Photo collage by CMAP

Automated bus lane enforcement may have died in the state legislature, but that’s no reason the city can’t get creative when it comes to enforcing bus lanes.  

While true grade separation is the holy grail of reliable transit, an at-grade bus lanes can be protected much like a bike lane.  

Chicago’s regional planning agency collected the above collage of protected bus lanes around the world.  In each, the bus lanes is elevated or protected from general traffic, making it difficult for cars to enter.  

Meanwhile New York City’s DOT tweeted out an image of one recently:

Closer to home, I noticed a small protected bus lane recently on SR522 just outside Bothell.  (There are surely others, let me know in the comments if you’ve seen them.)

Google Maps

These aren’t impregnable, of course, and they surely they require some creative street maintenance strategies.  But some kind of protection will be necessary if automatic enforcement can’t pass out of the legislature, otherwise the city’s laudable investment in dedicated right-of-way will be wasted. While state legislators should absolutely take another shot at camera enforcement next session, the city needs to start thinking of plan B. 

For example, as you can read about in this Ryan Packer article at The Urbanist, the city is currently planning to paint a bus lane right past Key Arena.  It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that such a  bus lane will quickly turn into a massive Uber/Lyft drop-off zone before and after an event. Some protection (bollards? Raised curb?) is necessary to give the buses a fighting chance, assuming the city prioritizes the needs of evening commuters going to Ballard and West Seattle above the need to “flush” arena traffic after the game (an open question!).

If not, riders may just keep taking matters into their own hands

31 Replies to “Protecting bus lanes”

  1. I think the bigger problem is handling BAT lanes, not bus lanes. Bus lanes (or transit lanes in general) have their violators, but likely not as often as BAT lanes. With bus lanes, it is pretty clear — you aren’t allowed in that lane, ever. With BAT lanes, it is always a lot more vague — you are allowed, but only if you are turning right. This muddies the waters. When traffic is really bad (which is also when transit priority lanes are more effective) a driver will move into the BAT lane a little bit early. They still turn right, but later than they are supposed to (or, to put it another way, they entered the lane earlier than they were supposed to). Even if they do things exactly right, they may still delay a bus.

    The way to prevent that is to either have center running buses, or restrict right turns. In the pictures, it looks like cars simply can’t turn right there (there is a one way street, no intersections or driveways, etc.). That is nice, but it won’t last. Eventually, there will come a time when a car wants to turn right. One way to have the car turn right in front of the bus, but only with a right turn arrow. This is essentially how Second Avenue works with the bike lane (https://goo.gl/maps/3K5H9CzXYNCtTqRW7). It is a one way street with a left turn, but the basic idea works with a two way street and a right turn. Normally a car could make a turn on a green light, but instead they will have to wait for an arrow. The drawback though, is that means another light cycle. If there are two lanes (each direction) for the cross street, then the right turns can happen with the left turns. Otherwise, you may be better off just living with BAT lanes. I don’t know what the plan is for 522 BRT — does anyone know?

    1. “Bus lanes (or transit lanes in general) have their violators, but likely not as often as BAT lanes.”

      But how much is this an actual problem? It may be downtown but I’ve never seen many cars in the BAT lanes in South King County and Shoreline for the A and E, and more importantly, I’ve never seen the buses slowed down by cars there.

    2. BAT lanes generally work well on major arterial outside of CBDs but IMO they really fall apart in CBDs or areas with heavy gridlock. Another solution that I think really works, is to run transit in contra-flow lanes. They work because many CBDs have a one-way grid, are easy for motorist to understand, and have the least “friction” due to the simplicity of the design.

      1. I agree with all of your points. Contra-flow makes a lot of sense if you have an area like downtown, where you already have lots of one way streets. That way trucks and cabs still have access to the street, but the buses flow freely (and it is very easy for people to understand).

