‘Isolated incidents’? – cyclists and buses

This article was published in 1998, in Newsletter 21.

We’ve been getting increasingly worried by reports of incidents between buses and cyclists which we have received recently. We asked some of you to tell us if you had had a ‘run in’ with a bus. And I went to Cowley Road to talk to Stagecoach Cambus to get their point of view.

S Longbottom and C Maunder of Newnham College contacted us in September with a copy of a letter recording a frightening incident on Madingley Road with a Park and Ride bus. The driver appears to have objected simply to them cycling in an ordinary way in front of the bus rather than cycling on the pavement. He intimidated them with his vehicle – blowing his horn and driving less than a foot behind them. He then let out what they describe as ‘a stream of vociferous abuse… peppered with expletives.’ Despite being experienced cyclists, they were so upset by the incident that they felt they had to complete their journey on foot.

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Perhaps it was the same driver in another incident we were told about where ‘just past the entrance to the Cavendish Laboratory, I was hooted from behind by a fast-approaching Park and Ride bus to “get out of the way” – which I did. I was riding along the white line that delimits the hatching.’

Abuse by drivers has also been a common feature: ‘On Jesus Lane… the driver shouted abuse at, and subsequently argued with, a female cyclist who was blocking the way. I couldn’t see why, but it seemed to me that she was waiting to turn.’

Park and Ride buses feature widely in criticisms: ‘On Maid’s Causeway a Park and Ride bus overtook me and then moved over into the left lane, forcing me to brake and move over to the left to avoid being hit.’ And ‘a Park and Ride bus overtook me as I approached the narrowing and then pulled over to the left, forcing me to brake and move over.’

A tight squeeze

Overtaking with minimal room is probably the most common complaint. I suffered from this myself recently. On Gonville Place a double decker driver decided he had to overtake me alongside the central islands where the road narrows considerably. It didn’t gain the driver any time, as I reached Drummer Street in time to get his number.

Clare Ellis reports similar incidents: ‘I complained to Cambus when a Park and Ride bus passed me just after the narrowed Short Street crossing, but because of oncoming traffic, there just was not adequate room. In moving back into the road in front of me, the front of the bus actually overhung the bus stop, leaving me with zero road at very short notice. I braked hard and just managed to stay on, but I felt shaken.’

She continued: ‘It is the speed at which they “whoosh” past, leaving you only inches.’

Sheila Pankhurst had a close call in Regent Street: ‘I had one nasty experience recently… A double decker Stagecoach bus passed me so close and at such speed that I came off my bike – the bus didn’t actually hit me, but the “whoomph” was enough to wobble me off. I was unhurt but upset… I caught up with the driver at the lights and banged on the door, which he opened – he had the grace to look rather sheepish and did apologise, but I hate to think what might have happened if I’d had my child on the bike too.’

Clive Cox continues this theme: ‘I regularly get buses passing me fast and close on Shelford Road. This happened twice today in the rain, once on the bridge, which was especially dangerous as the cycle lane there is narrow, with only dashed lines.’

Debbie Mellor told us: ‘I was cycling along Fen Causeway when the bus caught up with me … I was riding in the kerb between the two yellow lines so I was doing all I could. He had to stay behind me all the way along Lensfield Road… He hooted me as we both turned left into Regent Street. He was obviously pissed off and overtook me dangerously close and had to pull in far too early. He obviously considered it a fairly matched battle between us and thought he’d take me on at speed.’

So is it widespread?

These were responses from asking only the third of Cycling Campaign members who have e-mail. In turn the membership of the Cycling Campaign is only a small proportion of all the cycle journeys in Cambridge. I was surprised to find such a large response and so many recent incidents.

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Philip Eden, Commercial Manager of Stagecoach Cambus

Nevertheless, Philip Eden, Commercial Manager of Stagecoach Cambus says ‘I think you’re talking about isolated incidents, not regular incidents by any stretch of the imagination.’ He says, ‘When there’s a nice wide road, keep to the edge of it please.’ That seems to be one feature of the comments people made – but by doing so it seems that drivers sometimes take advantage of this to go too close. Like Eden, I’d say don’t cycle up the middle of the road, but my advice, where you consider there isn’t room for a bus to overtake, is to cycle well out so as to make that obvious. You need somewhere to be able to go in an emergency. Drains and holes at the road edge can bring you off. It is your safety that is at stake.

