Buses, Busways & BRT- are they successful in attracting car drivers and solving congestion?

Above: the Curitaba Busway

and see also https://bathtrams.uk/difficulties-and-problems-encountered-with-bus-rapid-transit-in-the-uk/

For examples of Bus Jams which occur if you try to run a city on buses alone – see here: https://bathtrams.uk/why-you-get-bus-james-if-you-try-to-run-a-large-city-on-buses-alone-not-trams/

 Some factual observations by Prof. Lewis Lesley BSc, AKC, PhD, CEng, MICE, FRSA, FCIT, MTPS

1.0        Background

  • Bus patronage

Today busses carry about 5bn passengers a year or 7% of all trips made in Britain, compared to 1.4bn by rail (1.7%).  When car ownership was much lower, until the 1960’s most people in towns only had the choice of walking, or cycling instead of busses or trams.  Municipal operators saw busses as a low cost replacement for trams wearing out and for which no financial contingency had been made.

Bus use peaked in 1955 at about 15bn trips pa (London had 5bn), although there were still tramways in Aberdeen, Blackpool, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield. By 1963 all except for Blackpool had scrapped trams[2] for bus, which were new, often faster but carried on average a third fewer passengers than the old ‘rattly’ trams.  This however was better than the buses that replaced branch line railways closed after the Beeching Report.  Here only a third of rail passengers transferred to bus services, which rarely lasted a year as people in rural areas got cars.

Bus substitution to save costs is a ‘supply side’ approach and assumes a passive ‘demand’. In fact, passengers do have and can make choices over travel, as London discovered after the 6 week long bus strike in 1958. It took nearly 40 years and a growth of population to regain the pre-strike level of ridership, during which time car ownership, traffic congestion and toxic pollution increased.

During the 1960’s bus patronage nationally continued to decline, as people bought cars, moved house or changed jobs, providing a chance to change travel patterns. In some urban areas bus use declined by more than the average of 1.5%pa. This led the government to pass the Transport Act 1968 to provide support for bus services. Fuel duty was rebated, to put buses on the same basis as duty free fuel used by railways. A 50% grant for new one man operable buses led to a rapid replacement of old buses and disappearance of conductors.

During the 1960’s a second generation of new towns was also promoted. Arthur Ling, the Master Planner for Runcorn New Town decided that bus use decline could be reversed by making buses the first choice mode. He did this by designing a busway network focussed on the town centre (“Shopping City”), and clustering developments around bus stops, eg. Castlefields. The road network was also built so that car trips would be slower than bus. It was confidently predicted that 50% of trips in Runcorn would be by bus. The busway opened in 1970 but designed for conversion to tram when use grew. “A major objective was to obtain a modal split of 50:50 between car and bus for work journeys. This was achieved in 1973 but not because car users were attracted to bus but due to the lack of choice for many people who did not have a car available.”[3]

A further study in 1982 found 15% of Runcorn trips were made by bus, the same as other towns of a similar size without busways, and that most trips were by car. In 2015 ridership was 5%, and parts of the busway were out of use. Runcorn was the first busway in the world and became a model overseas.

Another aspect of the 1968 Act was the nationalisation of private bus companies into the National Bus Company in E & W, and the Scottish Bus Group. These together with Municipal operators meant that buses were run by public bodies. During the period of public ownership, Councils did not support their bus services well. Planning permission was granted for house developments that could not be served economically by buses. Out of town shopping centres appeared designed for car use.

1.2         Bus Lanes etc.

Bus Lanes began to appear piecemeal to try to get buses past traffic congestion. Rarely however were they joined as continuous routes. Bus use continued to decline at about 1.5%pa. as car ownership passed the 25% of households with a car. The Transport & Road Research Laboratory (TRRL) calculated that each first household car reduced bus patronage by 390 trips a year, and ever second car by a further 250.

