Buses moving slow Flickr: clappstar

State Legislators have already approved the use of automated traffic cameras to monitor speeds and discourage drivers from running red lights. Why not also use this technology to ticket cars using transit-only lanes?

The efficiency of transit-only lanes hinges on keeping cars out. All it takes is a one impatient car blocking a bus to delay hundreds of commuters. Today, keeping the city’s transit-only lanes car free is contingent on the communal cooperation of drivers. This doesn’t always work too well, especially during rush hour when any inch gained is a win.

“The only way you get consistent enforcement of either bus-only lanes or block the box is automatic enforcement,” Scott Kubly, director of SDOT, told the Seattle Transit Blog during a podcast interview. “If you can build a driverless car I’m pretty sure we can figure out automatic enforcement of any type.”

Currently, police officers have to actually see the violation occur before a ticket can be written. Periodically the city conducts transit-only lane enforcement events, ticketing drivers using bus only lanes or blocking the box at intersections. But manual enforcement, not always practical nor constant, is time intensive, often requiring 6 to 8 police officers plus an area for vehicles to park that doesn’t block traffic while tickets are being written.

Routes in San Francisco and New York City experienced an increase in transit reliability after the cities installed cameras aboard buses to capture license plates of vehicles using transit-only lanes. The offending vehicles were then sent a citation by mail.

The pilot transit-only lane enforcement program in San Francisco, which just targeted vehicles illegally parked or stopped in the transit-only lanes, resulted in 20 percent reduction in delays on some routes. A review of the program found the enforcement program was changing drivers behavior with only 2 percent reoffending. Some proponents of automatic cameras said the program doesn’t go far enough, and should ticket private vehicles traveling in transit-only lanes.

In New York bus rapid transit lines utilize onboard cameras to discourage cars from using bus-only lanes. Together with other strategies to enhance reliability),they are up to 20 percent faster than the regular bus service.

In 2011 Washington State Legislators approved the use of cameras aboard school buses to catch drivers illegally passing a stopped bus. Several Washington school districts have installed cameras on buses, most recently in Marysville.

Kubly predicted local political consensus to install cameras aboard buses might already exist, with roughly 50 percent of people traveling into downtown come by bus. While using automatic camera to enforce transit-only lanes wasn’t on the mind of Sen. Rebecca Saldaña,  D-Rainier Valley, the idea did pique her interest.

“What has been on my radar is vision zero, distracted driving, how do you actually enforce that,” Saldaña said. “It doesn’t make sense to put cameras everywhere, but put them in problem areas to help educate people.”

She supports legislation that would allow local jurisdictions to use onboard bus cameras, saying the cameras could help change the driving culture and promote safety. But Saldaña wanted the tickets to continue being treated as parking infractions, emphasizing the need to carefully handle any data collected and not curtail driver’s civil rights.  

Current legislation restricts automated traffic safety cameras from capturing faces of drivers and passengers. Only pictures of the vehicle and vehicle license plate while an infraction is occurring are allowed.

64 Replies to “The Path to Transit Lane Enforcement”

  1. I’ve been beating this drum for years. Photo enforcement pays for itself and actually works to change behavior.

    1. I wouldn’t dismiss the idea that manual enforcement, though more expensive and time intensive, can do a better job changing a driver’s behavior than technology. Manual enforcement benefits from its elements of social pressure and randomness, while traffic cameras encourage drivers to learn where they are being monitored and change their behavior specifically in those areas.

      1. The idea is having the cameras mounted on the buses themselves. Thus there is no “where they are being monitored”. They can be turned on automatically by GPS when the bus enters a Red or other transit lane during the hours it is in effect.

      2. That we can enforce traffic laws without relying on actual police-motorist encounters is a very good thing, though, and for reasons that go well beyond predictability and efficiency. Traffic stops are a good part of where racial bias in policing happens, and (until we figure out how to change police culture dramatically) they’re frankly dangerous. For this reason we should embrace opportunities to reduce them while still enforcing and punishing transit-hampering illegal behavior.


      3. There’s also the inconvenience factor. When you get a ticket, it’s at least ten minutes, often more, down the drain. With the added bonus of a possible lethal misunderstanding. In contrast a traffic cam ticket can be dealt with at your convenience, usually in less than a minute, even allowing for a quick internet visit to ensure that it’s not worth fighting on the facts.