      2. One-way streets often have signal progression — and contra-flow bus lanes can end up taking more time if the “upstream” direction makes a bus hit lots of red lights. It’s complicated because buses have to stop to let riders on and off — and pedestrians need time to cross streets in downtown areas so red lights with crossing time are important. There are also additional costs to add signals and controls to implement contra-flow for buses.

        It can be a great thing — but complexities exist. It’s not always a good or inexpensive idea. It always requires careful analysis of signs, striping and signals to make sure it works well.

      3. Yeah, so we might as well amend that. Contraflow makes a lot of sense where you have an area with lots of one way streets and signal progression is not an issue — like downtown Seattle. Signal progression is really only an issue if you are going through an area with very few stops.

        The thing is, I have trouble coming up with an example, since most areas that have cross streets with traffic lights also have worthy stops. I can think of several areas where contraflow would make a lot of sense — realistically or even theoretically (e. g. Roosevelt Way/11th). But I can’t think of any area where signal progression is really an issue. I suppose it could be an issue if you are running an express bus — but my guess is that when you are running an express bus, you are doing so because the regular bus is packed, and traffic is a mess. At that point, the loss in signal progression is more than made up for by the gain in avoiding traffic. That is, assuming there is a loss. There is no reason why the city can’t time the lights to favor the contraflow traffic, since that is where a majority of the people will be.

      4. Except signal progression is an issue on a number of Downtown Seattle streets. It’s vital for bus operations on Second and Fourth Avenues. Contra-flow bus lanes on those streets would make buses operate much slower.

      5. Sorry Al, that is ridiculous. Buses stop every few blocks. Signal progression is meaningless. A bus will never run through a dozen intersections while making every light, because the bus will stop for riders at some point. What you are seeing is just the general favoring of north-south traffic downtown.

        You are also dismissing the possibility that signal progression can’t happen with a contraflow lane. There is no reason that signal progression can’t be bidirectional. Things may have changed, but Denny, back in the day, was timed quite well both directions (I rode in it as a kid, in my father’s car, on the way to Sonic games). It would actually make sense to have bidirectional signal progression, since one street over, the cars have it going that way.

      6. The stops on Second and Fourth Avenue through Downtiwn Seattle are four or even five blocks apart. Buses that leave one stop can make it to the next one pretty quickly. A contra-flow bus won’t happen on Second Avenue anyway now that there is a bicycle track because a contra-flow lane can no longer have a stop on a sidewalk.

        If downtown signals did not have progression for traffic, traffic on every street would be much worse than it is. That would jam up even the side streets. The needs of pedestrians to cross keeps any sort of transit priority from being implemented too.

        We may have different observations, but I don’t deserve being called ridiculous. I try not to use personal attacks to make my points.

      7. Saying it is “vital for bus operations” to run with the rest of traffic is what I’m calling ridiculous. Buses run on Fifth Avenue in contraflow mode just fine. As for the rest of the buses, as you point out, they only go four blocks. Not twelve, not twenty — four. That means they go through three traffic lights. Signal progression — especially when the lights are usually in your favor — is largely meaningless in that case.

        As I pointed, if it is actually is important, they can simply add it. There is no reason why a lane can’t be given signal progression both directions. I really don’t think it matters — you have provided no evidence that it does — and the fact that Metro is quite happy with service on Fifth suggests that it really isn’t a problem.

        As for Second Avenue, bike lanes can be moved. But I would put the contraflow lanes on Fourth and Third, just to avoid doing so.

      8. Here is another way to think of it: Third Avenue has by far the most buses downtown. It is bidirectional. So:

        1) Either it has signal progression both directions (something that can easily be duplicated on other streets) or

        2) It doesn’t matter that much.

        Take your pick. Either way it means that contraflow would work just fine downtown.

      9. Thete is no such thing as “two-way synchronization” of stop lights. The best one can do is changing three, four or five blocks green simultaneously where the cross-streets aren’t themselves synchronized arterials.

        Cars cab then go to the end of the set if lights working together and stop there. Cars running “through” generally can go the full length of the green section, but cars which have started up within it or turned on will necessarily go fewer blocks in the first pulse.

