SDOT’s Jonathan Dong wrote in to tell us that the agency is planning to upgrade the eastbound bus lane on Howell St this spring. Howell St. is a four-lane, one way street with lots of traffic competing with Snohomish County express buses to enter I-5 in the afternoon peak.

Today’s right-hand (or center) bus lane — which we wrote about when it was installed back in 2011 — is frequently full of cars, as seen in the photo above. (This is definitely one of those cases where automated enforcement of the bus lane would be useful.)

To remedy the situation, SDOT will move the bus lane to the far left from 3-7 PM and add a queue jump so that buses can still cut over to the Howell & Yale stop before entering the I-5 express lanes. This should lead to fewer lane violations and a smoother ride for commuters. Good on SDOT for acknowledging the initial bus lane effort missed the mark.

14 Replies to “Howell St. bus lane to be improved this spring”

  1. What’s really sad is the morning commute, where bus after bus sits in line for the Stewart St. express lane exit for who-knows-how-long with all the cars. I’ve never actually ridden such a bus, but I have ridden by this line on the 41 a few times.

    Really, every bus that takes the I-5 express lanes into downtown should be using an HOV exit (and if every bus does it, there’s probably enough usage to justify making the exit bus-only).

    Of course, in just a few more years, there will be a lot fewer buses traveling this pathway…

  2. I sat in the right-lane one afternoon for nearly 30 minutes while car after car in the lane to the left of me (bus lane) sat while looking to butt-in ahead of drivers like me who waited patiently for our turn to get on I-5 south. By the time I got to the on-ramp, I was ready to take a hostage. I wish SPD had done some enforcement for these people who were using the bus lane just like it was a general purpose lane. And don’t get me started on right turn on red drivers turning at Boren when the lane is backed up and they had a red light!

    The funniest part was the a-hole who cut in behind me just before the intersection to the on-ramp who honked loudly at the next car that did what he just did, but to him.

    1. I wish SPD had done some enforcement…

      Thanks, I needed a chuckle this morning.

      A lot of traffic problems, especially ones involving selfish people delaying buses, would be solved if SPD would do ANY kind of enforcement.

      1. As I’ve said elsewhere on this post, a lot of the problem is that it isn’t clear to a lot of drivers whether they are doing anything wrong. It is perfectly legal to drive that lane most of the day. Is it legal to use the lane as a way to merge from one side to the other? For example, let’s say it is 5:00 PM, and I am driving south on Boren and want to get on the freeway heading south. There is nothing directing me to the far right lane ( There is only one turn lane, and I take it. I notice this is a one way street, so I do as my Driver’s Ed teacher always recommended ( and turn into the closest lane (the far left lane). The only way to get from that lane to the far right lane (where I want to be) is to use the Bus Lane.

        SDOT just half-assed it. Their decision to not make this a full time bus lane (which is inexplicable) doomed this to failure. It basically meant that the bus lane is essentially a BAT lane, meaning it is perfectly legal to use it as a means to switch lanes (or at least people assumed it was). You could ticket dozens of people a day, and each one would say “I was just changing lanes! Can’t I change lanes?”. It isn’t even until after Minor that the far right lane is double white — and the lane adjacent to the bus lane (the one people would usually use to get into the bus lane) is never double white!

        Obviously there are people who are knowingly breaking the law. But my guess is there are lots of people who are breaking it without even realizing it. SDOT doesn’t make it easy on anyone when they have such vague and confusing restrictions.

      2. I got pulled over within 2 blocks of using a BAT lane on Geary St in San Fransisco a decade ago. That was the FIRST time I had even seen a BAT lane and the first time I broke the rules. This is what good enforcement looks like. I never made that mistake again but I had no clue what the BAT lane was because I hadn’t seen one in my life.

        There’s hope that this can go a lot smoother, but it takes a police force that does their job.

    2. Yeah, I can picture all of that. It is quite common for folks to merge at the last minute. As a result, those that merge early get screwed. On a freeway, with nothing but two lanes merging into one, there is a moral argument for simply merging at the last possible second, taking turns (one person from the left, one from the right). When people are essentially changing lanes, things get more complicated.

      This particular area is even messier. From what I can tell, the center bus lane starts at 9th. This means all the cars that are turning onto Howell (from 9th, Terry, Boren, etc.) are supposed to just move directly into that right lane as they make a turn. The problem is that often there isn’t room. This means that a driver might have to wait several cycles to get into that lane. If there was a physical barrier (like a curb) between the right lane and the bus lane, this is what people would do. But since there isn’t, they merge into one of the other lanes, and then move over. This allows them to get off the crossing street, and onto Howell, while they wait for a break in traffic to get over. But this necessitates using the bus lane, even if the intent is noble. That driver may have no intent of skipping ahead of anyone — they just want to make that merge and then wait in line. I suppose you could argue that they should simply wait until the right most lane is available, but folks don’t see anything morally wrong about simply getting on Howell, and waiting until there is a gap in that right lane (as long as they don’t jump ahead of anyone already on that stretch of roadway).

      I think the failure in the center bus lane is in treating it like a BAT lane, even though it isn’t. It should have been a full time, 24 hour bus lane, with curbs on both sides. That costs money, obviously, but it makes it clear. You simply can’t change into or out of the rightmost lane once it starts. Each crossing street would have two arrows — one pointing you to the far right lane, and another pointing you to the far left lane. SDOT half-assed it, and that meant a mess.

      1. Is there really so much car traffic off-peak that there’s a benefit to having this lane allow non-busses in it? Just get rid of the confusion by at least matching the bus-only hours to 3rd Ave (6AM – 7PM, seven days a week). Since it’s a center lane, it’s not even displacing parking!

