Buses & Bikes – Rivals or Colleagues?

The biggest influence on public transport use is car ownership. If people own a car they tend to use it. So to a significant extent, buses compete with cycling for the non-car short-distance market. On the streets, that sometimes gets expressed as mutual antagonism between bus drivers and cyclists. Bus drivers complain that cyclists get in their way, and cyclists complain that buses drive too close. Buses and bikes often end up repeatedly overtaking one another, to their mutual annoyance.

But as cities try to reduce the amount of traffic, and become more liveable, we need the alternatives to the car to be working together. We need to focus on the different strengths of the two modes, and encourage synergies between them, to maximise their joint effectiveness.

At the highest level this is about modernising the image, both of the bicycle and of the bus. Modern technology can facilitate the flexible delivery of a variety of transport options. The target audience is seen as the young urbanite picking up their smartphone and choosing between a city bike, or the bus, or hiring a car, depending on their immediate needs. But at the operations level, we also need to be identifying and communicating the fundamental synergies, so the different modes start working together as colleagues.

So why should the bus industry support cycling? The main reason is that cycling is better at handling peak loads. Cycling is particularly competitive at peak periods when the roads get congested; it’s often much the fastest way to get to work or school. And this is the time when buses are often overcrowded. It actually helps bus operations if their peak demand transfers to bikes. The second reason to support cycling is that it works best for short trips, leaving the longer trips on buses. This reduces the extent to which buses have to stop and start in the inner suburbs, speeding up journey times. The benefits to the operator depend partly on the fare structure, but even with flat fares it means the longer trips get a better service. Also more generally, these short bicycle trips, particularly in the inner suburbs, help reduce congestion, and make it easier to provide bus priority.

And why should cyclists support the bus industry? Cyclists can often be a little too enthusiastic about their own mode of transport. But even so, most can appreciate that cycling doesn’t work well for everyone. Particularly for longer journeys (more than 3km), public transport becomes more attractive. So buses are critical to provide an alternative to the car for medium distances. By providing a range of alternatives to the car, it becomes feasible to reduce traffic, and improve conditions for cycling. Public transport is also useful for those times when cycling isn’t so appealing – for instance when it rains, for longer trips, or when you have children in tow.

For pedestrians in the city centre, there are further reasons to get a good balance between cycling and buses. If bikes cater for peak trips to work and school, bike parking can be reasonably spread out. But if cycling dominates for shopping trips as well, the city centre rapidly gets over-run with cycle parking. So it helps to have a good bus service, allowing journeys to key destinations to be handled more efficiently. But it makes sense to have a balance, because space for bike parking can be found in a variety of unused corners. Whereas the space for bus stops has to be concentrated on a few main streets. It can be tricky to find enough space for bus stops – and even harder to make attractive.

For cities trying to move away from being dominated by the car, there are important advantages to promoting buses and bikes in combination. Neither mode is perfect, and a good mixture avoids the problems of having too much of either. But beyond the benefits to the city as a whole, the synergies between bikes and buses mean that it is definitely in the interests of cyclists to promote the bus industry – to help reduce traffic, and in the interests of the bus industry to promote cycling – to help spread the peak, reduce costs and improve revenue. Bikes and buses should be colleagues, not rivals.