The government want to increase the currently dismal uptake of electric vehicles, increasing the numbers on our roads from about 1,200 to 64,000 in just 5 years. To do that yesterday they announced a package to encourage more people to buy an electric car. Most of the initiatives, such as extending the Road User Charges exemption on light vehicles and introducing an exception for heavy vehicles, are probably fine but one of the initiatives is completely nuts – letting electric vehicles us bus lanes and busways.
Enabling electric vehicles to access bus and high occupancy vehicle lanes
Access by electric vehicles to bus and high occupancy vehicle lanes (lanes where a vehicle must have more than a certain number of occupants) will be of value to households and businesses. Access to such lanes will mean electric vehicles will be able to travel more quickly than vehicles otherwise held up in traffic.
At the same time, the changes will also empower road controlling authorities to allow electric vehicles into special vehicle lanes (such as bus lanes) on their local roading networks.
The Government will make changes to the Land Transport Act and Rules to allow electric vehicles to drive in bus and high occupancy vehicle lanes on the State Highway network, which it controls. One example is the Northern Busway in Auckland.
This is madness. The whole point of busways, bus lanes and to a lesser extend transit lanes is to make buses, which are much more spatially efficient, more viable and work better. They can make buses:
- faster, making them more attractive to use and can also make them time competitive with driving.
- more efficient, because buses are faster they can run more services can be run for the same cost or alternatively fewer vehicles and drivers may be needed
- more convenient as if they allow more services to be run it means higher frequencies so less time waiting at bus stops.
- more reliable as they’re more likely to arrive at stops and the final destination on time.
The introduction of bus lanes meant that far more people have been able to be moved along many key corridors than they would have otherwise. For example, the Northern Busway carries about 40% of all traffic crossing the Harbour Bridge during the morning peak – five lanes of traffic and 40% of the people are in fewer than 200 vehicles. On other corridors like Dominion Rd more than 50% of people are on the bus yet in both situations the lanes can look empty. But a bus lane that looks empty normally means it’s actually doing its job and allowing buses to flow, uninterrupted by congestion.
Adding electric vehicles to this, which will mostly be carrying only a single occupant, will undo some of the benefits and make buses less efficient. That’s because there’s a greater chance that buses will be held up or miss lights etc. It means a double decker carrying 100 people have the same level of priority as a single person in an electric car. And this isn’t just theoretical, back in 2010 the old Auckland City Council trialled changing the then Tamaki Dr bus lanes to T2. As the results of that showed, it actually had the effect of slowing other road users, especially the general traffic. One of the reasons for this is the T2/3 drivers would push back in to the general traffic queue to get around buses at bus stops..
I believe the same situation would apply to electric vehicles allowed in bus lanes.
At this point its worth noting that when the Northern Busway was first designed and approved it was it was done so with the idea that high occupancy vehicles (HOV) could potentially also be allowed to use it. This was because at the time they were worried not enough people would catch a bus and is why for example that there’s a blocked off access at the Constellation Station. Of course as we know not a single HOV has used the busway because it’s performed above expectations.
There are other reasons this is a bad idea too. This includes:
- Bus lanes are also often considered cycle lanes too. Allowing electric vehicles into those lanes could increase the risk for people on bikes. We also know from the recent Grafton Bridge trial (that has now ended) that many drivers simply don’t follow the rules. This would be no different with electric cars.
- Getting single occupant vehicles back out of bus lanes in the future will be difficult. It’s also worth noting that other parts of the announcement had sunset clauses on them of either time or a once a percentage vehicles went electric. There was nothing mentioned for access to bus lanes.
- Enforcement will be much harder as it is difficult to tell which vehicles are electric and which ones aren’t. In addition, many drivers seem to exhibit a bit of a herd mentality and if they see a couple of drivers getting an advantage they’ll start to copy. This would exacerbate the issues of cars in bus lanes.
- Currently electric vehicles are more expensive than their fossil fuelled counterparts and the biggest buyers of them seem to businesses for fleet cars. It means the benefit of driving in bus lanes will likely be exclusive to a small(ish) group of early adopters.
Perhaps to help address this issue, Auckland Transport now more than ever need to fast-track the conversion of key bus routes to Light Rail. Perhaps they should also consider building it where they can with a grassed track.
In seriousness, a key reason for looking at light rail on the isthmus is about trying to relieve bus congestion on some corridors. Allowing electric vehicles to this mix will likely only mean Light Rail will have to happen sooner.
Overall this is a terrible idea, unless of course you drive an electric car already or are planning on getting one. The busway is owned by the NZTA but most of the other bus lanes let’s hope that Auckland Transport are able to say no to his idea on local roads at least. If they can’t then the government have managed to neuter bus lanes and possibly set them back years.