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Thursday, 18 January, 2001, 15:13 GMT
Does this look like a U-turn?
M4 bus lane
The M4 bus lane - drivers don't see the point
The controversial M4 bus lane has been judged a success and made permanent. So why are there no plans for similar schemes on other motorways?

To Jeremy Clarkson and other motorists who follow the "foot-down and into fifth" credo, it's nothing short of a human rights issue.

But the government-backed M4 bus lane, until now a pilot project, is to stay put.

Jeremy Clarkson
"Well, you just can't get comfortable on a bus"
The move is unlikely to please hardcore motorists, who have opposed the 3.5-mile stretch of red-tarmaced road since it opened in June 1999.

Clarkson, a resolute defender of the drive where you like spirit, has said he would "vote for anyone who promised to tear up that stupid pinko bus lane".

But results show the one-time Top Gear presenter's ire is perhaps misplaced. Studies by the independent Transport Research Laboratory have consistently shown that the lane is good news for everyone who uses the motorway.

Latest results show the lane has shortened rush-hour journey times for buses and cars by 3.5 minutes and one minute respectively. This is despite a cut in the speed limit from 70mph to 50mph.

Bus lane facts
Journey times increased by 1.8%
Noise levels down by one decibel
CO2 emissions cut by 16%
Fuel consumption improved by 16%
Source: TRL
Off-peak journey times for buses and cars have increased by one minute, but the Highways Agency says journey times for all vehicles have become more reliable.

The report even said there was no evidence surrounding roads had become busier due to drivers diverting off the M4 to avoid the lane.

And it makes the point that pollution levels are down and police have seen a drop in accidents.

On the face of it, the M4 bus lane ranks as that most prized of government achievements - a verifiable success story.

Cars queuing
"We're waiting for this newly-built road to be finished"
When plans for the scheme were first announced in 1997, the then transport minister, Glenda Jackson, said she hoped it would be the "first of many schemes to make life easier for travellers, as well as helping to reduce road congestion".

But more than three years later, there are no plans to extend the bus lane idea to other motorways, according to the Highways Agency.

Transport campaigners are disappointed, if not surprised by the news. They say it reflects a wider shift in government transport policy, designed to curry favour with motorists.

Lynn Sloman, of Transport 2000, says "it's a real shame" more motorway bus lanes are not planned.

"This is exactly the sort of thing that the government should be doing. A few years ago, they had committed to making better use of the roads we've got."

Lane change
7% of vehicles use bus lane, carrying 21% of people
Source: TRL
Supporters of Transport Secretary John Prescott argue the M4 is uniquely suited to a bus lane. The stretch of motorway connects London with Heathrow airport, and so carries an unusually high volume of bus and coach traffic, as well as black cabs, which are also allowed in the lane.

The latest report on the bus lane says the benefits arising from it are specific to this site.

Ms Sloman backs a more radical approach, and says bus lanes could be used to carry express busses on sections of the M6, where much of the traffic is relatively local.

New Labour, new roads

But instead of working to improve the current congested road network, she fears the government is about to embark on a new road-building programme.

A series of studies have been commissioned into major roads around England, including two of the busiest motorways - the M6 and M1. Reports on both are expected later this year.

Zebra crossing
Motorway madness, but is a bus lane just as radical?
But new roads are expensive compared to the cost of converting old carriageways. The M4 priority lane came it at a relatively cheap 1.9m.

Part of the problem is that despite the benefits, motorists have not taken the M4 bus lane to their hearts.

The AA remains unconvinced, saying it could only be hailed a success if "significant numbers of drivers switched from their cars to public transport".

Andrew Davis, director of the Environmental Transport Association, says motorists don't see the benefits, but only the fact that a lane they one used has been taken from them.

Sticking a bus lane on a motorway - "the highest form of road" - is a radical move, says Mr Davis.

"It's like putting a zebra crossing on it. It surprised me at the time."

It's a sort of radicalism the stubborn British motorist is not used to, says Mr Davis. And, post fuel protests, one that the government may not be keen to crow about.

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