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Replace rush hour parking restrictions with curb bulb-outs

The Chicago Department of Transportation recommended in April lifting rush hour parking restrictions on 225 of the busiest blocks in Chicago. Washington area governments should do the same for many blocks. This one change enables several other streetscape additions, like curb bulb-outs, that benefit everyone in some way.

Bus Bulb in Chicago. Image from Streetsblog.

If DDOT and other local DOTs were to eliminate rush hour parking restrictions on streets with at least 3 lanes in each direction and replace them with bike lanes, curb bulb-outs and bus bulbs, here's how everyone would win.

Retailers: Parking on rush hour streets is illegal from 7-9:30am and 4-6:30pm. 5 hours of each day are dedicated to commuters, not retailers. Retail consultants say that, for streetside retailers, each parking space is worth $300,000 annually. Why? Because drivers passing by a desirable retailer are more likely to stop when there's a curbside space. The main time of day when drivers pass by retailers is rush hour. Eliminating this 5 hour moratorium on the most convenient parking would help retailers stay open after the commuters go home.

Bus Riders: With no rush hour parking restrictions, we can build curb bulb-outs at the beginning or end of blocks, and even add bus stops to the bulb-outs (called bus bulbs). Buses would no longer have to pull over and then re-merge during non-rush hours, which they rarely do effectively anyway. And bus riders would have more space to wait for their buses, space that could include amenities like shelters and trees. The increased bus speed would lower total transit operating costs, thus keeping fares low.

Some would object that this compromises the goal of dedicated bus lanes. However, DC is investing in streetcars for its main thoroughfares, and bus bulbs will facilitate the introduction of streetcars.

We'd have fewer signs like this too. Photo by The DC Traveler.
Pedestrians: Curb bulb-outs create more room to wait for walk signs without getting bunched up on the corner, and greatly shorten the crosswalk distance. So pedestrians win with a shorter, safer, more comfortable crosswalk. Furthermore, bus bulbs separate pedestrian traffic from those waiting for the bus.

Bicyclists: Cars whiz past bikes on both sides of bike lanes during rush hour parking restrictions. Lifting the restrictions would make bike lanes safer. This is one the main reasons for Chicago's lifting of rush hour restrictions.

Drivers: While it may appear that drivers are the losers, drivers win with more parking, fewer tows and less traffic congestion. Less traffic? That's right. The benefits listed above get drivers out of their cars and onto buses, bikes and their feet. And buses that never pulled out of traffic anyway will now stop and start more quickly than before.

But isn't a traffic lane removed during rush hour? The reality is that outside lanes are blocked by illegally parked cars and delivery trucks so often, that they often slow traffic down through traffic merging than had the outside lane not existed at all. Finally, restrictions would be limited only on the widest thoroughfares (3 or more lanes in each direction), which are also the primary retail drags, thus ensuring that there are always through lanes with no stopped buses.

So, is lifting rush hour parking restrictions a win-win-win? What do you think?

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


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Your proposal is unclear. What exactly do you mean by "three or more lanes." Define a lane. Is the parking lane that's used for rush hour service one of the lanes you're counting?

Let's say you're talking about a roadway with a total of 6 lanes, curb-to-curb. Under your scenario, the outer-most lanes will be 24x7 parking. The next lanes in will basically be bus priority lanes, since buses will stop in them to serve passengers at the bus bulbs. And the center lanes? Clogged by people turning left.

It's hard for me to see the drivers winning in this scenario, but I honestly have no problem with that.

Your assumption that the streetcar will come in and obviate peak-period bus lanes is very naive. Streetcars are economic development devices that are not at all intended to replace the current bus system (except maybe the Circulators). We'll still need high quality, rapid surface transit, and the only way to do that is to give priority on the roadways to our fastest and most flexible mode: bus.

by michael on Jun 11, 2010 12:10 pm • linkreport

I am trying to digest this.

In general, I think traffic planning doesn't take costs of getting in and out of lanes into account. You can't factor in stupid drivers, and there are a lot of them, but you can try to design roads that eliminate opportunities for abuse.

DC does a terrific job of patrolling rush hour lanes. It is amazing how well the public sector bureaucracy can work when there is a massive profit incentive ($100 fines?).

A little confused as well with the 3 lane thing. And while I love the $300,000 per parking space figure, I have to think the math behind that is a little weak.

But this is the quote that I liked:

"a critic of the city's parking-meter privatization, questioned whether the recommendation to lift rush-hour parking bans might be driven by the desire to increase meter revenue, since the recommended blocks are all metered."

Since Chicago is on the hook for lower parking meter revenue collected, I do suspect that is what is going on. No problem like that in DC -- as I said our small army of ticket collectors and tow trucks is on the job every rush hour.

by charlie on Jun 11, 2010 12:28 pm • linkreport

I don't think it's win-win. Your entire premise relies on rush hour lanes being poorly enforced and therefore unuseful. If enforcement is a problem, increase enforcement! That's win-win, because cyclists and buses bear the biggest burden from illegal curb lane parking, as they have to deviate into heavier traffic or pull out into heavier, congested traffic. If you really want to do something meaningful, why not turn the curb/parking lane into buses/cyclists only during rush hour? That's a lot closer to win-win.