        This is exactly how Park Presidio, Nineteenth Avenue and Van Ness work in San Francisco, and it moves cars through the Richmond and Sunset remarkably quickly when traffic is light. Van Ness is not quite as smooth because several of the cross streets are part of the synchronized east-west one-way grid.

        Heavy traffic can make it difficult to complete one full green zone sometimes, but it’s better than random cycles.

        When there are frequent buses on such a two way street, the zones should be made to match the bus stops so tgat the buses can use the full length of the green zones at least sometimes.

      10. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traffic_light_control_and_coordination:

        Attempts are often made to place traffic signals on a coordinated system so that drivers encounter a green wave, a long string of green lights (the technical term is progression). The distinction between coordinated signals and synchronized signals is very important.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_wave:

        A green wave in both directions may be possible with different speed recommendations for each direction…

        I have no idea how Seattle synchronizes its lights on Third, or any other street. My guess is that they have done some work to produce “green waves” to some degree, and are helped by the fact that traffic is largely north-south.

    3. On Spring St. downtown, there’s block or so with a bus lane, with a special signal that allows right turns onto I-5 from the car lane, without needing cars to encroach on the bus lane.

      The problem is that the special signals forces the traffic engineers to choose between priority for buses vs. cars. From my experience, the light is timed for cars, and buses often have to wait over a minute to get through, while the cars breeze on by. In moderate traffic, the bus is actually often better not even using the bus lane, but simply moving over into the car lane, allowing the signal togive the bus priority, as if it were a car.

      So, yes, there are subtleties in bus lanes that require special signaling.

  2. BAT lanes are a milquetoast sop to advocacy for a real transit solution.

    We should stop pretending they (and HOV 2 lanes from 5-7pm) are anything more than an attempt to forever prevent meaningful enforcement.

    The PBLs referenced above are great. We need more, and automated enforcement.

    1. What are the real solutions?

      – Grade-separated transit. That’s expensive, but we’re building it with Link in some areas.
      – Center lanes. Inexpensive but requires buses with left-side doors. We’re doing it on Madison between 8th and 12th.
      – Center lanes with contraflow. That’s how the Bellevue Transit Center is set up. We haven’t tried it on streets yet, partly because of status quo bias and partly out of fear pedestrians might get confused because they’re not used to traffic coming from the right in the US. If it’s designed to look like two normal streets rather than one four-way street, pedestrian intuition should be correct.

      I favor the third or second. SDOT is only willing to do them as a last resort. The main sticking point is converting parking lanes or GP lanes, because most of the rights of way are too narrow to widen the streets.

      1. “If it’s designed to look like two normal streets…”

        Isn’t that the definition of an easier-said-than-done thing? If you have an area with traffic signals every block, maybe. If you have a median island at every place pedestrians can cross without a signal and physically block crossings elsewhere, maybe.

        If we’re talking about doing long arterial corridors with these weird treatments we’d probably be better off with ambidextrous buses.

      2. Also if a pedestrian getting confused at a non-signal-controlled intersection would be disasterous for that pedestrians, a driver getting confused trying to make a turn at a non-signal-controlled intersection would be disasterous for potentially a hundred bus passengers. We’d need about the same level of traffic control as Link gets on MLK. That’s a pretty extensive street redesign — would we really undertake that for a project where we wouldn’t order ambidextrous buses?

        Another option for center running with right-door-only buses is split platforms, like what San Jose does at some light-rail stops — there it keeps the tracks straight while providing space for left-turn lanes near-side and platforms far-side. I’d much rather see that than center contraflow lanes.

      3. Center running buses requires more space. It basically means that you create a bus stop in the middle of the street.

        The main thing that left-side door buses do is allow those central bus stops to be shared (by buses going each direction). Another alternative is to have a couple bus stops (each direction) but that requires even more space. A third alternative is to have the buses zig-zag. If you think of it as three lanes, you can see how at one point there are two bus lanes and the bus stop on the right, and a little bit later, there are two bus lanes, and the bus stop on the left. The big drawback there is that it reduces flexibility when it comes to bus stops (sometimes you really, really want the bus stop both directions to be in the same spot).