  3. It looks like there are three problems right now (from what I can tell). First, people are trying to merge into the far right lane, and they have to use the bus lane to do it. Second, people are just violating the law. Third, they may be confused as to what time it is. This addresses the first problem, but does nothing about the other two issues. It actually makes it very difficult to turn this lane into a full time bus lane. Right now I would lobby hard for turning the existing 3-7 PM bus lane into a full time bus lane. But the new bus lane will be used for parking as well as turns and driveway access, and it is very difficult to exclude that.

    Furthermore, it looks they are trading one set of problems for another. The bus will be in the left lane, which means that folks trying to turn left (towards South Lake Union) will be using it. I suppose it is OK after Terry (since none of the other streets go through) but it is hard to get too excited about this change. Overall, it may be better, but it just doesn’t look like the buses will flow freely there, the way they should.

    As asdf2 mentioned, though, this problem is about to go away in a few years. I really don’t see any express buses using the freeway from the north after Lynnwood Link (and I would argue, Northgate Link).

    1. This is another example of why I like contraflow lanes so much. It is pretty easy to see how this would work here. Just add contraflow lanes on both Stewart and Howell. It would be very easy to understand. Drivers are way less likely to break the law, because they would just treat the street like they always have. Those that do break the law would be quite obvious, making it very easy to catch them. Pedestrian crossings are normal — just look both ways in the order common for Americans. Cars still have parking along the street, just not both sides of the street. Cars still have access to the driveways, they just aren’t as easy anymore. But everyone entering or exiting a driveway is going to see a bus.

      It is possible that the traffic timing would be way off, since it is largely set for going the other direction. I really doubt that is much of an issue for this area, though — I don’t think you can time those streets very well given competing interests.

      It would cost some money though. You would need new signs, new traffic signals (on the other side of each intersection) and you would move the bus stops. You would also need a merge, for northbound buses and general traffic onto the express lanes (basically here — That isn’t a huge project, but probably not justified since the buses aren’t likely to use the express lanes in the future (as Link heads further north). But there are other areas where this idea could be applied and result in much faster bus travel.

  4. MikeG, no question some enforcement’s needed. Tempting to put up a large camera with a very visible light, over a large sign saying “This Means You.”

    If you don’t plug it in…is somebody going to sue for false enforcement? But from what you’re describing…how come there was no uniformed presence just plain directing traffic?

    Whether we call it a “Doom” or some kind of a “Pockalypse”, very large number of people are having to figure out a whole new traffic situation nowhere near yet stabilized. On an I-5 ramp, can’t the State Police be of some help?


  5. Good ideas, Ross. And let me add another suggestion. If its I-5 access can’t be guaranteed, terminate the 41 at UW Stadium, running express on Roosevelt and 11th.

    Have also said I favor steering Bellevue Transit Center passengers via UW Link to the Route 271. Standing loads are a lot more bearable on trains than buses, mainly because, clear of weather and traffic, they are generally moving.

    Lanes, signs and signals? Whatever these changes cost, the Convention Center interests that cost us our last Tunnel bus service at the time we needed them most, owe transit-riders a very large-scale Big Time. Which they of everybody else on Earth can certainly afford to deliver.

    And after all, with that new movie “Stan & Ollie” just coming out, they could suddenly find themselves struggling to accommodate the biggest “Sons of the Desert” convention in history! So it’s in the Center’s best interests to be able to keep resulting throngs as happy as two peas in a “PO-D(!)” And also a pot.


  6. This goes to show how difficult it is to get a bus exclusive ROW to work when it’s a situation with so many (most?) drivers trying to turn off the road rather than going straight through (e.g., it’s the complete opposite of Aurora Ave., where the BAT lanes work well). Center bus lanes definitely don’t work because cars need to get across and cars often back up in the process of doing so. The only way to have it work as a dedicated transit ROW is to be train-like, with physical separation barriers and special signalization that keeps turning cars out of the way when the bus needs to get through. Essentially, make that portion be true light rail on wheels BRT.

    I definitely can sympathize with the “WTF” moment when driving and I 1) Make the turn that I also learned in Driver’s Ed, to the closest lane, and suddenly I’m in violation of the bus lane, or 2) Have to *cross over* the bus lane to get to the legal land to make the turn, which means stopping in traffic if there is a bus, which means the other drivers wanting to make the same turn will just occupy the lane behind the bus, further preventing me from doing the legal two lane changes to turn thing.

    Bus lanes can only get you so far. At some point, SDOT needs to bite the bullet and make it be full BRT. Which as we see with the streetcar report, may well cost as much as a streetcar to get right. Of course, you don’t need to do the entire line necessarily just start with where the bus lanes aren’t working. SDOT needs to get away from the mentality that BRT infrastructure can only be implemented when the *entire line* is being upgraded to BRT, likely after a decade of Seattle Process, and even then only where it’s easiest not necessarily where it’s most needed.

    1. I agree with all of your points. The only way this could have worked (as designed) is if they added curbs to prevent people from changing lanes. That would have also required work on the crossing streets so that it was clear that you had two choice (at one side or the other).

      Of course the easier and much less confusing option would have been to create contraflow lanes. No special curbs, no special signs, just two-way streets, with yellow lines between them. Except one direction is bus only. As mentioned above, it still would have required some work. New signs, moving bus stops, new signals — but when it was all done, no confusion. I think it is telling that it is pretty common to see pictures like the one above which imply a violation (assuming it is between 3 and 7). Or just people clogging BAT lanes. On the other hand, I have yet to see a picture of the Fifth Avenue contraflow lanes show a violator. My guess is violations on contraflow lanes are very, very low. That is because it is really hard to get confused. You can’t change lanes into the bus lane, which means you would have to just ignore the maps and ignore a sign like this ( and turn right anyway. Most drivers aren’t that stupid, and even drivers that are trying to cheat aren’t that clever or brazen.

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