Bus Lanes – What are They Good for?

This is an unashamed bus lane appreciation post. It’s a little longer than usual, so make yourself comfortable.

A new bus lane has recently opened up on Lincoln Road in Christchurch and I think it’s great. Here’s why.

Research on public transport consistently shows that the biggest turn-offs for people are when it is slow and unreliable.

I know that’s true for myself personally.

Bus lanes can make a huge difference with both of these. Let’s look closer at the Lincoln Road bus lanes.

This project cost $8 million, although a big chunk of that was upgrading the watermain. (https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/local-government/128427958/work-to-start-on-christchurchs-multimilliondollar-lincoln-rd-bus-lane-project). For context Council spend about $150 million per year on transport infrastructure. So this project is something like 5% of the total budget. It was relatively quick to build, taking about 6 months. Notably they rebuilt built an entire intersection in one weekend:

Initially people continued to park cars in the bus lane making it unusable, but after 6 months courtesy notices, then later tickets and tow trucks, people mostly seem to have got the message. Here’s what it’s like catching the bus now.

That morning we passed 20 cars, chopping probably 5 minutes off our commute. It makes the bus a much more attractive proposition for people weighing up whether they drive or catch the bus in today. And people seem to be noticing. Here’s what the inside of the bus looks like on my typical commute.

This is exactly what theory predicts will happen. I’ve taken the liberty of making a couple of little animations to illustrate why bus lanes are so great.

The graph below shows indicative travel times by car and by bus on a road with no bus lanes. When there is hardly anyone travelling, then both car and bus will be fast, but car will be slightly faster. As the city grows and more people choose to travel, one thing they’ll take into account is how fast each travel mode is. If it’s faster to drive than bus, most people will choose to drive. As this happens, congestion worsens, and travel times for driving get longer. however travel times for buses also get longer because the buses are sharing the same lane as the cars. No matter how slow driving gets, buses will always be slower. As a result very few people will choose to use them.

Contrast this with what happens on a road with bus lanes. Initially it starts off the same, with driving being faster than bussing. As the number of people travelling increases, congestion worsens and driving gets slower, but this time bussing stays the same because the bus had its own dedicated bus lane. There comes a point where congestion is bad enough that bussing is faster than driving, and as soon as this happens we start seeing more and more people choosing to bus. Each time someone chooses to bus it means one car that’s not added to the road, so travel times stop getting worse even for motorists.

Note that the road with bus lanes doesn’t just end up faster for bus passengers, it’s also much faster for motorists.

Putting in bus lanes benefits everyone.

However not everyone understands this. One challenge with bus lanes is getting local businesses on board. Here are some submissions from businesses along the Lincoln Road route:

We have the Dairy at 35 Lincoln Road and the proposed changes to Lincoln Road will be detrimental to our business as it will remove all passing trade in the hours the bus lane operates. No provision has been made to allow customers and suppliers to stop at our shop

As the proprietor of Bill’s Bar & Bistro, 1 Halswell Road Hillmorton for nearly 20 years, I would like to strongly object to the current plan that prevents a right hand turn into our complex of various shops and businesses.

But is not a universal feeling. Other business along the road wrote submissions in support:

I like the look of the design, and can appreciate the motives behind the changes. As a business owner on Halswell Road (Hillmorton Pharmacy)

I don’t have a problem with the bus lanes, but during construction please manage traffic so visitos to business can turn from left and right lanes of the road for access to all the affected businesses

City Laundromat director

I don’t think there’s any official data on the impact on businesses of the bus lane. Just from personal observation, I haven’t noticed any businesses along here close since the bus lane went in 6 months ago. My hunch is that it would have had minimal impact given it’s only operational for 2 hours each weekday, and is still available as car-parking outside those times (so it is car-parking 94% of the time). In the longer term it unlocks a whole lot of growth in this part of the city, meaning significantly larger volumes of people moving living, working and moving through this area. Taking a longer-term view, I can’t see how it could be anything but great for business. At worst, it may result in some shuffling around, with some types of businesses relocating into the corridor and others relocating out of it.

Another common rebuttal to bus lanes is that since covid, there’s no point investing in any sort of public transport improvements. Covid has undoubtedly had a big impact on public transport use over the last 4 years. But that’s basically finished now. Bus patronage in March 2023 was the highest it’s been in 4 years, and is now sitting about 95% of pre-covid levels. If it wasn’t for the driver shortages we’d be back to regular use.

In Christchurch we have a plan (PT Futures) that was endorsed in 2020. This included a whole heap of improvements to the bus network in Christchurch, with bus lanes being a core component of it. As soon as it was endorsed it immediately stalled due to covid, but a recent cash injection of $78m from central government has got it back on track to be fully implemented over the next 6 years. $78m might sound like a lot, but for context it’s about a third of a percent of the total amount of money we’ll be spending on transport across New Zealand in the next 6 years. It’s a tiny tiny fraction of the cost of some of the mega-projects being talked about (e.g. Auckland Light Rail $15-29 billion, Waitemata tunnel $15-25 billion).

The patronage modelling that was done as part of this business case suggested that, after increased peak period frequencies, peak period bus priority was the single biggest thing the city could do to increase public transport patronage.

The plan that was endorsed includes bus lanes in these locations: (i.e. quite a lot!)

So bus lanes – what are they good for? Well, we know:

  • Bus lanes make riding the bus significantly faster, more reliable, and less painful
  • This attracts more people to leave their car at home and catch the bus instead, with all the associated benefits that entails in terms of emissions reduction, and saving everyone money and time.
  • They take load off the roads so motorists can also get around quicker
  • They are inexpensive (relative to other transport infrastructure)
  • They are fast and easy to build (relative to other transport infrastructure)

The only downside I can see is the claim they might have a negative impact on some businesses. This is not a univeral view and I’ve not seen any actual evidence of this happening. Certainly in the long-term it would be good for business, but possibly they may result in short-term pain for some.

Let’s hope the others being rolled out in coming years go as well as the Lincoln Road ones have!

6 thoughts on “Bus Lanes – What are They Good for?

  1. 1) Having worked on the first bus lanes in Chch (& bus lane studies overseas) I can say I’m impressed with how well they work. Can’t wait to see more rolled out.

    2) The map above is definitely missing Carlton Mill / Rossall. The car queues are long and the buses get stuck in the queues.


    1. They do take a bit to get working well – continuous designs, decent hours of operation, parking enforcement, bus driver training… Council don’t always get these right, but when they do it’s amazing.
      That map focussed almost solely on the core routes, hence no Carlton Mill Rd which only carries one secondary route. But given there’s a clearway lane there already it would be dead easy to change it to a bus lane for virtually zero cost. Maybe should be considered…


      1. The queues are mainly northbound in the pm peak from the Rossall / Strowan / Glandovey / Heaton junction so any bus lane would need to extend northbound to there.

        I see no justification for differentiating bus lanes for core or secondary routes, except for roll out priority and ability to fund. If there are are major delays on a bus route it affects reliability and the ability to interchange. Not everyone is close to a core route.


      2. Ah ok. The differentiation is really about the number of buses. It’s hard to make the business case stack up for bus lanes if there are fewer buses using it. Unless the bus lane costs nothing to do, then it might still stack up.


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