      4. I disagree, Dustin. A big ticket is a lot more effective (and much harder to fight) then a cop pulling you over. There is simply no excuse. You can fight it, but it is much harder than talking your way out of a ticket that a lot of cops simply don’t want to bother with.

        Manual enforcement also struggles with the issue that it hurts the very people that they are trying to help. The cop car (or motorcycle) pulls out into the transit lane, and quite often, just pulls the guy over right there. The bus had to go around it. Automatic enforcement makes a lot of sense and should be very simple.

      5. Ross, I don’t understand the distinction you’re making between getting a big ticket and being pulled over by a cop. Cops can give out big tickets and don’t have to accept excuses. That they have the option to communicate with the driver and accept an excuse is, in my opinion, one of the ways in which manual enforcement can be more effective than a photo-enforced mail ticketing system. I’d also argue that, in terms of changing a driver’s behavior, the best time to enforce a traffic law is the moment the driver is breaking it, not 7-10 days later when the driver receives a ticket in the mail. By that time, the driver may not even be able to remember the offense! Of course, bias and discrimination can be a problem when cops interact with drivers, but in my opinion avoiding these interactions isn’t the right solution to that issue.

        As to your comment about pullovers disrupting traffic, I would see this as being more of a problem with traffic in our area and road design than a problem with the pullover method of law enforcement. You could use the same logic to argue that buses, garbage trucks and road construction workers are hurting the people they are trying to help.

      6. In general the automated tickets are very large, but don’t go on the insurance. I suppose if you are very rich you don’t care, but a lot of the people I know (who are way above middle class) were shocked to see the price of the tickets. For something like this, the pricing is very simple. Start low and just keep going up.

        I could go into this more, but the key advantage is very simple. It isn’t about the penalty, it is about the chance of getting caught. People cheat in HOV lanes because they feel like they won’t get caught. Same with parking tickets. Same with robbing the bank, for that matter. Double the penalty, and you really haven’t changed the behavior. But change the chance of getting caught, and you do.

        In this case, you are saying that getting pulled over by a cop is a more severe penalty. I disagree, but it is irreverent. The key advantage is almost 100% enforcement. You never get that with a cop. The cop has to be there, the cop has to pull you over, the cop has to decide after talking to you that you are worth ticketing, That is why people cheat in the HOV lanes (as the recent Seattle Times article said). The only thing that prevents more cheaters is morality. Automated ticketing is cheap and very effective, police enforcement of HOV laws is not (obviously).

    2. @William — Sure, but the existing automatic tickets do a great job of enforcing speed limits. The ticket is very large ($125 if I remember right). That gets people to slow down.

      It is possible that super rich people will just keep paying those tickets, but that is an easy problem to remedy. Simply have it increase over time. The thing about these types of systems, is that they catch *everyone* who breaks the law. Again, I know people who are very safe drivers (and white) and they could easily talk their way out of a ticket, or not even be pulled over. They were going the speed limit, were slowing down, but didn’t slow down in time to avoid going over the school limit. Yet their only recourse was exactly what you said people want to avoid — time spent in front of a judge (instead of a cop).

      1. $125 isn’t “very large.” Pretty much every ticket–automated or otherwise–needs a zero added. Then maybe they would get people’s attention and serve as a deterrent.

  2. They have automatic transit lane enforcement in London. We’ve had more than a few of these tickets show up in my organization for violations in the area around Kew Gardens — and I swear none of them were generated by me. Honest.

    If it works in London, it will work here. But can the city of Seattle do it on its own? Or will it take the consent of the R’s in Oly too?

    1. It would take legislative action. Currently, using automatic cameras to detection infractions are only permitted to be used at intersections, railroad crossings, school speed zones or school bus safety camera.

      1. I suppose it’s been worded so that just putting the bus lane camera at an intersection wouldn’t work?

      2. Yes, there is something in the law that says something like red light cameras can only be used for red light enforcement, and so on.

      3. I wonder if you could treat this as an HOT lane, but just charge outrageous fees. That would be a legal loophole, assuming a municipality is allowed to do that. There may be limits to the toll they are allowed to charge. If not, then charge, say, $250 with a “Good to Go” sticker and $350 without. That would probably do the trick.