Buses and cycles are likely to have to share the same space more and more in years to come. Expansion of Park and Ride and the associated bus priority measures mean that cycle lanes are more likely to become bus and cycle lanes in the future. This has some advantages, since even with a frequent bus service, the volume of traffic in such lanes is low. But it does mean we have to learn to live together with bus drivers.

Eden says his employees ‘are professionals: these guys have got to behave themselves. But we’d ask other people to have regard for the fact that for the sake of a couple of seconds they could end up under the wheels. Cyclists should have regard for what the bus is trying to achieve. Don’t fight with it – which is the message we give to our staff here – don’t fight with other road users, there’s no point.’

I was particularly impressed that Cambus are taking pro-active steps to monitor their drivers, as Eden says below.

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In just 15 minutes in Short Street, there were two incidents that worried me, although no-one was in immediate danger

How do I complain?

Stagecoach Cambus is not the only operator. There are many others but Stagecoach is the dominant company. When it comes to pollution, another widespread concern, Guide Friday seems to attract the most criticism.

Stagecoach buses carry (mostly) the white and orange livery. If you do have an incident with one of their buses, you should write to:

C. Moderate, Operations Manager,
Stagecoach Cambus,
100 Cowley Road,
CB4 4DN.

Eden says that Moderate ‘deals direct with and is responsible for our employees. Whatever course of action is necessary will be taken.’ That usually means interviewing the driver.

I started by asking Philip Eden the question most often raised: does the need to keep to schedules lead to drivers taking risks? One of the most difficult things in a city like Cambridge is that the drivers have schedules to keep to. I don’t think for one minute that they go out of their way specifically to antagonise cyclists, but it is difficult for them.

Do drivers have incentives to keep to schedules? The schedule is designed to meet the average need, not the absolute need and sometimes this can be incredibly different. We don’t encourage our drivers to break any rules or break any laws or anything like that but clearly they are under pressure. Don’t get me wrong, but there are experiences that have reached our attention where cyclists have not exactly helped either, even with the most placid of our staff. It is important that the road space is shared out and treated with respect for all users and that is hopefully what we actively encourage.

Is there any financial incentive? No, not within Cambus.

It needs a certain temperament to be a bus driver, so do you look for this in recruiting? Yes, we are seasoned as far as recruitment is concerned. You can usually spot the ones that aren’t going to make the grade quite quickly. The instructors are very, very skilled at doing that. Clearly we keep an eye on them when they are new, and after they have gone out on their own, to see if there’s any change in the way they behave.

Has the recent shortage of drivers affected standards – are you taking people you wouldn’t otherwise have taken? Clearly we have to take what’s available – but we’d never take people who weren’t suitable for the job.

Does training specifically take cyclists into account? You need to talk to the driving instructors about that. Apart from the isolated incidents such as the ones you mention here, I know they do take it really seriously.

Do drivers in training only go out on buses or on bikes too, to see it from the other side? No – they go out on buses, that’s what we’re training them to do. I expect most of them have been or are cyclists. You have my word that it is taken seriously in training. It’s got to be.

Cyclists get annoyed when a bus overtakes them and then immediately pulls up at a bus stop. Is there anything you can do about that? It’s all about judgement really. So long as it’s safe to do it, that’s the criterion we would use. If it means the cyclist has to pass the bus round the outside, well, that’s going to happen all the time, isn’t it? If it’s safe, do it; if not, don’t.

It seems clear that drivers’ sometimes foul language upsets people more than intimidation. I think you’re talking about isolated incidents. Anything like that is not in our interests and needs to be taken up with the individual. You’ve got to be really angry to do that. But when it does happen, we certainly take it very seriously – it’s our image. [The Madingley Road complaint] is the sort of regrettable and isolated incident that gives the whole situation between buses and cyclists a bad name. These things are going to happen from time to time as they are with any other road user. And it happens the other way as well, where we’re the party that gets the grief. The drivers talk about cyclists all the time, but they are actively encouraged to consider them. They have a right to use the road as much as anyone else.

