How Can Metro and Cities Make Bus-Only Lanes Effective?

Car parked in Wilshre Blvd bus-only lane. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.
Car parked in Wilshre Blvd bus-only lane. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

At last week’s Metro Customer Experience Committee meeting, CEO Phil Washington delivered a presentation on what Metro is doing to make things better for its bus riders. Washington stressed that bus service is Metro’s “core business,” with about three-quarters of Metro transit riders on the bus. Washington states that his “top initiative” is improving bus travel speeds.

Washington told an anecdote that he had recently ridden Metro’s Dodgers Express bus in the Sunset Boulevard dedicated bus lane. He said that there was a problem with “cars all over the place in that lane” and he called for increased enforcement. Washington concluded the point by stating that “we’re working with law enforcement to help us with that.”

Sometimes calls for enforcement can be problematic. There are critiques that say Vision Zero enforcement increases racial profiling. Also, to the extent that enforcement works, it can only cover as much as available staffing can handle, so it competes with other police priorities.

In the case of L.A.’s bus-only lanes, though, I tend to think some enforcement seems warranted. Too often, a selfish scofflaw driver – one person in one car – blocks a bus holding dozens of riders.

This has been a problem since at least 2013, when Metro and the city of L.A. opened the initial segment of the Wilshire Boulevard bus-only lanes. It is easy to spot drivers abusing those lanes. Enforcement there appears to be minimal, verging on non-existent.

So last week I was happy to hear Phil Washington say that Metro is improving enforcement for bus-only lanes. Kudos to Washington for this, and for him actually riding Metro’s buses.

But this was soon thereafter tempered by a tweet from cyclist Michael MacDonald, one of the leaders of Bike the Vote L.A.

MacDonald was riding in the Sunset Boulevard bus-only lane, where street signage explicitly states “bikes OK.” An LAPD officer shooed MacDonald out of the lane.

Westbound Sunset Boulevard is fairly difficult for buses and bikes to share on game days. Car traffic is congested as many try to get to stadium, which first and foremost accommodates car drivers. In addition, multiple bus lines converge onto Sunset, which serves as a trunk line. Bicyclists necessarily move slower on the uphill. When we notice a bus behind us, we have to search for places to “turn out” to allow the faster-moving vehicle to pass.

MacDonald reports that, in a brief period, he saw “about twelve people on bikes using the [bus-only] lane, and maybe thirty drivers of private vehicles using it. Maybe a third of those were Uber drivers.” He observed the LAPD officer “catching three scofflaw drivers. None received any citation, he just honked at them until they reached the end of the lane at Vin Scully Ave and they were able to merge into the regular vehicle line after cutting the line.”

So it seems like we need more enforcement, but with clearer directions for police officers who conduct it.

What’s the solution? Can we get wider uphill bus-only lanes so they better accommodate the speed differential between bikes and buses? Or do we need to separate these modes? Politically, getting either bus-only or bike-only space is a heavy lift; it’s even heavier to set aside space for both. Cars have consumed so much of our public space that it feels like people on buses and bikes compete for limited leftover crumbs.

Readers, what do you think? How can buses and bikes best share limited space? What kind of design/infrastructure is needed to give buses a clear priority? How can Southern California make bus-only lanes work for transit riders and others? Are there successful practices or designs from other cities?

  • LazyReader

    Why not put cameras on the buses to capture illicit use

  • Melanie Curry

    San Francisco buses have such cameras. I think they need a state bill to make it happen, but I’m sure SFMTA has data on whether and how it works.

  • Jason

    A big part of the problem, I think, is this refusal to go to 24/7 bus-only lanes, because people inevitably don’t move their cars in time or don’t read the signage and park when they’re not supposed to. Look at the top picture–the car is parked next to a meter. An easy place to start would be to go to 24/7 bus-only, specifically, to remove the meters and paint the curb red. While we all know that some people would still try to park there, it’d still cut down on it a lot by sending a very straightforward message that it’s NOT parking and that you need to keep moving.

  • Matt

    Overall the project has been a massive disappointment. Wilshire bus hoardings have not only not increased since the lanes were put in but have actually collapsed. Sure, some of this is due to Expo, but not all.

    People in my office admit they use the lanes illegally in their cars. There is no enforcement whatsoever. Even if they get a ticket once a year (which none have), it is well worth the toll to them.

    Given this debacle along with poor implementation of some road diets I don’t think we’ll see many bus lanes in the future at all.

