Floating bus stops should be here to stay

This article was published in 2016, in Newsletter 125.

Illustration: Cambridge County Council.
Image as described adjacent

I have read and heard some confusion at public hearings about the meaning and purpose of ‘floating bus stops’. The Campaign has long considered these to be beneficial not only to cyclists but also to people walking on pavements, passengers on buses, and drivers of buses: see Jim Chisholm’s article. I have recently found myself defending this piece of street design to various people, and I thought that I’d share my reasoning with a wider audience.

First, I will explain the problem: buses and bicycles tend to travel at about the same average speed, but they achieve this in different ways. Buses move quickly when in motion but lose time at stops, while bicycle riders try to maintain motion continuously as far as possible. The variation between the two modes inevitably produces conflict. As any bicycle rider who has shared a lane with a bus knows, it is like a game of leapfrog, but against a much bigger, heavier, diesel-powered player.

Although leapfrog may be a fun game for children to play among themselves, it is not a suitable game for children to be playing against buses. That is why the world’s safest, most family-friendly designs for bicycle lanes are completely separated from bus traffic. The ‘floating bus stop’ is one way of achieving this separation, and it can be retrofitted readily onto existing UK streets. The reason for the name ‘floating bus stop’ is that the entire bus stop ‘floats’ inwards, so that the bus stop kerb is built closer to the vehicle lane where buses are travelling. Then, separation of the cycle lane is maintained from both motor traffic on the tarmac and from people walking on the pavement. The ‘floating bus stop’ is a better design than bus stops that require the bus to pull out of traffic, cross the cycle lane, and then later merge back into traffic, across the cycle lane again.

New floating bus stop on Huntingdon Road.
Image as described adjacent

Of course, families with children aren’t the only people concerned about tangling with heavy buses: many bicycle riders of all ages are not interested in putting themselves in the path of heavy vehicles, or in danger of being clipped during a passing manoeuvre. Some people like to take it slow and easy, and don’t want to hold up the buses. After all, buses are a very important part of our transport ecosystem, and need to be able to make timely stops and then accelerate back to cruising speed to function efficiently.

That leads us to the second reason why ‘floating bus stops’ are important: with the kerb of such stops being closer to the vehicle lane, it helps bus drivers navigate their bus to the stop, and then easily re-enter the stream of traffic when ready. Furthermore, these kerbs can be built up to the right height for step-free level-boarding of the bus, a very important feature for helping every person of any ability to be able to ride buses with ease. To see why this is, imagine yourself in the bus driver’s seat: steering the heavy vehicle, so that it is flush with the raised kerb, is much easier when the needed turning manoeuvres are less extreme. Re-entering the stream of traffic is much quicker and easier when there is a clear path ahead of you, with little danger of a collision in your blind spot, and when you do not have to wait for drivers of private vehicles to yield to you. By contrast, at a ‘non-floating’ bus stop, it is common for buses to be delayed because motor traffic refuses to give way when the bus is ready to move.

For a single bus stop, these gains might seem small. But added up over the course of an entire bus route, and an entire day, they make a big difference in speed and reliability of bus travel. A transport system that prioritises buses will make extensive use of ‘floating bus stops’ for just these reasons.

Although we do not have trams in Cambridge nowadays, anyone familiar with trams will recognise that the standard centre-running design for tram tracks implies that all modern tram stops with raised platforms are also ‘floating tram stops.’The only difference is in what they ‘float’ over: most tram platforms also allow motor vehicles to pass behind them, not just bicycles. Such centre-running can be used for buses as well, but it is not always feasible, and it would be much more costly to implement even it were. Within a smaller budget, if we are to have a bus system with near-tram-like efficiency in Cambridge, then retrofitting ‘floating bus stops’ onto as many streets as possible is a big win-win for both safety of bicycle riders and for a better bus system.

Matthew Danish