        Anyway, the main reason we don’t have center running buses is that we don’t have the courage to actually prioritize transit over general purpose traffic, and take those lanes. Well that, and the fact that in some cases, the road simply isn’t wide enough to support three lanes for transit, and two for general purpose traffic.

      4. I’d add a two-way busway option on the side of a wide street in addition to bus lanes in the center. The benefit is that pedestrians don’t have to cross lots of traffic lanes at once; the bus signals would only need to stop pedestrians where approaching. The transfer bus stops could then be sited in a way so that transferring riders don’t have to cross that wide street at all. It would also probably be much quieter for waiting bus riders since traffic would be only on one side — and sound absorption could make that even quieter.

        The big down side is if there are lots a business driveways to close. However, there are roads like Aurora in Shoreline which don’t have that problem to a great extent.

  3. Designing a lane that isn’t porous requires tackling a number of issues. Will it disrupt bicyclists or pedestrians? Will it affect businesses? Is there concern about ADA or paratransit vehicle access? Is there adequate emergency vehicle access? Is there a maintenance or upkeep issue? Will it make driving a street more dangerous?

    Having lots of examples is great. Still, it takes sincere analysis and discussion to determine what design works on a particular block.

    That said, I’ve wondered if better pavement delineation besides a painted stripe would improve lane incursions. A rumble strip along the lane stripe, a slightly raised stripe, occasional round bumps, a small asphalt hump under the stripe, a textured metal stripe or an extra inch of pavement or concrete for the lane so a driver feels that they’ve entered the lane are all creative ways to possibly help.

    I’m not a big fan of hard delineation in an urban environment. Fire trucks, police cars, EMT vehicles and even street sweepers need to not be restricted. We pay the consequences if they are restricted.

    1. In this case there doesn’t seem to be much restriction of street maintenance and first responders at all. On the contrary — it is more likely the first responders could get to the scene faster using the bus lanes compared with bus lanes being blocked by cars. Even many physically separated bike lanes would have space for EMT to get in. And in the end, they don’t generally park on sidewalks either (and sidewalks are not considered as impediments to first responders), so as a fall back they could just use the adjacent vehicle lanes and treat the bus lane part the same way as they do the sidewalk and street parking lanes: namely, they walk across it to get to the building.

    2. If a bus is stopped in a fully protected single lane, the bus can’t get out of the way of an emergency vehicle. Some ability to move in and out of a lane would be needed. Also, fire trucks have to make wide turns so accommodating them takes more design treatments.

  4. The really big problem with any sort of one-lane bus facility (be it a protected lane or a single-lane contraflow facility like 5th Ave) is that there’s no good way for buses to pass other buses. This is mostly a problem when a bus breaks down (somewhat rare, but still more often than I’d like), which has caused major issues for 5th Ave in the past. It’s also fairly common in areas with lots of buses (which is where this treatment would be most useful) for a bus to pass another at a stop for various reasons, such as when the first one is taking a long time to load/unload or the second bus is full and is skipping the stop entirely. I don’t see this sort of thing working particularly well without either making it easy for buses to exit and re-enter the bus lane (which then likely makes it easy for cars to do the same) or making a 2-lane bus facility (which is probably hard to justify in most cases). Obviously this doesn’t matter as much if the car lanes are already very much backed up so the bus couldn’t use them to get around anyways, but that’s pretty much never the case 24/7.

    1. Yeah, good point. Single lane contraflow, or single lane protected bus lanes are a problem if buses bunch, or break down. Both can be avoided, but are bound to happen sooner or later.

      That is why a raised curb is better than bollards. Although if the bollards are for a relatively small section (like the picture shown), it is unlikely to be a problem.

  5. Why is automated bus lane enforcement considered dead? The legislative session just started up this week, is the idea that no one wants to push it?

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