Greater Greater Washington

Ticket scofflaw drivers with bus-mounted cameras

How do you stop car drivers from blocking bus lanes? Put cameras on buses, of course.


SF Muni bus. Photo by BeyondDC on flickr.

Unfortunately, transit lanes are often clogged by car drivers who either don't know or don't care that cars are not allowed in them. Enforcement is difficult, because violation is often so rampant that it's not practical for the police to pull over every violating car.

DC's 7th Street bus lane through Chinatown is a prime example.

But there is a solution. San Francisco is installing cameras on all its city buses, specifically to enforce the prohibition on cars in transit lanes. Human officers will review footage from the cameras and mail tickets to the owners of any cars illegally blocking the lane.

Bus cameras in San Francisco will not be used to ticket other types of moving violations such as speeding or running red lights. For now they won't even be used to ticket car drivers that block bus stops. Current law prohibits any use other than ticketing transit lane violations.

Even that limited application will make a big difference, though. San Francisco has 17 miles of transit lanes, but without enforcement they're no better at actually moving buses through traffic than 7th Street in DC.

If this idea works it could have a huge effect on bus planning nationwide. Bus lanes could become much more effective, and therefore likely to become more widespread.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 

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I like this.

I feel like we are on the verge of a seismic shift, where traffic law goes from being a theoretical construct, suggested behavior maybe, to something that is actually practical to enforce nearly 100% of the time.

I suspect one of the outcomes will be a rewriting of the traffic laws!

by contrarian on Feb 15, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

This is a no brainer in DC. Metro and the City Council should be on it.

by Turtleshell on Feb 15, 2013 10:41 am • linkreport

Who's going to photograph and ticket the buses that block crosswalks?

by ceefer66 on Feb 15, 2013 10:43 am • linkreport

ceefer66 beat me to it. There is rarely a morning that I don't have to walk around the back of a bus that is blocking the crosswalk at 16th Street and Park Road, and the crossing guard there doesn't seem to notice or care. I'll also add to the list buses that don't pull completely into the bus pad when they stop, blocking two full lanes of traffic.

by John on Feb 15, 2013 10:47 am • linkreport

Wait. We have bus lanes on 7th Street?

by MetroDerp on Feb 15, 2013 10:48 am • linkreport

What is rule on the bus lanes? Are cars not allowed in them at all? Or are cars only banned if they are not moving?

by Whitney Wilson on Feb 15, 2013 10:53 am • linkreport

Houston Light Rail Instant Karma Cam.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CV2rdGX4JYc

by Frank IBC on Feb 15, 2013 10:53 am • linkreport

The WMATA compact states that "The jurisdiction of the Metro Transit Police shall be limited to all the transit facilities (including bus stops) owned, controlled or operated by the Authority..."

If a bus stop on a public sidewalk is a transit facility operated by WMATA, a bus lane probably is too. If this is correct (lawyers' comments would be most interesting), WMATA can implement this on its own.

by Ben Ross on Feb 15, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

Great idea.

I will add that another of DC's un-enforced traffic laws is that it is illegal to pull around and make a right turn in front of a bus at an intersection (I think within 100 feet of an intersection).

The right turn in front of busses is actually quite dangerous as the bus is frequently trying to go the opposite direction and move left to re-enter traffic and then of course the bus has likely discharged passengers who are often in the crosswalk which the illegally turning car has a poor view of because the bus is in the way.

I've never understood why DC doesn't make it an immediately towable offense and allow private towers to remove the illegally parked cars so the profit motive can overcome the indifference factor we get from most of MPD.

by TomQ on Feb 15, 2013 11:02 am • linkreport

Yes please....and why not also implement something like the Road Safe program in London (http://www.met.police.uk/roadsafelondon/). I wear a camera every day that records my position and speed. It would be great to use for drivers on cells, drivers who pass too close, and drivers who are blocking bike lanes (when they're not turning). It would also be useful to report the constant harassment and intimidation. If I get your face on camera, and your license plate, I should be able to report you, and you should face consequences for breaking the law.