Today most people have the choice of a car for most of their travel, or taxi, which has reduced in cost in real terms, even before Uber. The largest users of taxis are those in the poorest quartile households who do not have a car. Many US cities only have taxis as public transport !

During the period of public ownership various other methods were tried to halt the decline of bus use. The longest running was the South Yorkshire Low Fare Scheme, which began in 1976 by freezing fares. By 1986 it was anticipated that the cost of collecting fares would exceed the revenue, and that buses would then be ‘free’. The TRRL monitored this ‘experiment’ during which bus use did increase slightly due to  ‘captive’ riders making more trips but no evidence was found of a modal switch from car.

2.0         Busways and priorities.

2.1         Unguided busways

The majority of busways world wide are driver guided, like the first in Runcorn, where buses pass at a closing speed of 80mph on a narrow ‘road’ only 6.7m wide[4]. These are the lowest cost busways to build and operate.

2.1.1     Ottawa

Ottawa has the largest ‘unguided’ busway system in the world. This however is being converted to light rail (tram) because:

  • disappointing modal shift (almost zero) from car to bus
  • central area high levels of pollution.

2.1.2     Houston

This major Texan city spent $100million per year for 10years building busways during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. At the start of this, buses carried 3% of all trips in Metro Houston. After ten years of busway building, the figure was 2.7%. Houston is now building a light rail. Three lines already carry[5] 32% of all public transport, or 0.85%  of all trips in Houston.

2.1.3     Kent (UK)

A Fastrack network of busways is operated by Arriva. In winning the contract Kent County Council forecast 5m pa passengers. In the last 4 years patronage has stalled at 1.2m passenger pa.  and is not financially viable. For this reason the local Director is calling for Fastrack to be converted to trams.

2.1.4     Curitiba

Many have held up the busway in Curitiba (Brazil) as proof that busways are the best way forward. The system is partly segregated in the centre of motorways and partly elevated. Although running on the right side, buses have their doors on the left hand side (like the UK) because island platforms are used throughout.

All buses are long, articulated with diesel engines. Like many South American Cities car ownership is lower than in North America or most of Europe, so many or most of the busway rides are ‘captive’. The first part of the system was opened in 1974.

Curitaba busway


2.2         Guided busways.

There are two main methods of guidance: mechanical and other.

2.2.1     Kerb Guided Busways (KGB)

The first was built in Essen in 1980 to allow trolleybuses to run through narrow tram tunnels under the city centre. Subsequently the trolleybus was converted to tram.

2.2.2     Edinburgh

The KGB system was used for the City of Edinburgh Rapid Transit (CERT) later reduced to the West Edinburgh Bus System (WEBS) at a cost of £27million. This lasted for two years, as buses running on normal roads were faster, despite the contractor rebuilding part of the track. Some of WEBS was later demolished for the tramway.

Edinburgh busway                                                                                                   Edinburgh tram


2.2.3     Adelaide

A long KGB (guided busway) Line was built here as a result of a change of political control from Labour to Liberal (Conservative). One of the claimed advantages of the busway was through buses from suburbs to the city centre. In practice ridership on some branches does not justify through running, and passengers have to interchange at intermediate interchange stops. The busway is not being extended as Bob Chard[6] has recorded because of the high cost of the method of construction, nor will it be converted to tram, because while “the public would like that but the changeover was unaffordable and not value for money”. New tramways are being built because “the well informed public voted 80% to 20% in favour of new tram lines and there is no campaign for new busways”.

2.2.4     Cambridge – St. Ives

This is the longest busway in the world, built after the tracks of the former railways were removed. Originally this was costed at £65m (buses extra). The out turn was £180m, two years late and a legal dispute between contractors and the County Council. Patronage figures remain ‘commercially’ confidential. Unofficially the figures are disappointing, especially as a third of passengers travel for free with pensioners passes. “The local MP has called it a White Elephant” noted Bob Chard[7].

