Seattle should take action to stop violators that slow down transit.
Some drivers jockeying through downtown Seattle traffic are taking to weaving in and out of bus lanes, sometimes blocking them entirely.
The Seattle Department of Transportation wants to install traffic cameras to stop those illegal maneuvers that routinely slow or block transit-only lanes. Given that buses carrying 90 people are routinely delayed or stopped by a single-occupant car, it’s a good idea that should be tried.
SDOT has studied the problem and found that during a single eight-hour period, 174 cars illegally used a downtown bus lane at Fourth Avenue and Battery Street, as reported by Times’ reporter David Gutman. Seattle Police could issue tickets every day, but the police have more important work and the act of stopping drivers to ticket them would further jam the bus lanes.
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Automated cameras at key locations could take pictures of bus-lane scofflaws, triggering a warning letter for first-time violators. A second infraction could cost $136. Seattle and surrounding cities already effectively use traffic cameras to ticket people running red lights and speeding in school zones. Bus lane monitoring would be a good addition.
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Seattle’s plan for catching bus-lane violators on camera seems to be a good one. Cameras will be set up to track cars should they not turn right at intersections, and thus exiting the transit lanes as required. This would avoid the problem of ticketing cars that temporarily use the lanes for a legitimate purpose.
King County Metro says the county has about 40 miles of surface bus-only lanes. Between 10 and 40 percent of the vehicles in those lanes are not buses. In some places, where traffic is worse, the number of scofflaw drivers is even higher.
A detailed budget for the project is not yet available, but city officials say they expect the fines to cover ongoing operations, maintenance and staffing to support transit-lane enforcement. They will need to keep a close eye on implementation to make sure the cameras do not have any of the implementation problems seen in other local projects, such as the early tolling on state Route 520 bridge.
Other cities, from London to San Francisco, have experimented with cameras for bus lane monitoring. San Francisco uses bus-mounted cameras to document drivers who park or stop in bus lanes. That city has seen a 55 percent reduction in violations since 2014 and a 16 percent drop in collisions.
The traffic-camera plan would require an update to Seattle’s municipal code and state legislative approval, because current state law limits how traffic cameras can be used. A proposal to allow the use of cameras for transit-lane enforcement passed out of the House Transportation Committee last year but went no further. The proposal’s lead sponsor, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, says he’ll try again this session, which starts Jan. 14. His bill would call for a pilot project for Seattle only. The Legislature should pass the bill.
Better signage, lane paint and education would also help improve bus speeds through downtown. Smoother and faster bus commutes could encourage more people to use public transit to get to work and not add to downtown traffic.
Bus lane cameras are not a cure-all for Seattle, but they could be a helpful part of a comprehensive traffic-improvement plan.