I'd echo the sentiments that the buses can be terrible in terms of crosswalks and not pulling fully over. It might be a good tool to catch bad bus drivers as well, especially if it's combined w/ the internal cameras.

by thump on Feb 15, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport

I thought compliance with the 7th Street bus lane markings was done on a voluntary basis only? If people were ticketed for driving in them, it might suggest that they were doing something wrong and open them up for their intended use. Sounds crazy.

by aaa on Feb 15, 2013 11:07 am • linkreport

Go for it. Give bus drivers a button, and let them push it every time they see a problem. A police officer can then later determine whether the law was actually broken, and send a ticket, off course, with video evidence.

I do not understand why we don't use this more, and why SF has all these other restrictions. IMHO, as long as an actual police officer inspects the footage and verifies the infraction, a ticket needs to be send. It is he only way to get people to pay attention. Police officers should also regularly check out traffic cam footage and hand out tickets based on that. The only requirement is that the police can verify that the recorded information is not manipulated.

by Jasper on Feb 15, 2013 11:11 am • linkreport

Agreed with Thump - WMATA bus drivers are very often a big part of the problem.

I was on a bus the other night where the driver was being very agressive and as a consequence over shot almost every stop by a good margin and ended up in a couple of intersections discharging passengers.

I have a feeling that even if the order came down from god MPD would never ever ticket a WMATA bus driver so automatic camera enforcement of bus drivers might be the only way it ever happens and we get some sort of paper trail on bad drivers.

Though it is hard to figure out how the camera on the bus accomplishes that?

by TomQ on Feb 15, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

I agree with ceefer66 and John,

I just contacted WMATA this morning to complain about the terrible driving of a bus driver last night in Silver Spring. must have broken half a dozen traffic laws, many of which greatly endangered pedestrians and bicyclists.

To get back on point of the article, I don't thin it's a bad idea in theory, I'd just like to make sure it's not a power trip to WMATA/Bus drivers heads when they have their own traffic rule compliance issues to deal with.

by Gull on Feb 15, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

To get back on point of the article, I don't thin it's a bad idea in theory, I'd just like to make sure it's not a power trip to WMATA/Bus drivers heads when they have their own traffic rule compliance issues to deal with.

+1 to these and other points. If they put cameras on buses to enforce violations by other drivers they should review the film to enforce violations by the bus drivers themselves.

We can dump on drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians for violating traffic laws, but bus drivers are worse than all of them, particularly running red lights, which inevitably leads to blocking crosswalks and pedestrians (I'm looking at you, bus drivers making turns onto 7th Street).

by ah on Feb 15, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

My observation is that WMATA bus drivers observe the law (especially speed limits) much better than the average driver.

by Ben Ross on Feb 15, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

@Nick:

Do those lanes only go up to D Street? If they do extend north, there are no markings whatsoever, and if they don't, they should. God, WMATA is just the worst.

by MetroDerp on Feb 15, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

Guys, you realize its logically consistent to want to give bus drivers the tools for dealing with vehicles that block their job while also reccommending that bus drivers be courteous of other modes as well?

by drumz on Feb 15, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

Sounds like a fantastic idea.
While it will only be used to catch vehicles illegally using dedicated bus lanes (and also hopefully bus stops) it may have a positive ancillary benefit. If WMATA bus drivers know they are on camera they may not run traffic signals, block traffic, or otherwise drive poorly.

by andy2 on Feb 15, 2013 11:43 am • linkreport

I don't know @Ben Ross, it's difficult to tell the speed of a bus while you're in it b/c of it's size relative to other vehicles you ride in. Unless, of course, you're sitting there looking at the speedometer.
My impression is that bus drivers speed quite regularly.

by thump on Feb 15, 2013 11:46 am • linkreport

@MetroDerp

I think the lane (which only appears to be northbound???) starts being marked at 7th and D. The lanes are a solid white line, implying no merge. There are more markings after F street along side the verizon center. There are a few more at G street, but then after H, it becomes a normal striped white line.