    2. Could we designate all buses as school buses? Children do use them to get to school.

      1. Yes, you found the solution for SDOT and the City Council! Council can pass ordinance, SDOT can give bus cameras to King County Metro, and the State can sue if they like.

        King County Metro has agreements/contracts with Seattle Public Schools for middle and high school transportation, so it is totally legit. Any judge should agree.

      2. driving in a bus lane is not a violation of RCW 46.61.170 — it isn’t passing a stopped school bus — so that wouldn’t help.

      3. Buses have to stop at railroad crossings, and I thought that rule applied only to school buses.

  3. Thank you, Lizz. I hope we can have bus-mounted cameras sooner rather than later. Current enforcement efforts are so sporadic that drivers just ignore the rules. It’s routine to see the Howell and Battery bus lanes completely full of cars during peak hours.

  4. I think most people would be more in favor of camera enforcement were it not to have such huge fees/fines. First time offences for an automobile should be in the neighborhood of $25, rising sharply for repeat offenders. The purpose is to manage traffic and build respect for the law.

    1. I like that idea of increasing fines for additional offenses. In the San Francisco study, only 2 percent reoffended.

    2. Yes, culminating in acquaintance with the Stocks for 24 hours at Fourth and Pine on the 10th and any later offense. Public shaming is effective, and it’s obvious that money doesn’t matter to someone who gets 10 tickets.

      1. To be clear, I mean the seated Stocks. We don’t want any cruel punishments, although “unusual” might be just the “ticket”, so to speak.

    3. We could even be like the Swiss and their speeding tickets, and scale according to net worth :x

    4. I like your take on reasonable penalties, RobLL. Maybe some of it will leak over to policies for tapping ORCA cards on LINK. Even with a paid-up monthly pass, one tap too few or too many will get you ID’d and warned once or twice, then fined $124. Exact same as for Fare Evasion- which is actual lying name of the violation.

      As with uniformed personnel answering to the average outsized authority, leaving the fare inspectors out of this. So I’m left with respect normally reserved for sun-ripened road-kill for whoever drafted the rule and set the penalty.

      Suggestion about lane enforcement personnel. Give parking garage assistance for the corporations responsible for most lane and intersection blockage in South Lake Union to private guards. Freeing up our police for the service we’re paying them for.

      In places like SLU, the thing police personnel can do that cameras can’t is to direct traffic. To be gender-fair, as with most exercise of on the spot authority, women officers and first line transit supervisors dealing with out of control eight year olds, are born with the advantage for these duties.

      But we men can quickly learn all the skills, if we do what we’re told and know what’s good for us.

      Mark Dublin

    5. The $124 level is because the courts won’t enforce fines less than that; it costs more than it’s worth.

      1. Just make the first bus-lane violation a mailed warning, and the second one $124/$136/whatever.

      2. It’s worse than that, John. I’m told that ST gets four dollars out if the fine. So rather than compensate the system for any problems caused by a wrong tap-sequence, we’re really just paying for the right to punish us.

        For an honest mistake owing to the exact kind of haste that is the hallmark of a successful urban rapid transit system. Which the cards and readers were designed to facilitate. Not compel cooperation with the agency accounting system by means of real fear over a fine that could cost me my next pair of shoes.

        And in order to be in jeopardy for this fine at all, one must have already, in my case, paid for a whole month of transit upon purchasing the card. For me, the main attraction of a pre-paid pass is precisely that I do not have to worry every minute of a ride. Remember, once I’ve boarded, I can’t correct the mistake if caught.

        Right now I’m using the one defense left to me, though it’ll probably shortly go away. First LINK boarding of the day, I buy a paper all-day pass. Because I really do believe in the fare reader system, I also do my best to tap my ORCA card correctly. But all an Inspector ever sees is my ticket.
        Which incidentally causes the system no fare apportionment problems at all.

        I’ve got a posting seriously overdue on this matter, containing the details for action necessary to rid our system of something really misbegotten. I didn’t put in 34 years’ support for Sound Transit and its origins to let it deliver this kind of abuse to its passengers.

