Addison Lee minicab drivers have been encouraged by their boss to drive in bus lanes. This is part of a long-running campaign to change the law to allow private hire vehicles access to bus lanes, which have been hitherto restricted to scheduled buses, and bikes. Oh, and black cabs. And motorcycles of course. Why not minicabs as well? And it's been suggested to allow electric and low-emission vehicles in as well. And what about commercial vehicles? Why hold up people who are trying to deliver goods, to keep the capital's economy going? Hey, the more the merrier! Why not get rid of bus lanes altogether?
It so happens that the Tories don't like bus lanes. They smack too much of Government interference in the rights of individuals. But the more sensible Conservatives realise that you cannot run a big city solely on libertarian ideology. The reason bus lanes exist is to speed up bus journeys, on the basis that a vehicle carrying 90-odd passengers should have priority over a vehicle carrying one passenger. Contrary to what some people think, bus lanes don't slow other traffic down significantly. Junctions are the bottlenecks on the road system, and having more general traffic lanes leading up to a junction doesn't increase its capacity. So if you get rid of bus lanes, bus passengers end up with longer journeys, but everyone else's journey stays pretty much the same. Except it doesn't, because if you make the bus service slower, more people will drive instead, so you end up with more congestion and slower journeys for everyone, and consequent costs for the economy. So everyone loses.
Unlike the Tories, TfL do like bus lanes. Leon Daniels was pretty quick out of the traps to condemn Addison Lee and threaten them with all sorts of unpleasantness if they dared cross into the sacred spaces. Compare and contrast with TfL's asleep-on-the-job performance on cycle safety.
Now minicab drivers do have a case. Why should black cabs have privileges that minicabs do not? It could be argued that black cabbies have to pass the Knowledge, are subject to more rules, and their vehicles have to pass more exacting inspections. But is the Knowledge really relevant in the age of satellite navigation? Why can't the same standards of driving and vehicle inspection be extended to the minicab trade?
I don't know which way the legal challenge will go, but London roads cannot run effectively with a virtual free-for-all in bus lanes. In fact, if you look at the Strand on any weekday, the bus lane is at a standstill, because the majority of traffic in central London is black cabs. There is already a problem with too many vehicles in bus lanes. Perhaps Addison Lee winning their legal challenge would be a good thing, because TfL would finally have to face up to the fact that there is too much low-occupancy traffic (and I include all flavours of cab in that category) on parts of London's roads.
As CITC points out, this is not just about motor traffic, and the mainstream media, with the notable exception of The Times, have ignored this fact. Bus lanes provide a welcome refuge for cyclists. While there are some crap bus and black cab drivers, in general I find them better-than-average in terms of their consideration for cyclists. Sadly, I have to tell you that I've been close-passed by Addison-Lee vehicles on more than one occasion, and I know that I'm not alone. Having more drivers of a worse standard in bus lanes is not good news for cycling.
What could the Mayor do if Addison Lee's challenge succeeds? One possibility is to allow cabs to bid in an auction-style process for access to bus lanes. There would be a limited number of permits, but any qualifying cab driver would be allowed to bid. Qualification for the permit would include passing an advanced driving test, including cycle awareness, and could also include fitting of a telemetric 'black box' to monitor driving standards. Members of the public could be encouraged to report dangerous driving in bus lanes, with permits being withdrawn for offenders.