All told, I think there are like 5 large white painted things that say "BUS ONLY" along that stretch. No lane color, signs, other marking. Having walked in that area a lot, the "bus only" lane is definitely used by anyone and everyone.

by Nick on Feb 15, 2013 11:50 am • linkreport

@ TomQ:WMATA bus drivers are very often a big part of the problem.

Please enlighten me and explain how bus drivers are part of the problem of blocked bus lanes?

What you're saying here is that you and others do not have to follow the law because another group does not either. Where is your individual responsibility?

by Jasper on Feb 15, 2013 11:52 am • linkreport

@Nick

No wonder people are in it all the time. I have been pushing for bus lanes forever and I had absolutely no idea these already "existed."

Maybe before we do cameras we should try properly marking the lanes and see what happens. Presumably any enforcement attempted today would fail to hold up in court because any driver could reasonably argue there was no indication of a bus lane present.

by MetroDerp on Feb 15, 2013 11:52 am • linkreport

FWIW the very first time I ever drove in DC (way back in 2005) I noticed the bus lanes on 7th street. And all of the cars in it, but still.

by drumz on Feb 15, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

If WMATA bus drivers know they are on camera they may not run traffic signals, block traffic, or otherwise drive poorly.

Buses already have cameras that record and store information when there are problems detected like a sudden acceleration/deceleration. WMATA has also been responsive when I've reported bad bus behavior via their online form.

I'll also add to the list buses that don't pull completely into the bus pad when they stop, blocking two full lanes of traffic.

Can't say I blame them on this as bus pull-outs are a huge slowdown for buses. San Francisco has done research on bus stops as part of TEP and found that keeping buses in traffic rather than having them pull out and back in not only makes buses run faster but actually makes ALL traffic run faster.

by MLD on Feb 15, 2013 12:01 pm • linkreport

Jasper - sorry that I wasn't clear but I was referring to the broader issues of traffic violations, and I thought the orignal article was suggesting that the on bus cameras be used to ticket more than just vehicles blocking bus lanes/bus stops.

But on the subject in fact bus drivers are sometimes part of the problem with their personal vehicles - at least in Friendship Heights where there is a bus garage and drivers in fact do park their cars in bus zones, usually to run in and eat at a couple of restaurants that are of course within walking distance of the garage.

And more broadly speaking WMATA maintenance & management vehicles are frequent blockers of bus lanes, usually for much longer periods than the occassional kiss and ride lingerer or run into Starbucks scofflaw. And yes I have seen WMATA staff pull up and park in the bus zone when there are legal spaces available in the immediate vicinity.

I'm certainly sympathetic when the escalator guys need to unload heavy equipment and tools but when that is done and they are off to work on something for a couple of hours they really need to move the vehicles somewhere legal or at least less inconvenient than one of their own bus stops.

But then my own observations are that many WMATA staff just don't care - the rules don't apply to them anyhow and though that frankly is a region wide attitude/problem these guys are doing this in uniform on their customers turf which is behavior I don't think would be tolerated in most other places of business.

by TomQ on Feb 15, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

This perfectly illustrates why non-seperated bus and streetcar facilities are such an enormous waste of time and money. The difference being, if someone is being a jerk in the bus lane, double parked etc, the bus can simply drive around them. Streetcars are stuck. Yes, we can say we will put cameras on the street cars and the buses and it will send them a ticket, but what good does that do the blocked streetcar in the here and now? Nothing...

Having lived in DC for awhile, I can also say I have never seen a town in the US where double parking was so prelevant and widely accepted.

by Erg... on Feb 15, 2013 12:15 pm • linkreport

@ MLD:Can't say I blame them on this as bus pull-outs are a huge slowdown for buses.