        Relevance to topic here? Count me against principle of Government By Punishment on any front. Forty years of right wing government and liberal surrender to it have gotten old and died. For keeping transit lanes clear, get legislation and post notices that if anything in a transit lane gets hit by a bus, the car driver has to pay to repair the bus.


    6. I was thinking the same thing. This isn’t like speeding in the school zone (where you are endangering lives). I think it should be something (not a warning) but then go up rapidly after that, to prevent people who figure that it is just another HOT lane. I know I lot of people do that with parking (park 8 hours in a 4 hour zone figuring that even if they get the occasional ticket it is cheaper than paying to park in a lot).

  5. A dedicated Traffic Enforcement squad, in cars or on bikes (even horses downtown?), would help immensely.

    1. Lloyd, use of the horse for confrontation and coercion died same awful death as a lot of innocent horses when machine guns and rifled gun barrels were discovered. Same fate as of my own dashing college romances.

      Same for pathetic attempt to stop the War on Horses with laws that upon seeing a horse, a motorist had to dismantle his car and bury it.

      First scratch on a horse and you’ll be slashed to ribbons with riding crops by regiments of savage wealthy teenage girls dressed in high boots, high-crowned visor hats, and smartly-tailored red jackets. Who’ll feed you to the fox before their hounds get him.

      Bicycle patrols, different matter. Perfect for urban enforcement- mainly because nobody in America can outrun those officers, who are physically able to pedal up all the stair-cases of Columbia Center to ticket a lane violator. Who can’t flee because his car is already jammed in the traffic lane.

      Stuttgart proves that streetcars can push trailers with bike racks, to which police flashers can be attached. Sight of a bus pulling one of these should yield max deterrence. Especially if every cycle policeman gets a saber too.


  6. Along these lines it seems that cameras along Third Avenue installed for peak hours exclusion if coupled with license plate matching between camera data streams could also identify vehicles that go more than the allowed one block during “off hours”.

    1. Never mind; if the cameras go on automatically when a bus enters Third Avenue, stationary ones aren’t really needed. There’s almost always a bus in any given block on Third Avenue, at least during the peak hours when enforcement is needed.

  7. Officers may have to see the infraction in order to write a ticket, but do they have to stop each offender and hand the ticket to them or can they just mail it? A hybrid solution with in-person officers mailing tickets seems like a reasonable step that solves the time and “space to pull over” problems while increasing number of tickets that can be issued during during an enforcement event. Hopefully it would just be a temporary change until bus cameras are authorized and installed.

    1. Good question. I think that it might be the same issue — the law needs to change to allow it. Otherwise, my guess is that cops would do that right now, and simply issue tickets to speeders (on the freeway). I think the problem isn’t the technology (this seems like a very simply thing) but the law. Even if you simply filmed the events of the day it would be pretty easy for someone to look at the pictures later and see who the scofflaw was. I think the reasoning with the law is that someone should be able to confront his accuser. You should be able to plead your case with the cop. The state has simply made exceptions for certain circumstances (where public safety is a bigger issue).

      1. Why should you be able “to plead your case to the cop”? Police officers are not judges; they should act like automatons except for being polite, personable and relaxed.

      2. @Richard — Tradition, I guess. Besides, dealing with a judge is very time consuming, while talking to the cop is not. Here is an example: I was driving once on the Mountain Loop Highway, in the winter time. The highway (as the name implies) does a loop. I came across a temporary sign that said “local access only”. I thought about it a long time, and every time I’ve seen that sign, it means you can’t go through. In other words, you can’t cut through the neighborhood to get to someplace on the other side. Well, I wasn’t doing that. I was staying local. I got pulled over by a cop, who then explained that unless I was a resident (or visiting a resident) of the next town, i wasn’t supposed to be on the road. I then thanked them for that information, and told them it would have have nice if the sign said that. They then proceeded to write me a ticket. I wasn’t able to talk my way out of it, but a more reasonable cop would have let me go. The point is, explaining this to a judge is a much bigger hassle, especially since this was handled in a completely different county (I would have had to make a special trip).

        Cops have discretion when it comes to enforcing the law, and I have no problem with that. It isn’t always fair (it is easier for some to talk their way out of a ticket than others) but I think excessive enforcement can lead to just as many problems as lax enforcement. For example, does a cop pull over everyone who is going 5 miles over the limit? They can’t possibly, which means they pick and choose. If they guy they pull over happens to have expired insurance, the cop might just write him a ticket for that, and ignore the speeding. If everything checks out (and the guy has no record of speeding) then he could just give him a warning.

