The most hated stretch of road in the UK?

A lone bus uses the M4 bus lane to the west of London
Image caption As bus lanes go, the one of the M4 is certainly more controversial than most

For many motorists there are few things that get their anger levels revving more than the infamous M4 bus lane.

It may only be witnessed by people driving into London from the west, but thanks to 11 years of endless criticism from Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and other motoring commentators, it is probably the UK's best-known and most controversial bus lane.

Or as Mr Clarkson has described it in the past: "It's idiotic. It's insane." Yes, he really doesn't like it.

But even if your criticisms do not go that far, if you have ever been stuck in stationary traffic on the M4 going into London, then the sight of the often empty bus lane can be enough to test the patience of even the most mild-mannered man or woman behind the wheel.


Cutting the eastbound carriageway of the M4 down from three to two lanes for 3.5 miles on the outskirts of the UK capital, the bus lane has been with us since 1999, when it was introduced by Lord Prescott, then the Labour transport secretary.

It lets buses, coaches, licensed black taxis and motorcycles speed towards London, while the rest of the motorway's vehicles often ended up crawling, especially at peak times.

However, 11 years later it has been revealed that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond will announce on Monday that the bus lane is to be scrapped.

Set to describe the lane as part of the former Labour government's "war on the motorist", he will confirm that it will be suspended from 24 December.

Although it will temporarily be put back in place for the London Olympics in July 2012, Mr Hammond will pledge that following the sporting event, the lane will then be permanently removed.

While Mr Clarkson has been unavailable for comment, motoring groups have welcomed news of the forthcoming announcement.

At the same time, coach companies and environmental groups have expressed their disappointment.

The AA's Andrew Howard says: "We are very pleased to see this development, as we have campaigned against the bus lane from the very beginning.

"It is always aggravating to sit in a traffic jam beside a bus lane that has nothing in it, and that is the situation on the M4."

The RAC Foundation was equally pleased, saying that scrapping the bus lane was a good ideal because it was "so underused".

RAC Foundation director Stephen Glaister adds: "Most drivers on the M4 will wonder why this decision has taken so long.

"While other motorways have been widened to allow for the growth in traffic, on this stretch of the M4 capacity was actually being reduced."

'Deeply worried'

Simon Posner, chief executive of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the industry group that represents bus and coach companies says the government's decision had "come out of the blue".

Image caption Taxi drivers are said to be big fans of the bus lane

"We are deeply worried at any move to close lanes put in place to give priority to bus passengers," he adds.

"At a time when we are looking to ease congestion and reduce our carbon footprint, high occupancy vehicle lanes for buses and coaches can be key tools in persuading people out of their cars and onto public transport.

"It is important to remember that one full coach removes around a mile of motorway traffic."

Meanwhile, Bob Oddy, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, says it is a myth that the M4 bus lane was hardly used.

He adds: "There are about 4,000 cab movements from Heathrow Airport every day, and the vast majority use the M4 bus lane.

"So we are going to be a little bit put out about this, after all the bus lane is helping our passengers save money by not sitting in traffic."

Environmental group Friends of the Earth has also expressed its opposition to the lane's removal, saying the decision would only encourage more cars and lorries to use the M4.

Friends of the Earth's London campaigner Jenny Bates adds: "This will threaten to raise emissions and air pollution when London is not on track to meet its target for tackling climate change nor for bringing air pollution within legal EU limits."

Lord Prescott has been quick to respond to the news that bus lane is to be scrapped.

Shorter journeys

He points to studies by the independent Transport Research Laboratory, which show that the lane has shortened rush-hour journey times on the stretch of motorway by 3.5 minutes for buses, and one minute for cars.

Lord Prescott says: "Nothing is more symbolic of Philip Hammond's approach to transport than the fact he's more prepared to listen to the unsubstantiated rants of Jeremy Clarkson than proven transport experts. It's called chasing headlines.

"This is actually just another smokescreen for the beginning of the deepest and most savage public sector cuts Britain has ever seen."

Despite the political row, the AA's Andrew Howard admits that the removal of the bus lane may not ultimately change much.

He explains: "When the bus lane ends, the M4 then reduces to two lanes for an elevated section.

"So you are still going to see big queues going into London - getting rid of the bus lane will simply move them 3.5 miles to the east."

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