I think bus lanes are great: the faster you make buses the more people switch from cars, which means the more frequently you can run the buses, which means even more people switch from cars. But when there's traffic drivers are often tempted to sneak over. The chances of getting a ticket are pretty low, other people are doing it, and then when a bus does come through there are cars in its way. Which loses much of the benefit of setting aside a lane for buses.

Some places (ex: NYC) handle this by putting automated traffic enforcement cameras on buses, and this was proposed for MA with Bill H.2494. [1] I think this is a good idea, but I'd like to see this go even further: put cameras on all the buses and then don't enforce it otherwise.

The idea is, in cases where you don't delay a bus then by using the lane you're making traffic a bit better for everyone else. You might be about to make a right turn, you can see that there's no bus coming, and you're going to be out of the way before any bus you don't see yet would be near. Or you're using a GPS for navigation which also knows the real-time bus locations, and it tells you you're safe to use the lane. By limiting enforcement to only cases when someone actually does delay a bus, it ought to be possible to both keep the lane clear for buses with less waste.

Since some people would still be scrupulous and want to stay out of the "buses only" lane regardless, I'd also want to see us change the law from "no cars" to "no cars slowing down the bus".


[1] The bill history ends with "1/3/2023, House: No further action taken". I'm not sure exactly but I think maybe because it was a bill in the 192nd congress and we're now on the 193rd this means it's dead?

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16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:53 AM

That’s not how traffic rules work, and for good reason. You can’t predict whether you’ll become part of a queue at the next traffic light, or whether a bus will come up behind that queue. In addition, a camera on a bus might only be able to see the license plate on the last car in the queue, when cars in front are equally culpable.

I think the camera bill is a bad idea for several reasons.

The bus lane implementations around here were done really badly. Many of them created traffic jams that didn’t use to exist. Before the bus lane, there was no delay for the bus.

In addition, the scheduled service in many of these lanes is so sparse that even if every bus were crush loaded, the bus lane could carry a fraction as many people as a lane full of single-occupant cars. A real bus lane like the one approaching the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey serves more than a hundred thousand people every morning.

The bus lanes around here are often marked really badly, with very few signs in a very small font, and pavement markings that aren’t maintained as they fade or the road is patched.

And some of the bus lanes don’t even have any buses using them! The city and state striped a lot of bus lanes for the October 2022 Orange Line shuttle, but didn’t bother to remove them. Why should people get camera tickets when the people making the rules are this sloppy?

You can’t predict whether you’ll become part of a queue at the next traffic light, or whether a bus will come up behind that queue.

You can't predict it perfectly, but you can often do a very good job. For example, say you're wanting to take the next right turn, and the lane becomes a combined bus lane + right turn lane not very far ahead of you. If you don't see a bus and you pull into the lane a bit early you have an extremely good chance of making it to the combined section before a bus comes. Similarly, the buses all have transponders on them broadcasting their locations, so you could be running a bus-aware navigation app on your phone.

In addition, a camera on a bus might only be able to see the license plate on the last car in the queue, when cars in front are equally culpable.

I think this is fine? Yes, you only enforce the rule against the car immediately in front of the bus, punishment for being at the end of a queue should be enough to keep queues from forming where they would be in the way: joining the queue is risky because maybe no one joins it after you and then a bus comes.

Before the bus lane, there was no delay for the bus.

I'm not sure where you're talking about, but as someone who commuted on buses for years (mostly the 94 into Davis, but a range of others as well) this was rarely my experience. Buses were regularly caught in traffic.

even if every bus were crush loaded, the bus lane could carry a fraction as many people as a lane full of single-occupant cars

A lane operating at ideal capacity allows about 1,900 cars per hour, but in the sort of very trafficy situations we're talking about we're well below that, maybe more like 600 (a car passing every 6s on average, but very uneven with periods of no movement). The cars are almost all one person each, so this is 600 people per hour.

A "crush loaded" bus would be about 75 people, so you'd need ~8 buses per hour, or one every 7.5min (or a lane that serves two lines running every 15min or four running every 30min). That's probably more frequent service than most of these lanes get, but I'm not sure? If it is, though, it's not by that much: a bus lane can still look "mostly unused" while carrying more traffic than a congested car lane.

The bus lanes around here are often marked really badly, with very few signs in a very small font, and pavement markings that aren’t maintained as they fade or the road is patched.

I haven't seen that (where I've driven the lanes are a very clear solid red) but if it's happening that just seems like a reason to mark it more clearly? Keeping the lane but not ticketing drivers who block the buses seems much worse?

And some of the bus lanes don’t even have any buses using them! The city and state striped a lot of bus lanes for the October 2022 Orange Line shuttle, but didn’t bother to remove them. Why should people get camera tickets when the people making the rules are this sloppy?

I agree if they're not in use they should be removed, but I think you're missing how my proposal helps with this. If you only enforce the bus lanes when drivers actually get in the way of a bus, then people who know that a line is marked for a bus route that is inactive are free to use the lane.

