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Getting the best use out of Cambridge's guided busway

Alan Brett, director, highways and transportation, Atkins, and Bob Menzies, head of major infrastructure delivery, Cambridgeshire County Council, examine how well the new busway has delivered against its design objectives

Bob Menzies and Alan Brett
Bob Menzies and Alan Brett


The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway opened on 7 August 2011 with core routes between Huntingdon, St Ives, Cambridge City Centre, Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the Trumpington park-and-ride site. Cambridgeshire County Council and Atkins have jointly funded detailed research examining busway usage intended to find out the extent to which the busway has delivered the objectives established for the scheme.

The primary function of the busway is to support the continued economic growth of the Cambridge sub-region, the fastest growing economic region in the UK. The busway was designed to enable bus services to avoid the congestion on the A14 between Huntingdon and Cambridge and enable fast and reliable services that would encourage use of public transport for access to and from Cambridge, reducing reliance on the car and improving access to work and education.

Yes, but is it working?

The patronage forecasts presented at the busway Public Inquiry were:

  • 1.75 million passengers in year 1;
  • 2.625 million passengers in year 2;
  • 3.5 million passengers in year 3.

Monthly patronage for the system has been monitored by Cambridgeshire, this has shown that:

  • Patronage in the first full month of operation (September 2011) was 209,000 passengers;
  • Patronage in year 1 exceeded 2.5 million passengers;
  • Patronage in the 12 months to end of June 2013 was more than 3 million passengers; and
  • Growth in monthly patronage from June 2012 to June 2013 was 25%.

Thus it is clear that the busway patronage is significantly exceeding the levels that were forecast. Of particular interest is the immediacy of the patronage response upon the busway opening. The ongoing high level (25%) of year-on-year growth should also be noted. These high levels of busway patronage should be viewed against a background of lower overall travel demand and less highway congestion than originally forecast, as a result of the economic climate.

Economic growth, anyone?

The table below shows the proportions of busway users by the journey purposes of commuting, education, shopping and other, together with equivalent figures from the National Travel Survey (for both bus and rail) and for bus use in London. The ‘other’ category of trips includes travel related to employers business, leisure and personal business activity, note that for rail the ‘other’ category is dominated by business related travel.

The proportion of commuting trips is almost double the proportion for bus travel nationally and is similar to the proportion for commuter rail travel. Use of the busway for education trips is relatively high, despite the figures excluding under 16 year-olds who, for legal reasons, were not interviewed. Education trips will be influenced by the concentration of sixth form education within Cambridge and the proximity of the busway to the Regional College.

These figures demonstrate the importance of the busway in economic terms, with 60% of users travelling to work or education, compared with a national figure of less than 40% using the bus for these purposes.

The proportion of busway users of working age (16-64) is 83%, significantly higher than the national figure of 72% for bus users and similar to the figure of 85% for London bus users. Linked to the age profile, 80% of passengers paid a fare to use the busway with only 20% travelling on concessionary passes.

The income profile of busway users also differs markedly from national figures for bus users, with 28% of busway users who provided income data coming from households with a gross annual household income of under £20,000, 51% from households with incomes of £20,000-50,000 and 21% from household incomes over £50,000. In contrast to the National Travel Survey, trip frequency for busway users increases with household income, with the highest frequencies for those users with household income in excess of £40,000. These figures confirm that the busway is proving very attractive to users of working age and to those from the highest income groups.

Do car users like it?

The majority of busway users (62%) were found to have a car available for their journey, with 48% having a car available as a driver and 14% as a passenger. 80% of users were from a household with a car available, compared to 20% for bus users nationally. This demonstrates that the busway is attractive to car users, with the majority of busway users not being captive to the bus and thus having made a positive choice to travel using the busway rather than by car.

For respondents making the same journey both before and after their use of the busway commenced, 24% reported that they had previously driven, with a further 13% reporting that they car shared or were given a lift. It should be noted that multiple responses were permitted as some users make the same journey using alternative modes, however the figures suggest that at least 30% of busway users previously travelled by car. A particularly surprising result of the research was that 74% of those car users who had transferred to the busway services and who had previously parked had free parking available at their destination. This car user segment (i.e. those with free parking) has traditionally been assumed to be highly resistant to changing mode away from the car.

The detailed analysis of the research shows some significant differences between those users accessing the busway services at the halts on the guided busway sections and those at on-street stops. Users of busway stops are characterised by:

  • A greater proportion of users in the higher income groups;
  • A greater proportion of commuters;
  • Longer distances travelled to the stop;
  • Greater use of car to access the busway services; and
  • Higher car availability.

Whilst these differences will partly reflect the more rural nature of the busway halts, they do indicate that the busway is helping to make bus travel more attractive to users in the rural part of the corridor. The characteristics of the users of the busway halts suggest a profile that would be more typical of a rail service than a bus service. 

Do users like it?

The user research suggests positive attitudes to the busway. Respondents were asked to state to whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements, with the following results:

  • 91% agreed the busway service is comfortable;
  • 90% agreed the service frequency suits their travel needs;
  • 85% agreed the experience is pleasant because the bus doesn’t stop very often;
  • 83% agreed the real-time information is useful;
  • 81% agreed the busway halts/stops are pleasant places to wait;
  • 78% agreed that the arrival time at their destination is more reliable than using the car;
  • 74% agreed the busway is quicker than using a car;
  • 64% agreed the ability to drive and park their car at the busway is useful;
  • 63% agreed the ability to cycle/be dropped off at the busway is useful;
  • 60% agreed the availability of free wifi on the bus is useful;
  • 60% agreed appreciated the ability to productively use their time on the bus; and
  • 59% agreed car parking charges encouraged them to use the busway.


It should be noted that very high proportions of users agreed with the positive statements about the comfort and quality attributes of the busway. Not surprisingly, younger respondents particularly appreciated wifi, with 80% of 16-25 year olds appreciating its availability.

In conclusion

The survey of Cambridgeshire Guided Busway users has shown that the busway has been very successful in achieving the objectives that it was designed to deliver, in particular:

  • It is attracting high levels of patronage in excess of those originally forecast, and that patronage is continuing to grow at a high rate;
  • The busway is contributing to economic growth in the area by attracting high proportions of users travelling to work or education;
  • The busway services are proving attractive to users from the higher income groups, in contrast to national bus usage;
  • The busway is attractive to car users, with the majority of users having a car available for their journey, again in contrast to national bus usage;
  • The busway has resulted in significant mode transfer from car to bus, with the majority of those users transferring from car having free parking at their destination;
  • The busway halts are proving particularly attractive to the non-traditional bus market and show a user profile more akin to a rail service; and
  • The great majority of users appreciate the comfort and quality attributes of the system in addition to the travel time and reliability benefits.


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