Simple new traffic rule: Give buses the right of way when pulling out of a bus stop. Have been the law of the land for decades in many European countries. Problem solved.

@ TomQ:many WMATA staff just don't care

Which puts them in the exact same position as that of those drivers who park in a bus lane (or bike lane).

WMATA is no Borg organization where everyone has one mind and behaves perfectly. WMATA is just like society with people who do the right thing and people who don't care.

Which is utterly irrelevant when it comes to enforcement of traffic laws. You can not block a bus lane (or bike lane, or pedestrian crossing). So, we need enforcement of that. There is no need to wait until bus drivers, or whatever other traffic category you may identify, behaves perfectly.

Traffic is a mess. To make it better, we need enforcement. Enforcement is useless when we wait until certain people behave better.

In fact, if we have cameras on buses, I'd reckon that police officers would easier find law breaking by bus drivers, giving bus drivers a better incentive to stick to the law.

by Jasper on Feb 15, 2013 12:22 pm • linkreport

Why not put a fence (similar to those in some medians to stop people from crossing at places other than lights) between the bus lanes and all other traffic; with that if you are caught in the lane there is no excuse since there is physical separation between the lanes.

We could always put the lanes in the middle of a street and reverse them so that a north bus lane would be on the southbound side of the road, and the southbound lane on the northbound side that would get people to stop driving in them for fear of an accident.

by kk on Feb 15, 2013 12:22 pm • linkreport

I would think people are less liekly to park in a streetcar lane, given the very obvious tracks. but a bus lane? "The bus can go around me!"

I believe there are southbound bus lanes on 9th street, that suffer the same problems as the 7th street lanes. despite the fact that they're ratehr clearly marked as "BUS ONLY" I see tons of cars in them. Taxis seem to be the most frequent users of bus lanes.

by Birdie on Feb 15, 2013 12:26 pm • linkreport

Erg - this argument about streetcars being blocked is often trotted out by opponents.

But somehow I imagine the fact that the bus can go around and a streetcar cannot factors into a driver's willingness to park in a bus zone - I suspect the vast vast majority of people are not so inconsiderate that they would actually block what is essentially a train line.

But make it a $500 ticket too just to be certain and frankly I would not object to raising the fine for parking in bus zones to something similar immediately as it really is an inconvenience for riders and creates avoidable traffic hazards.

That doesn't resolve the question about accidents on a street car line but accidents are extraordinaly rare relative to illegal parking.

by TomQ on Feb 15, 2013 12:27 pm • linkreport

I agree, kk, and that's even getting into BRT territory which would be great. Not sure it will happen soon since there doesn't even seem to be the political will to stripe a few more bus lanes.

by Alan B. on Feb 15, 2013 12:28 pm • linkreport

I don't think this is a good idea. Here's a couple reasons:

1. The bus lanes in most of the District separate the traffic lanes from the parking lane, and also have to be entered to turn at intersections. Especially on 7th and 9th Streets NW, there are countless very valid (and legal) reasons to be in these lanes in a private automobile at any given time. Perhaps you are trying to park, or perhaps you are planning to turn. You are legally allowed to drive in the lane for these purposes.

2. Automated enforcement like this still denies the right of the person being cited to confront their accuser accurately and adequately in court. If I get a ticket mailed to me for driving in a bus lane three weeks ago, I won't accurately remember why I was doing it. If a real human police officer pulls me over and asks me why I was driving in a bus lane *at that moment*, I can explain if I have a justifiable reason (see #1 above) and likely avoid the ticket altogether, but if I do go to court in six months, I'll remember that specific encounter with a live officer. I won't likely accurately remember an encounter with a camera that I didn't see and that didn't send me anything for a few weeks.

3. Metro bus drivers seem to have a lot of challenges (as mentioned by many, many previous commenters) with the very basic component of their job - driving the bus without hitting anybody or breaking any laws. Adding more responsibility to them to enforce traffic violations is a bad idea.