It is pie in the sky to think that the relatively greater attractiveness of walking/busing will reduce all those drivers. Sorry, the drivers aren't likely to have walking as an alternative.

by ah on Jun 11, 2010 12:34 pm • linkreport

I think its not an either/or for bus bulbouts vs. bus lanes. I think there are appropriate corridors and sections of corridors for both and both have their place in a well integrated transit network.

There are places in the in our area that could benefit from longer dedicated bus lanes (16th St NW from Spring Road to at least Florida Ave) at least in the peak period. In other areas a different bus lanes configuration could be appropriate (current 7th Street bus lane is partially in 2nd lane where parking is permitted in right lane).

Would bus bulbouts be helpful on Rhode Island Avenue? Probably a good way to go on a corridor with signficant but not a huge amount of bus service and it would also accomodate residential parking needs as you indicate.

by Craig simpson on Jun 11, 2010 12:36 pm • linkreport

What can we do to get people to stop using the term "busing" to refer to bus transit. "Busing" is the practice of transporting kids between school districts for the sake of desegregation. Or maybe it's time for us transit folks to take the term "busing" back from its previous controversial meaning?

by michael on Jun 11, 2010 12:40 pm • linkreport

While your suggestion is interesting, I question whether it has any real merit.

I take Metrobus to and from work everyday. During the evening rush there are consistently illegally parked vehicles blocking the right lane of 19th street, especially between Penn. Ave and E. St. Frequently, there are so many, that the right lane is effectively removed (no one is merging in or out). This significantly slows traffic, and the buses in particular - since they have little room to maneuver around vehicles that are stopped for pedestrian traffic while waiting to turn right. Although my bus is only on 19th for about 5 or 6 blocks, this often adds a solid 5 minutes to the commute.

Furthermore, due to the narrow lane widths (even though the roadway in 3 lanes) the bus is often unable to proceed forward when the right lane is clear, due to another bus (tour or commuter) in the center lane - the vehicles would scrape sides if my bus attempted to proceed forward, even though the lane is clear ahead. Restricting the roadway further won't solve this problem. Just the other day my bus struck a bicycle locked to a street sign as it passed, due to the narrow lane width (the bus, which was fully within the lane but angled outward due to the crown of the roadway, scraped the handlebars of the bicycle - which was parked parallel to the roadway, on the side-walk side of the sign post - for the full length of the bus).

On this street, at least, there is little retail that is open outside of traditional office hours, and therefor would not be served by the additional parking. Most of the illegally parked vehicles are individuals waiting to pick someone up from one of the nearby office buildings.

I agree that this might improve pedestrian safety, but the congestion could also lead to more vehicles that block cross-walks and actually lead to more dangerous conditions.

Lastly, your first point and your last point seem to be contradictory. We want to preserve parking for private vehicles, but then we expect people not to drive? Doesn't quite add up.

On the rare occasion that there are no vehicles blocking the right lane in the evenings, the roadway flows quite effectively, and drives don't take as many risks out of frustration, such as blocking cross-walks, making dangerous merges that often result in the injury of cyclists, or coming dangerously close to pedestrians.

I think a better solution may be better signage for the numerous nearby parking garages and increased enforcement. While these may favor 'commuters', I believe that they create the safest and most efficient conditions for commuters of all types, be they cyclists, bus riders, pedestrians, or private vehicles.

Admittedly your idea may be more viable on other streets, but from my experience, certainly not 19th.

by irate_reader on Jun 11, 2010 12:53 pm • linkreport

I don't think 19th is that bad compared to some other option. The "office" buildins are all WB or IMF, and yes, their staff is really bad about curb parking during rush hour. The large commuter (loudon) buses also don't help.

I think 19th is being target with some bus priority lights, although it is only the 80, 3Y, and 16 that use it?

I've also wondered why on 19th they don't put a bike lane in the sidewalk -- they are nice and wide for the most part. Again, IMF/WB might have something to do with that.

by charlie on Jun 11, 2010 1:24 pm • linkreport

I believe the S1 uses 19th, as well. Still, the buses can get pretty well stacked up during the evening rush. As noted, this is compounded by the MTA/LCT buses.

I say 'office' buildings since they are not exclusively IMF/WB. The GSA is there as well as at least one building that I believe is privately owned (maybe space is leased to IMF/WB?). There's also a little bit of housing for GWU.

Some serious bus priority measures along with enforcement would do wonders. I'm sure there are other streets that are worse off, but this is one that I have experience with.

by irate_reader on Jun 11, 2010 1:50 pm • linkreport

@irate_reader: with the big commuter buses, I am not sure a bus lane would even work. Half the time the right most lane is blocked up because of them - in my experience.

I think spacing out the spots a bit better might also help -- not to eliminate stops, but just so they just don't all try to stop at the same intersection at the same time.

IF i recall, DDOT is funding the bus priority project there. I don't think it is that bad compared to, say, Georgetown (heaviest bus corridor), but clearly could use some improvement. Even turning the last block of 19th before the E street expressway into a bus only turn lane would help.