      Cambridge Busway


2.2.5     Caen

This proprietary busway was promoted as a tramway on rubber tyres and has been plagued with problems from the start, including ‘derailments’, spare shortages and costs. The Cean system uses a central slot for guidance and two over head wires for electric power. The City Council recently decided to convert it to a tramway, noting it would have been cheaper in the first instance.

Caen busway, guided by central slot


2.2.6     Leeds

The Scott Hall Road KGB was opened in 1995 to avoid a heavily congested road.  Initially it was claimed that ridership had increased by 50%. Later it was clear that most of this was abstracted from parallel bus routes without a busway. Trips atracted from cars were a statistically insignificant 3%.

2.2.7     Leigh – Manchester

A 4 miles KGB line on a closed railway links Leigh via the East Lancashire Road (A580) to central Manchester.

Leigh – Manchester


2.2.8     Luton – Dunstable

Bob Chard notes that this is not very popular with local residents. Luton Airport has decided on a tramway link from the Parkway Station, rather than the planned busway extension. Passenger numbers on the busway are not impressive compared to new tram lines. There is also a poor accident record with buses crashing into each other and the central barrier. Residents have questioned why trams were not one of the alternatives during public consultations.


Luton – Dunstable busway


2.2.2     Other guidance methods

The other guidance modes are either a buried cable or video following white lines on the roadway. Wire guidance was first demonstrated in Newcastle where it showed ‘derailment’ occurred when entering curves too fast. Nevertheless the technology was then proposed for a Liverpool-Prescott where crash barriers on curves would have made the cost approach a conventional tramway, and the Government withdraw the offered grant.

Millennium Transit

A transit link between Charlton Station and the Millennium Dome was proposed to open for 2000.  The estimated cost was £5m (buses extra). There were practical implementation problems and out turn cost was reported as £25m (buses extra). As Bob Chard has reported the technology would not work reliably and buses are driven manually on the busway built. As it is the only way to and from the Jubilee Line North Greenwich Station it runs at capacity but cannot be economically expanded. On top of this the track is failing “after only 15years and it is in urgent need of major repairs… there is no surplus revenue from the Millennium Transit fares to pay for them .” Ironically a tramway (including trams) was offered at £10m.

3.0         Conclusion

Bus use has declined nearly continuously since 1955 and is now less than a third of the peak, despite the population increasing from 51m to 66m, and increasing urbanisation.  Much of the decline in bus use is related directly to the increase in car ownership. In 1955 London had a third of UK bus usage. Today it is half.  Car ownership was also boosted by the conversion of trams to buses, to ‘save costs’. Each conversion reduced public transport use along the route by about 30%.

None of the busways, that claimed to have lower cost that trams, have resulted in any significant attraction of trips from cars (back) to public transport. As Bob Chard observes “relatively few busways are being built and Britain is possibly the only country in the developed world that still believes that building new busways is a good idea. “ A few cities ”have both busways and tramways. The public know what they want based on actual experience of use. Adelaide is possibly the best case study, where the popular vote of 80% for trams has led to new tramways being built.

There will remain many places where trams are uneconomic and lower cost bus services will provide a public transport service. These however will attract few car trips and cater for ‘captive’ riders.  If car ownership continues to grow fewer bus services will remain financially viable. That is not to ignore the environmental problems of diesel engines and the ‘Oslo’ effect of rubber tyre, tarmac and brake dust carcinogenic particles.  In many places for some people a lift with a friend or family will be the only travel option other than taxis.


LL 14 Dec. 2018


4.0        Some additional comments on the above by another expert on transport, David Walmsley

Professor Lewis Lesley gives a useful review of the state of busways around the world, and I agree with his conclusions.