4. Black and white enforcement of anything is dangerous, and degrades quality of life for us all. The reality is that the world we live in is not black and white - there are shades of gray. Even for something seemingly simple, like not running red lights (obvious safety hazard), there is a gray area - take the one and only ticket I have ever gotten for a red light camera - I stopped at a red light, and then ran it mid-cycle after looking both ways to be sure I was clear, to get out of the way of an ambulance coming up behind me with lights and sirens on. I did it right in front of a live police officer, who did not pull me over but actually waved at me in a "thanks, man!" sort of way, as he understood even this black and white rule had a gray area for that moment and that I broke the rule but still did the right thing.

The traffic court judge wouldn't waive the ticket, because by the time the ambulance got to the intersection, it must have turned green - the ambulance did not have a ticket and therefore no photo of it - so the judge said there was no way to prove the ambulance was ever there and prompted me to run the light. A human being could (and did) see it in real time and make a judgement call. A machine has no judgement. Next time an ambulance pulls up behind me at a red light with lights and siren on, you can bet your $100 I'm just going to sit there and wait. I'm not going to pay to be polite anymore. Automated enforcement got us there.

by ShawGuy on Feb 15, 2013 12:40 pm • linkreport

@ShawGuy: The reasons you cite are why this has to be done with a video recording, not just a photo (which is how SF is doing it). With a video, it's easy to see if the car is parking or turning.

Of course, this does require that the employees reviewing the video and determining violations be competent and honest, and finding such employees seems to be a challenge for WMATA and/or the DC government. But it can be done.

by Rob on Feb 15, 2013 12:57 pm • linkreport

@ Shawguy: You are legally allowed to drive in the lane for these purposes.

Well worded. The point is blocking. Not driving.

If I get a ticket mailed to me for driving in a bus lane three weeks ago, I won't accurately remember why I was doing it.

The offense is not driving, but blocking. Also, with camera enforcement, you can be given a copy of the video, just like with speeding tickets and red light violations. The accuracy of your memory is rather irrelevant with respect to the law. Also, you have the right to face your accuser. Not to face him within seconds of breaking the law. You can always go to court and fight your ticket, just as with speeding tickets.

Adding more responsibility to them to enforce traffic violations is a bad idea.

How is a camera mounted on a bus an extra responsibility?

Black and white enforcement of anything is dangerous, and degrades quality of life for us all.

No enforcement of anything is dangerous, and degrades quality of life for us all.

The point is not automated enforcement, but enforcement by a police officer who reviews the footage.

you can bet your $100 I'm just going to sit there and wait

That would be breaking the law. You have to clear the way for vehicles with sirens. I hope that ambulance comes equipped with a camera so someone can send you a nice ticket. It is appalling that you are willing to play with other people's lives out of pettiness. I would not want to hear your indignation when an ambulance would be late you pick up because some dingus refused to move out of the way.

by Jasper on Feb 15, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

If the cost associated with installing the cameras exceeds the real "cost" of blocked lanes, maybe we shouldn't. The bigger issue for me is the number of former Nascar drivers they employ who don't follow basic rules of the road and their sometimes inattentive attitude.

by HogWash on Feb 15, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

For whatever it's worth, if you see a bus violating a traffic law, you should write down the bus number, the time, and file a complaint with WMATA.

All of the buses have video cameras on board, which makes it very easy for WMATA officials to review the footage, and determine whether or not the driver needs to face disciplinary action.

Fortunately, Metrobus drivers aren't homicidal maniacs like the bus drivers in NYC. They're usually pretty considerate.

by andrew on Feb 15, 2013 1:56 pm • linkreport

@ HogWash:If the cost associated with installing the cameras exceeds the real "cost" of blocked lanes, maybe we shouldn't.

A bus full of stopped people is pretty expensive if you count the value of the time of all those people. Simple example.

Consider a bus with 50 minimum wage workers that gets delayed for an hour. $7.25 * 50 = $362.50.

