London buses: What is a busway and why doesn’t London have any

If you head down to a rather inconspicuous road just behind North Greenwich station, you’ll find one solitary old road sign which indicates its former life as the ‘pilot busway’. Between 1999 and 2019, West Parkside as it’s now known, had a bus-only carriageway which was designed to enable buses to run quickly and frequently along the Greenwich Peninsula with minimal conflict with other road traffic.

Busways are dedicated fast roads or tracks which allow buses to run on their own, without having to share space with other motor vehicles. There are generally three types – guided busways (where buses run on concrete tracks ‘guided’ by extra sets of wheels or magnets which push the bus along the tracks like trams on wheels), segregated busways (often part of ‘bus rapid transit systems’, these are bus-only roads) and simple bus lanes which are labelled as busways.

In theory, they are an effective method in speeding up buses and making them more attractive, and have been widely adopted in Paris, where there are four and more under construction. Luton, just 29 miles from London, now has the second longest guided busway in the world.

READ MORE: London buses: Last remaining former bendybuses set to disappear but could make a comeback according to TfL boss

The Luton busway is a ‘guided busway’; buses have special ‘guide wheels’ which push them along these tracks meaning they can travel at 50mph. The current average bus speed in London is 9.5mph, according to TfL data

For the past three years London has been without a busway. West Parkside is now a standard dual carriageway road with two bus lanes, although there is still an adjoining bus-only road. Transport for London (TfL) said the busway layout was confusing motorists leading to a higher than average number of collisions which led to its removal. Now with London desperate to speed up its buses in a bid to boost bus usage, the ‘busway’ idea makes a subtle appearance in TfL’s bus action plan.

Tucked away on page 68 of the 94 page document, TfL has noted that it is considering a bus transit scheme in Thamesmead and Abbey Wood, where car ownership is low and most residents do not live within a short walk of a railway station. It outlines three possible scenarios for the scheme, one of which is a busway. Ironically, many of the buses in that area (notably trunk route 472 between North Greenwich and Thamesmead ) run over the site of the former busway in North Greenwich.

Busways in the UK have tended to be controversial and have led to mixed results. They are quicker and cheaper to construct and operate than rail or tram solutions by far – the Luton busway is three times longer than the Barking Riverside Overground extension and cost less than a third of the price (£91million v £327milion). Yet, as most of them have been constructed on disused railway lines, they have faced criticism for not providing as an attractive or fast service as a re-instated train service would be. In London, there are few disused railway lines which haven’t been built over so any future busway would likely require the removal of cars from existing roads or linking up the rare stretches of bus-only roads in the capital.

Abroad, generally in less dense locations where there is space and political will to build new busways, they have been very successful. In Paris, two bus routes which run east-west across the Southern suburbs where orbital connections were originally poor – 393 and Tvm – now run 90 per cent of their routes on either dedicated bus lanes or busways. Ridership on route Tvm jumped to 23 million passengers per year in 2019, making it Europe’s busiest bus route, with six million more passengers than London’s busiest in the same year. As a result, Paris is building more busways in a bid to develop the success, with all routes serving the busway now using electric or low-emission bendybuses.

1 Tvm bus

The Trans Val-de-Marne (Tvm) bus route in Paris alone transports roughly the same number of people than our entire Croydon tram network

The closest thing London now has to a busway is the East London Transit series of bus routes which have small sections of bus-only roads and a frequent, co-ordinated bus service. Ken Livingstone had envisaged linking the East London Transit bus routes with a busway along the Greenwich Waterfront, stretching to Thamesmead, similar to the are now being reviewed by TfL.

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What do you think would be the best way to improve London’s bus network? Do you think there are any locations in London which could benefit from a busway? Tell us in the comments below!

3 centralline

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