You told me previously that you monitor your drivers? We pay the Driving Standards Agency, a Government agency, to perform unobserved checks on the standard of ride quality and driving standards generally of all our staff – the whole lot in the Cambus area. The drivers haven’t got a clue when they’re being observed. The observer pays the fare just like a passenger. We’re getting feedback on every single driver from an outside agency looking at it totally objectively in the light of their ability to check people’s driving skills. The results are quite pleasing. The observations are so valuable to us. They would clearly pick up the sort of things you’re saying if they were a regular problem.

Is the monitoring going to be repeated regularly when everyone has been observed, or is it a one-off? When we’ve received all the results for this time round then we’ll make that decision. The information we’re getting is that 90% of our staff are driving well. The results up to now have been positive and worthwhile, and where there are deficiencies we’re addressing them by interviewing the drivers, and if necessary putting them back in the driving school.

There seem to be more problems reported with Park and Ride buses. Is there anything unusual about them? There’s two things. First, they don’t stop so often so they tend to be going at the maximum road speed where conditions allow. Second, they tend to be our new employees. New employees go onto the Park and Ride services because they’re simple and repetitive and it’s good ground to get used to the standards of customer care. The whole scenario for a new employee is much more positive on Park and Ride. But because they’re new employees they probably need the edges knocking off them and we need to take on board any particular comments that may be made by people like yourselves. But they’ve all gone through the driving school, and they’ve got to start somewhere.

With new bus priority measures being implemented, more space is being shared between buses and cyclists. Do you think this works? It’s not too bad. I don’t think all the lanes are the standard minimum width, are they? In most circumstances round here, that’s not helpful, but we’d rather see a bus lane of 2.8 m or 3 m than no bus lane at all. I think that as a company and organisation we can live with the shared use because obviously that’s the way forward, that’s the right way. If the frequency of buses goes up, which is likely, then I’m not sure whether or not something further would need to be done to ensure that there weren’t road safety implications. Certainly the shared use is the right measure because all you guys have to look for is buses… and taxis. I think it is only right to go that way, because it’s encouraging environmental forms of transport, of which the cyclist is an important part.

At bollards and islands such as on Gonville Place and in Bridge Street, cyclists often get pinched by an overtaking bus. Gonville Place is one of the examples I would cite where cyclists try to get down the side. I think again it’s just about using common sense from both parties and if someone is going out of their way to be belligerent about it we would take it up on a formal basis. But it is all about common sense and road safety really.

Do you see cyclists as lost customers? No. The cycling market is actually a target of ours. I don’t think it is that way round at all. As a total package, we need to encourage people who are making the marginally longer journeys by cycle to use us, and together we need to encourage the people who are making extremely short journeys by car to cycle or walk. We gain people particularly in inclement weather who choose to use us rather than cycle. We’d like to see more interchanges where people could park their bikes, lock them up safely, use lockers, whatever, and use the bus. The whole thing is complementary. No, we don’t see them as lost customers.

Buses seem to be a very visible source of pollution. Do you go beyond the minimum standards? Every new bus has got an engine with emission standards that are better than the requirement – Euro 2 or the rest of it – they are better than what is required. Every bus also regularly has smoke checks to make sure that it meets the standards and if it is anywhere close to not meeting them then attention is given. Clearly the older the bus the more emissions you are going to get, but those vehicles would be replaced first and the problem will get less and less.

Are you planning to run more gas buses? No, in short. It would be nice but unfortunately there are problems with those vehicles. We’re watching First Group’s experiments in Southampton, Northampton and Bristol where they’ve got quite large batches of gas buses. But it’s actually more expensive to use gas than diesel. And they are more expensive to buy. The range of them as well is another problem. When the unit cost comes down I think you’re more likely to see it. A lot of it is pump-primed by local authorities. The vehicles we use on the City Centre are a nightmare technologically because they were early in the cycle of gas buses. So perhaps our judgement is slightly coloured.

Article and interview by David Earl