Rather than refer to “busways” – a type of infrastructure – I would prefer to use “Bus Rapid Transit” or BRT. BRT means a type of transport system which uses buses as vehicles but has a number of features which identify it as a separate brand, in the same way as Heathrow Express is used to identify a particular brand of train service. The features of a BRT brand are:

– segregation (for all or part of the route),

– flexibility (the ability to operate on roads as an ordinary bus),

– priority at intersections,

– high quality infrastructure (stops with shelters, passenger information, CCTV, lighting, ticket machines, help points etc),

– integration with other forms of transport, – distinct branding on vehicles, street furniture, literature,

– high quality vehicles,

– smart ticketing.

Taken as a package, these features mark the system out as something different from an ordinary bus route. A system does not necessarily have to have all of these features  to be considered as BRT, but it must have a fair number of them, and in particular a substantial proportion of the route must be segregated from traffic.

Tram aficionados will note that most of these features come as part of the package for a tramway. On a bus route, however, the operator must work hard to achieve and retain BRT status, in the face of siren voices saying “Do we really need xxx? wouldn’t it be cheaper not have it?”

The trouble is that whenever a tramway is proposed, there will be those who claim a busway gives 80 per cent of the benefits of a tramway for 20 per cent of the cost. I would say that is not true. A busway might (if you are lucky) give 50 per cent of the benefits for 50 per cent of the cost. In many cases, that might be enough; not all routes have demand high enough to support the 2000 or so passengers per hour you need to make a tramway viable. (If you are unlucky, of course, a busway might give 20 per cent of the benefit for 80 per cent of the cost.)

In brief, I would say that a busway or BRT system is fine if you want an enhanced bus service. But it is not a substitute for a tramway. In fact, I don’t regard trams and buses as competitors at all. They serve different regions of the transport spectrum. Buses are best for lower-demand routes. For higher demands (above about 2000 pphd), you need a tramway.


David Walmsley[8]


5.0 Trams ability to attract car drivers

It is worth pointing out that trams have a powerful ability to attract car users from cars to buses, within cities see https://bathtrams.uk/the-evidence-that-car-drivers-will-switch-to-trams-but-not-buses-1/

There are various reasons for this see  https://bathtrams.uk/temp-why-trams-more-attractive-xxxxxxxxxxxx/

In Croydon for example 25% for tram passengers previously drove a car to work.  As a result traffic congestion and pollution has fallen in Croydon. https://bathtrams.uk/croydon-tram-has-declined-by-1-5-since-the-tram-was-introduced-25-of-passengers-have-switched-from-car-to-tram/


[1] Professor Lewis Lesley – BSc, AKC, PhD, CEng, FRSA, MICE, FCIT, MTPS) ljslesley@aol.com. Professor Lesley spent bulk of his academic career studying how to get people to use buses rather than cars.

[2] History of uk tram removal

[3] https://trl.co.uk/sites/default/files/LR697.pdfRuncorn Busway Study TRRL Report 697 1976

[4] onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/tcrp/tcrp90v1_cs/runcorn.pdf

[5] https://www.ridemetro.org/Pages/RidershipReport-102018.aspx

[6]  Bob Chard. M.Phil. (architecture) B.A. (technology) Dip.TP. Expert in consents and approvals procedures for major transport infrastructure projects; urban transit systems. . Formerly MRTPI (Royal Town Planning Institute).

[7] Email 10th Dec. 2018. Also  https://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/cambridge-news/cambridge-guided-busway-13387477

[8] David Walmsley BSc, PhD, CMILT, MCIHT;walmsleydtransport@gmail.com. European Urban Tram Forum, formerly Fixed Track Executive at Confederation of Passenger Transport. Tram technical lead.


See Also:  https://bathtrams.uk/evidence-that-car-drivers-will-switch-to-trams-but-not-buses-1/

Evidence that car drivers will switch to trams but not buses – 2

Evidence that car drivers will switch to trams but not buses – 3



See also evidence that car drivers hate buses


( for a positive view on the the Runcorn Busway see: https://bathtrams.uk/others-think-runcorn-busway-is-a-success/