Is an hour delay crazy? No, I got delayed only yesterday by an hour because VDOT forgot to salt the Fairfax County Parkway. Does that happen a lot? No. However, 12 days of a five minute delay of the same bus because of a blocked bus lane adds up to the same.

That is ignoring the investment in the bus lane itself, the extra wear & tare on the bus, cost of the delay of the bus itself and many more factors.

by Jasper on Feb 15, 2013 2:22 pm • linkreport

@ ShawGuy

Part of the problem is how we place bus lanes; the bus lane should either be in the middle of the road or the far end to the right of parking or simply no parking lane at all.

I think there should be a requirement for officers to ticket on site anything that is done against the law period no exceptions. It should not matter if you are about to get off and dont feel like doing paper work the officer took the job and should accept all that comes with it.

I commonly see people making turns on 7 and H will police are there and nothing is done. I also see police themselves blocking crosswalks, bus lanes etc running into food places to get food that is unacceptable. My favorite one is police turning on sirens and lights to get through a busy intersection and then turning them off right after passing through. They are there to enforce law therefore they should be providing an example and if they break the law they should be fined, docked pay or even themselves made to spend a day in jail.

Tickets should be $5000 each to severely discourage doing things that are illegal. Fines should be an amount which puts people in financial hardship so they will dwell on what they did.

by kk on Feb 15, 2013 2:28 pm • linkreport

@kk - I'd fully support making fines proportional to a person's income/net worth, as they do in Sweden. I had a douchebag boss a while back who'd drive alone in the Dulles Access road. Sure he'd get ticketed a couple times a month, but the cost of the tickets were low enough he could just write them off as a cost of doing business.

by Distantantennas on Feb 15, 2013 3:13 pm • linkreport

[Police] are there to enforce law therefore they should be providing an example [...]

You must be new around here. Once at the Verizon Center, I asked the cops parked there, playing on their i-Pads and drinking coffee, why they didn't enforce the bus/bike lane on 7th Street. "Duh, do you know how much work that would be for us?" they replied.

Here's a tip: for free, unlimited parking at fire hydrants, crosswalks and in No-Parking zones, just pick up a t-shirt or baseball cap saying "Police" on it. Leave that on your dashboard, and you're all set. (Valid in downtown DC only.)

by Sydney on Feb 15, 2013 4:03 pm • linkreport

Enforcement is good, but it is not the only factor. The 7th and 9th street bus lanes are not performing poorly simply due to a lack of enforcement, they are designed to fail. Putting a dedicated transit lane in between on street parking and a regular travel lane, including a great deal of turning traffic is not a good design if you want to really give buses priority.

The design matters if you want something that will be easy to enforce. And you need something easy to enforce is you want the enforcement to be effective.

by Alex B. on Feb 16, 2013 9:37 am • linkreport

I love the infinity of excuses that have shown up in the comments so far. Let me recap (from memory).

Bus lane blockers should not be enforced because:

* Bus drivers break the law themselves
* Cameras mounted on buses would be too expensive
* Cameras mounted on buses would be too distracting for bus drivers
* Police does not enforce anything anyway
* Camera enforcement is bad
* Police breaks the law themselves
* Police should be on site for every ticket (good luck solving crime that way)
* Bus lanes are poorly designed
* Blocking bus lanes is not a problem
* It is not clear that cars can not stop in bus lanes
* Other WMATA personnel block bus lanes as well, and until they don't nobody should be ticketed

Wow. It is not that hard people. Keep your car out of the lane that says BUS ONLY.

by Jasper on Feb 17, 2013 1:09 pm • linkreport

Love it! Love everything about it!

by John on Feb 17, 2013 4:54 pm • linkreport

I'm amazed to see all these people excited by the prospect of more Big Brother surveillance. As if there weren't already enough cameras stalking a driver's (and soon pedestrian's) every move in this town.

by Chris on Feb 20, 2013 4:44 pm • linkreport

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