to get used to seeing bikes in the bus lane. So we need to react accordingly by slowing and covering the horn and brakes.

Also we need to beware of the driver who will just pull out anyway in the full knowledge we are there and will have to stop. Again, the greatest danger is when the lane beside us is stopped.

Vehicles that will encroach on or enter the bus lane from our right
Other hazards to watch out for are things that might make a vehicle encroach on or enter the bus lane temporarily:

Junctions on the RIGHT; if a car ahead stops to turn right, expect the car beside you to swing left into the bus lane to pass it; if an articulated lorry needs to turn right into a narrow road, it may swing left first into the bus lane to make the turn.
Traffic islands in the centre of the road, for example at traffic lights or on pedestrian crossings; trucks may need to move left to pass to pass them safely and encroach on the bus lane.
Roadworks or vehicles parked awkwardly in the other lane; drivers might enter the bus lane to make space for oncoming vehicles.
Left Hand Bends; if the road is narrow, expect the trailer of an articulated lorry to encroach on the bus lane.
We'll encounter a similar problem at the end of the bus lane, perhaps at a junction where traffic moves left legally before turning left. It'll be tempting to try to get past as many cars as possible, but far safer to slow down and let vehicles merge. Watch out for the driver who dives in before the bus lane actually ends too!

Vehicles turning left across our path
When we are passing to the left of a stationary or slow moving queue, it's up to us to remember drivers are not likely to be aware we are coming up on the inside. According to a bus driving friend, drivers don't spot approaching double deckers before they turn left across the bus lane, so there's no reason to expect they'll spot us on two wheels. It's not always simple carelessness, the view out of most nearside door mirrors on cars is frequently poor.

So we'll need to apply top observation skills to spotting places where drivers can and will turn to the left and moderate our speed accordingly.

That’s not just junctions, but anywhere on the left where they can turn; petrol stations, carparks, driveways, delivery accesses. Anywhere there is a dropped kerb is where someone can turn!

Vehicles turning right across our path or crossing
The biggest danger is probably where vehicles can cross our path from the opposite direction. The result is a near head-on collision and the results are often serious for the rider of the bike. This kind of accident contributes significantly to PTW fatal accidents in London.

Where traffic is heavy but slow moving, vehicles turning across our path into side turnings from the opposite direction or from the opposite side of a cross roads won’t see us either even though they’re facing us - we are hidden by the traffic queue in the road to our right. Once again, the faster we ride, the less chance we have of reacting to such hazards.

In particular take care if traffic in the lane alongside comes to a halt - the chances of someone flashing a turning car through a gap and into your path is extremely high.

Cyclists turning right from our left
In particular be considerate of cyclists, don't blitz them, remember they'll be turning right themselves so pass carefully and give them plenty of room whilst passing..

Pedestrians crossing the road
Pedestrians can cross just about anywhere, and so to a lesser extent can cyclists, though any junction is a likely spot. Of course, watch out for pedestrian crossings - they will walk through stationary traffic straight out in front of you.

Other Tips
When the traffic is flowing, try not to sit alongside lorries, coaches or vans, all have restricted views from the driver’s seat, and even if the driver looks, he may well not be able to see you down in the blind spot on the left. The best option is to stagger adjacent to the gap in the other lane.

Watch out for foreign plated vehicles. Drivers from abroad won't be used to the system in the UK anyway, and will probably not be aware of motorcycles in bus lanes.

Know the route; read the signs, know the layout of the junction and where vehicles move.

Watch the road surface. Road works are likely to have left poorly filled trenches, manhole covers are often found right in the middle of the lane as is loose gravel, and of course, buses spill diesel and drip oil right down the middle of the lane. The wide white lane marking extremely slippery too.

Try to avoid swapping between the normal carriageway and the bus lane.
If we move into the main flow of traffic to pass a stationary bus, we need to watch out for the pedestrian who’s just got off.

Final Thoughts

Most importantly if someone does something silly and we can’t swerve or stop, we are going too fast! Don’t forget the bike's fitted with a horn, either - don’t be afraid to use it.

Finally, there are what one person described as the “more touchy feely considerations”. Most of what we do on a bike looks dangerous and aggressive, and initially at least, it's likely that quite a few drivers, pedestrians and cyclists won't realise we are actually not breaking the law, but using bus lanes perfectly legally. It is going to annoy car drivers even more than usual to see bikes swarming past whilst they are stuck listening to the traffic report on the radio, so try to pass considerately.

All this sounds horribly dangerous, but there are some simple rules for staying out of trouble. As someone else said to me when I was discussing the issues of riding in bus lanes, “think of it as filtering, rather than as a licence to blast along an empty road, and you should be OK”.

Good advice in my opinion.



Kevin Williams said...

What's that on the side of the bus?? Weavaway?? This way or that way?

It's not often you see a bus parking on the pavement!!

Ian said...

Perhaps useful comments for the retarded who, if they actually need to read that sort of advice, should really not be on a bike in the first place, should they?

Bikes have been running down in bus lanes in Bristol legally for well over a decade with no particular problems reported.

What riders really need to understand is that they are not required to use bus lanes just because they can.