For example, say you're wanting to take the next right turn, and the lane becomes a combined bus lane + right turn lane not very far ahead of you. If you don't see a bus and you pull into the lane a bit early you have an extremely good chance of making it to the combined section before a bus comes.

This type of scenario potentially pairs badly with only enforcing the last car in the queue when the bus arrives. As soon as the car at the end of the line switches to the bus lane, everyone in the queue ahead of them is suddenly incentivized to abruptly jump into the bus lane ahead of them. Even setting aside the safety hazards of encouraging drivers to cut each other off, this obstructs the person who wants to make a right turn (particularly relevant if they’re in a situation where they were expecting to make a right on red in order to clear the lane), such that the person who made a sensible decision will potentially be punished for the actions of people who made less sensible decisions.

I agree that this is a risk, and it's possible that it's enough that this is a bad idea. I'm especially worried about very long stretches where you can see that a car is coming along, and so have plenty of time to pull out in front of it.

But I see two main mitigations:

  • Cutting other drivers off would still be a traffic violation and people don't want to cause accidents, so I don't think we get the worst behavior of sudden lane switching.

  • People might only use these lanes close enough to when they know that they are going to be getting out of them that they won't people vulnerable to other people getting in front of them.

[-][anonymous]1y52

Note also you just recreated the classic deontology vs utilitarianism tradeoff.

It's "it's good to obey rules because obeying rules is itself a virtue" vs "it's good to take the actions that will have the best projected consequences".

Obviously in a physical finite universe, utilitarianism is correct*.  And rationality is a close cousin of it.

However, in a society of government and laws, deontology is much more convenient.  Easier for individuals to obey, easier to enforce.  This is why, for instance, you aren't allowed to ignore stop signs and red lights at night when there is no traffic.

*when you have data about the given situation of sufficient quality, and correct algorithms to process it.  Example, the actions taken by an aircraft stability control system vs a set of written "laws of how to fly a plane by the Senate Committee on Aviation".  

I'm proposing trying to bring the rules closer to what would have good consequences, which in this case combines with something that's easier to enforce.

[-][anonymous]1y10

Authorities find "if you're in the bus lane and you're not a bus, punish" easier to enforce than your proposal which is just "do what you want in the bus line but don't get caught delaying a bus".

Also note in practice that speed limits, etc, are enforced that way.  Most of the highway, most of the time, they are ignored.  

I'm proposing that the only enforcement be that buses should have cameras which they use to automatically capture the license plates of anyone blocking a bus. Why do you think that is harder for authorities than a combination of automated bus enforcement and police occasionally pulling people over?

[-][anonymous]1y10

I think it's harder for authorities write and pass the law you propose.

I am a fan of combined bus + bike + right turn lanes. But I say this as a bicyclist and motorist, not a bus user.

The benefit to bicyclists is that we get a real full-width lane to bike in the center of, without much traffic. This provides generous distance from debris on the right, and from traffic in the lane to the left, as well as optimal sight lines to and from traffic at intersections. And bus drivers are more courteous, attentive, and law-abiding than the average motorist. I have never had a problem using the full lane ahead of a bus.

However, after reading your post I have a new appreciation for how much that could slow down buses, depending on how common bicyclists are. Of course buses can change lanes to pass just like everyone else, and buses in a bus lane have to change lanes to make left turns anyway, but in heavy traffic it would reduce some of the benefit to buses of having a special bus lane.

Photo enforcement of traffic regulations (not even laws) is pretty close to pure evil. Both red light and speed cameras in all cases I'm aware of are purely measured on revenue, not behavioral or safety benefits.  The feedback loop (no visible enforcement) is broken - it's not showing anyone that it's important, it's just collecting money.

Because it's a court-complicit loophole that makes it a non-personal-violation (so there's no right to trial), it's pretty close to true the standard objection that "for the rich, it's a fee not a fine", but even worse because it's trivial to challenge, so anyone with enough motivation to lie can get out of it.

Do you think this is evil in this case, especially if it is a completely reliable "get in the way of the bus, get a ticket"?

I think it's extra-evil to stipulate that it would be completely reliable, and to then try to apply it to any real-world recommendation.  That removes the single most important aspect of the question.

How reliable would it need to be for you to find it acceptable? If 95% of the time the bus comes up behind you while you are in the bus lane you get a ticket, and 1:10k of these tickets were issued erroneously, would that be evil?

What if the bus was designed to flash a bright light and play a noise when it issued a ticket, to make the feedback loop very clear?

Hmm.  Thanks for pushing on this - I'm not exactly sure what would make it work for me, and I don't know what city government I'd trust enough to encourage exploration in this direction.

I would absolutely support better protected right of way, with barriers or the like.  I'm not sure where the line is for me to want more cost-effective enforcement over more mechanical rules.

[+][comment deleted]1y20