  8. “If you can build a driverless car I’m pretty sure we can figure out automatic enforcement of any type.” This is Kubly’s problem: He believes the worst of self-driving car notions, -no steering wheel, brakes, accelerator- actually makes sense. Without human eye assessment of road conditions and ability to take evasive actions, self-driving autonomous tech CANNOT be considered ‘safer’. Seattle’s problem is Metro.
    Sound Transit isn’t that much better, by national standards. Seattle should be embarrassed, but its people believe this self-driving car crap.
    Seattle’s Metro is a national bad example NOT to follow, that’s for sure.
    Seattle coulda been all electric years ago, but noooo.

    1. The point is that driverless cars can be programmed to refuse to enter bus-only lanes in the first place, and laws can be passed requiring manufacturers to include this feature.

      1. Maybe true, but if people refuse to buy driverless cars because they are too “law-abiding”, it won’t work. It is not at all hard to imagine a world where people get sick and tired of their robo car forcing them to drive exactly 30 mph in 30 mph zones to the point where they say “screw it” and trade it in for an old-fashioned manual that lets them do with it what they want.

      2. asdf2,

        Once RoboCars go production, the insurance companies will raise premiums on standard cars in order to nudge people into the driverless ones which make many fewer errors.

        Another way that rich people will have greater freedom.

    2. Without human eye assessment of road conditions and ability to take evasive actions, self-driving autonomous tech CANNOT be considered ‘safer’.

      I don’t see how you can make that kind of categorical claim. It might be accurate, but it’s an empirical question (and the answer could easily change as the tech improves). At any rate, “safer than human drivers” is a pretty low bar, as humans are really bad at driving.

    3. Have you seen what the human eyes are doing lately? Most are looking off in the middle distance while doing something else.

    4. A bad analogy, perhaps, but the right point. How about this: If the tool system can automatically bill cars that are in the HOT lane, then they can ticket people who are in the bus lane. Or how about: If we can automatically ticket people who go to fast in the school zones or run red lights, then we can ticket those who drive in the bus lane.

      It really isn’t about the technology, it is about the law.

  9. I’m all for putting a few cameras on each bus and having the driver hit the red “LANE INFRACTION” button. If a violation is seen, the car owner gets served a $99 ticket for each offense. First offense means a fine, a free ORCA card and a stern letter of reprimand. Two offenses means the fine and a sterner letter of reprimand sent via certified mail. Three offenses means suspension of driver’s license for 1 year and if caught driving, automatic arrest.

  10. Will offending Metro bus drivers also be ticketed for blocking the box at intersections?
    I’ve witnessed my fair share of Metro drivers blocking the intersection while I was a passenger in both public and private vehicles in downtown.

    1. Why was the bus blocking the intersection? Because the car in front stopped unexpectedly, or it’s the only way to get the cars to allow the bus to turn. It’s a symptom of not having enough transit lanes or signal priority. We either want buses to be fast and reliable or we don’t. If we do, we can’t have buses waiting behind cars, or sitting through entire light cycles because there are too many straight-moving cars and peds to allow the bus to turn.

      1. No kidding. Busses leaving Lower Queen Anne in the afternoon and turning left on Denny have to block the box for a short period of time or they would never turn. There are too many cars that fill the lane right before the lights switch to make it feasible for buses not to do this.

    2. The only way the 26 can operate is to block the box at numerous points along its route (50th & Latona, 80th & 1st, and a couple other intersections I can’t think of right now). That’s not Metro’s fault; it’s SDOT for failing to design streets for high-capacity transit and choosing to favor SOVs instead.

  11. What, nobody here wants to complain that “it’s just a revenue-generating tool?”

    The complaint would be misguided though; the lion’s share of the fines go to the courts anyways.

  12. Can we please ticket police vehicles parked in the transit lanes, too?

    In NYC on 42nd St and 34th St, there are always police vehicles parked in them. UPS and FedEx find them convenient places to leave their delivery trucks while making deliveries, too.

