King County has around 40 miles of surface street bus-only lanes and, according to King County Metro, somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of the vehicles in those lanes are not buses — they're private cars, driving in the lanes illegally.
Stand at the bus stop at Denny Way and Aurora Avenue during evening rush hour, next to the Elephant Car Wash, and you’re bound to see a familiar sight.
Four bus routes, carrying about 32,000 passengers a day, use this stop and its bright red bus-only lane. But during rush hour, when hundreds of riders board at the stop every few minutes, that bus lane is consistently blocked by cars.
Cars at Battery Street and Sixth Avenue, one block south, trying to eke through the intersection, don’t quite make it and block the buses. Cars trying to escape the clogged left lane of Aurora crowd into the right one, interrupting the buses as they approach the stop. Cars carrying a single person block buses carrying 90 people.
A Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) study found that just upstream, at Fourth Avenue and Battery Street, 174 cars illegally used the bus lane in a single eight-hour period.
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The problem: Seattle police has a lot on its plate and enforcing bus-only lanes isn’t always the top priority. And even if police did start ticketing bus-lane scofflaws, there’s usually nowhere for those cars to pull over. So issuing tickets would clog bus lanes even more.
“Enforcement is low due to challenges noted above,” Dawn Schellenberg, a SDOT spokeswoman, said.
That’s why the City of Seattle and King County Metro would like to use automated cameras to enforce bus-only lanes. The city now uses cameras to enforce red-light running and school-zone speeding (those cameras issued nearly 106,000 tickets in 2017), but it needs new permission from the state Legislature to use cameras for transit-lane enforcement.
King County has around 40 miles of surface street bus-only lanes and, according to King County Metro, somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of the vehicles in those lanes are not buses — they’re private cars, driving in the lanes illegally.
During spot checks in 2017, Metro found that in one bus-only lane, on Northeast Pacific Street approaching the Montlake Bridge, as many as 90 percent of the vehicles in the lane were there illegally. Metro reduced that number to about 50 percent by adding more red paint and more signs, but that’s still a lot of cars driving where they shouldn’t, slowing down buses on that stretch that carry more than 21,000 passengers a day.
“While compliance among regular motorists is generally OK, it only takes one vehicle to completely plug the bus lane,” said Bill Bryant, Metro’s director of service development. “The vast majority of people in the lane are riding buses, but a significant amount of vehicles in the lane are not buses and they’re violating the law.”
In September, as part of her budget proposal, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would push the Legislature to allow camera enforcement of both bus-lane violations and “blocking the box.”
Such a bill passed out of the House Transportation Committee this past spring, before stalling. Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, the bill’s lead sponsor, says he’ll try again in 2019. Fitzgibbon’s bill would allow transit-lane enforcement cameras on up to three bus routes, in Seattle only. For the first violation, drivers would get a warning in the mail. A $136 fine would come with the second violation.
With buses due to be kicked out of the downtown transit tunnel in March, and Seattle entering a yearslong “period of maximum constraint,” Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, said it’s urgent to make sure transit lanes are cleared for buses.
“When I hear from people in West Seattle about this issue, they don’t really see it as a war on cars thing,” Fitzgibbon said. “They see it as, people should not be cheating and making it worse for the rest of us.”
San Francisco and New York City already use cameras to enforce bus-only lanes, but they do it in different ways.
San Francisco has video cameras on the front of every bus that capture the license plate of cars stopped or parked in bus-only lanes. Delays on affected bus routes fell between 3 percent and 15 percent after the use of the cameras, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
New York has camera enforcement along 12 different Select Bus Service (New York’s version of RapidRide, featuring off-board payment and bus-only lanes) corridors. The city considers the SBS routes “a huge success,” with increases in bus speed and ridership on all studied routes. But because camera enforcement was usually added very shortly after a route was converted to SBS, there isn’t data measuring the specific effects of the enforcement on speed and ridership.
New York uses two types of camera enforcement — cameras on buses, which largely catch cars stopped or parked in bus lanes, and stationary cameras at intersections, which largely catch cars driving in bus lanes.
In Seattle, the plan would be to use still cameras at intersections to enforce transit lanes, if the Legislature acts, Bryant said. Transit lanes in Seattle are typically “business access and transit lanes” (BAT lanes), meaning they’re reserved for buses and for cars making right turns at intersections or into driveways. So cameras would have to be able to distinguish between a car legally using a BAT lane to make a right turn, and one illegally cruising through on a less-crowded BAT lane.
To do that, cameras would be placed at intersections and would photograph cars that both enter and exit an intersection in a BAT lane. If a car exits the intersection, it means it wasn’t using the BAT lane for its legal purpose — to turn right.
“The standard BAT-lane treatment is to allow general purpose traffic in that lane so cars can more easily turn into and out of driveways and cross streets,” Bryant said. “But they’re required to turn right at intersections.”