  • Allen carter

    In order to truly separate buses from car traffic (though this admittedly will be problematic on surface streets), concrete barriers (or some other solid lane barrier) should be used to prevent cars from entering the lane, with the barrier breaking up at intersections of course. The problematic part of doing this unfortunately would be either shifting right turns at intersections to the lane next to the bus lane, or removing right turns from that intersection entirely

  • Richard

    It all starts with actually setting up bus lanes. LA has very few.

    Then they have to be more than 3 hours a day and actually enforced. LA has even fewer all day bus lanes and practically no enforcement.

  • Richard

    You can even have overnight parking if you must. Parking from 9pm to 6am, with everything towed by 7am is workable.

    24 hours is best though.

  • RedMercury

    Too often, a selfish scofflaw driver – one person in one car – blocks a bus holding dozens of riders.

    Agreed.

    But then we have the selfish cyclist–one person on one bicycle–blocking a bus holding dozens of riders.

  • LAifer

    Only in LA: Lets us bicyclists and transit riders fight over the scraps while car drivers get the spoils and laugh all the way to the bank.

  • Courtney

    Eh. This is the case in many cities but I totally get your point. I live in Chicago, which IMO is one of the best cities in the USA to live as someone who wants to live car free, and even here the car still rules. We don’t have nearly as many bus-only lanes. Bus riders often get the short end of the stick vs all the hooplah for rail (which is somewhat justified but I just wish bus riders got as much investment).

  • Courtney

    The cyclists blocking a bus is more about the city not creating space for cyclists. Plus it’s not as if L.A. is overrun with cyclists: It’s overrun with cars.

  • Courtney

    Not only capture but create a mechanism for a ticket to be issued as soon as possible. Sort of like red-light cameras.

  • Jason

    Here’s a couple of NACTO design guides on this:

    https://nacto.org/publication/transit-street-design-guide/intersections/intersection-design/shared-right-turn-lane/
    https://nacto.org/publication/transit-street-design-guide/intersections/intersection-design/right-turn-pocket/

    I think it’s easy enough to imagine how you’d incorporate things like a lane barrier and removing the street parking into those designs. You’re probably right that you’d want to reduce the number of intersections where you’re allowed to turn and force people to circle around instead, to make sure that long queues of people waiting to turn right aren’t constantly blocking the bus (with the right turn pocket one for instance you can imagine that becoming a problem).

    Maybe one way to do it is to remove the parking and instead of putting the bus lane there, make it one long turn lane and have people intending to turn right at an intersection enter the lane at the preceding intersection? If you have a bus-only phase first and then a general green light that might not be too bad.

  • Darren

    Similar issue with setting up camera enforcement of HOV lanes.

  • Wanderer

    The ideal situation would be bus lanes on major arterials, bike lanes/bikeways on parallel streets. Both modes would be accommodated but not get in each other’s way. Buses really need major streets, where bikes are more flexible. This hierarchy exists some places in Northern California. Many Los Angeles streets–even secondary streets–are very long, making them feasible for bikeways. It would probably require taking out stop signs on the secondary streets to make it reasonable for cyclists, which could be an issue.

  • Morgan Wick

    In LA though, there often aren’t any good parallel streets for bikes, because of the way arterials cut across the grid and interact with hills, and because of the car-centric way some parts of the city are laid out (there’s literally no alternative to Santa Monica, Olympic, or Pico Boulevards to get to Century City). What would even be an alternative to Sunset to get to Dodger Stadium from downtown?

  • Wanderer

    Morgan, I’m thinking of places with a good grid of streets. That would be roughly from Vermont to Fairfax, maybe even La Cienega, at least north of Pico. A lot of South LA has a big grid, as does much of the San Fernando Valley.

    It’s certainly true that there are chokepoints where there really aren’t good alternatives to the arterials. Sunset from Downtown to Dodger Stadium is definitely one, Sunset runs in a canyon with hilly streets feeding down to it. Century City is another kind of chokepoint since it has no local streets. I wonder if it would possible to thread a pedestrian/bike path through there, but I have not looked at the map.

    What I’m saying is that where it’s possible to put buses and bikes on separate streets, it’s generally desirable. But there are places where everybody’s going to have the share the roads. The problem is that in LA today cars are prioritized on those streets, there are bike facilities on a few, and transit pretty much always get hosed.

  • 1976boy

    If there were a separate bike lane this would not happen. There are multiple separate car lanes and yet still drivers use the bus lane. That is the definition of selfish.

  • Richard Bullington

    Why not hook a battery of Sidewinders up to the cameras? Wouldn’t take too long to achieve 100% compliance

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