    1. NYC is the worst for this. I see NYPD parked in the shiny new 125th Street transit lane all the time while they run into the deli to get coffee. It infuriates me. Delivery trucks also stand in bike lanes all the time.


      Maybe it’s just a side effect of NYC streets being total free-for-all mayhem in general.

  13. Wells, like I keep saying, the best a self-driving car can know is the worst that the dumbest human told it last.

    I personally think Seattle’s enamoration for cars they don’t have to drive is that it saves them from learning to drive. Especially deadly-precision moves like checking mirrors. And knowing that the “blind spots” that car designers love to make cars look wicked with still contain visible objects.

    For passenger transport in rush hour conditions, automation should be reserved for elevators everyplace besides the Smith Tower, and LINK trains that don’t run MLK at grade. General principle? Machinery should be automated when the last human operator that likes running it retires or dies.

    Reason I fought so hard for plan to start regional electric rail transit with trolleybuses. Go ahead. Automate one. Dare you. Was gone by 2005, so hybrids not my fault. Will easily once we figure out how to program them to restart themselves without calling a supervisory automation.

    Breda fleet, blame is mine for urging Metro to keep them, due to same idiotic hope we’d fix them. As part of our diligent effort to coordinate DSTT operations. Buses blocking lanes and “boxes?” Reserve like we mean business, and it just won’t happen.


  14. I know this is off-topic, but I need a consultation. Has anyone heard of problems at Angle Lake on the weekends? I want to visit some friends in North Seattle this weekend and my wife isn’t with me so I don’t get to drive in the HOV lane. Ergo, Link from Angle Lake to HSS is made for my trip.

    But, is it safe to leave my car at Angle Lake on Sunday? Does it get much usage that day? I’m coming from the south so I could use TDS and take the bus, but Link!


    1. For what it’s worth, Richard, I’ve left my car overnight at Angle Lake, after clearing with ST police there.

      You get 24 hours from time you arrive. Have been told you can have more time if you move the car to a different space- but chose not to “push it.”

      Similar good treatment at Tacoma Dome. So tend to trust both structures. Not sure about Lakewood Sounder station.

      I’d call subject topical because it proves that same authoritative vigilance that protects a transit passenger’s parked car has similar good effect on transit lanes. I think our guards are transit police, not Securitas. Am I right?


    2. Richard,

      I’ve left my car there overnight on quick weekend 1-day trips out of Sea-Tac. The garage is empty enough that it’s not been a problem (although I don’t think it’s ever been over 24 hours, and I don’t park at the station entrance area so that I’m not blocking people who are coming/going more often). It’s empty enough that I wouldn’t mind paying a fee to park for the weekend were that available! I’ve never had a problem and will continue to use it for trips less than 24 hours on weekends.

  15. One caution about Angle Lake. On weekdays, if I get there after ten in the morning, there often aren’t any spaces left. Sundays? You might want to see if there’s anything happening in Seattle that’ll attract a lot of LINK parking.


    1. Thanks very much, Mark. If you actually talked to a Transit Police officer there, it sounds like they do keep an eye on things. My car requires an electronic key, but actual hotwiring is always a possibility given motivation and opportunity.

  16. Worth noting: The Muni Transit-only lane enforcement (TOLE) program has been permanent since 2015 – it’s no longer a pilot.

    Last year, they wrote roughly ten tickets a day, which is woefully inadequate given how often lanes and stops are blocked here, but it’s better than nothing. One of the issues, apparently, is getting drivers to press the button flagging the video. Talking to one driver, they noted that sometimes “they feel guilty” about slapping someone with $110 (or $288) of fines.

    Hopefully, with the rise of APR and AI we can help automate the process a bit.

    1. I think it would be really easy to just do it after the fact. Just record all the action, all day. Then have someone else go through it, and press buttons to ticket the scofflaws. The bus driver doesn’t have to do the enforcement, but someone who is trained to do that would, and they would be told to ticket everyone.

      The other alternative (which makes a lot of sense) is to just have an ascending scale. This really isn’t the same as speeding through the school zone (this isn’t a safety issue). So the first ticket is $25. Next $150, then $500 and so on. My guess is very few people will be repeat offenders, while first time offenders aren’t being hit so hard.

  17. FWIW, TriMet buses have an external speaker so the driver can educate/ yell at auto drivers that violate the transit mall.

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