Enforcement is difficult in the sense that most of the people aren't "parking" they are just doing 5 minute drop-offs. Hurts rush hours badly but you'd need staff on each block to ticket them. The slug line by Eye st could also be structured a bit better.

by charlie on Jun 11, 2010 2:04 pm • linkreport


There are certainly difficulties with enforcement.

I've often wondered if there's anyway that WMATA and MPD could partner and install cameras (outward facing) on buses to take photos of offending vehicles. Roving photo enforcement, if you will. When the bus encounters a vehicle parked illegally, or blocking a bus lane/bus stop, the bus operator could push a button to take a photo - the violator would receive a ticket in the mail. This seems like a win-win for both WMATA and the city. Maybe there could be a revenue split.

Anyone know if there's anything like that in use anywhere and what the legal issues might be?

by irate_reader on Jun 11, 2010 2:12 pm • linkreport

@irate_rider re bus cameras: They're testing them in NYC.

by michael on Jun 11, 2010 2:18 pm • linkreport

The problem with the logic is that if there is a parking lane, it will be all filled up with parkers and people will use the next lane over for their illegal waiting, meaning now there are no lanes at all for buses and cars to get through.

Bus lanes are great, but DC doesn't enforce them at all. At all. Cops routinely drive by long lanes of cars in the bus lanes by my office. They should put cameras on the fronts of the buses to issue tickets to cars that drive in them. It's so bad that even though I want to avoid them when I do drive, I am forced to get in them to because they are full of cars and they won't let you cross to make turns, etc. They're worse than useless in their current incarnation.

by gleb on Jun 11, 2010 2:25 pm • linkreport

@irate_reader; sorry, you lost me at the word "camera". I'm all for getting things moving, and moderate enforcement needs to be a part of that. But when cities start talking cameras they just hear cash registers.

I'm going to see what they do with bus priority on 19th. This is a solvable problem -- in the big picture there isn't that much traffic here. I think the problem is DDOT spends it time worrying about bike lanes rather than getting buses moving.

by charlie on Jun 11, 2010 2:52 pm • linkreport

The critique of my proposal by the commenters is that drivers would not win, because illegally parked cars/trucks in the outside rush hour lane is an enforcement issue, and lifting the rush hour restriction just moves the illegally parked cars into the 2nd lane.

While this is true, drivers would definitely win during the 19 non-rush hours of every day - because bus bulbs allow for more parking and increase the stop and start time for buses that rarely pull out of the 2nd lane anyway. It's thus a win for all drivers except for rush hour commuting drivers. So, if it's a win for everyone except commuting drivers who usually live outside the city and often could take transit anyway, why would DDOT not do this?

I know adding parking is anathema to many GGW readers, but this proposal says nothing about how the parking would be rated (preferably with performance parking) and adding curbside parking is a common traffic calming measure.

by Ken Archer on Jun 11, 2010 3:50 pm • linkreport

How do bus bulbs create more parking spaces? By removing the curbside space needed for the bus pads?

I'm still a huge advocate of peak-period parking restrictions, but using the parking lane as a bike/bus lane.

But if you want to dedicate one lane to parking and the next lane to buses, I'm fine with that.

I guess one final comment is that this only really applies to streets with commercial frontage. There are many places with peak period parking restrictions that are not commercial districts, like 16th street between Spring and U. Can we please use those curb lanes for buses in the peak?

by michael on Jun 11, 2010 4:11 pm • linkreport

@ charlie Who cares if the city gets more revenue from them? That would seem to be a positive side effect to me. The sweeper cams have been successful in improving the street sweeping, as far as I know. Doing the same thing with buses makes sense to me, assuming that the law is a binary stopped car = ticket situation.

by jcm on Jun 11, 2010 4:15 pm • linkreport

"Some would object that this compromises the goal of dedicated bus lanes. However, DC is investing in streetcars for its main thoroughfares, and bus bulbs will facilitate the introduction of streetcars."

No there not; DC is only building streetcars on select main thoroughfares not all of them.

by kk on Jun 11, 2010 4:17 pm • linkreport

@Ken Archer; There are few streets like that in DC. But most of our rush-hour restriction are pretty fairly placed. I'm all for finding more parking, but as I said from the original article, the Chicago proposal does seem slanted towards driving more meter traffic. And that has to do their privatization contract more than moving traffic.

by charlie on Jun 11, 2010 4:21 pm • linkreport

i've never seen a pedestrian bulb-out that has had any positive effects for cyclists/cycling. in fact, it always makes cycling not only feel more dangerous, but actually become more dangerous. i know it's popular to support the 'motor traffic + pedestrians' scenario (See Clarendon, Ballston, etc.) at the expense of the 'cycling' scenario, but that doesn't mean we have to believe everything we're told. Simply put, pedestrian bulb-outs, like medians, are very very bad for cyclists and cycling.

That said, I'm with the general plan, with one change -- flip the permanent car parking out away from the curb, and put the cycletrack next to the curb. And, of course, don't build any ridiculous bulb-outs -- the parking buffer will serve the same effect.

by Peter Smith on Jun 11, 2010 5:12 pm • linkreport

Another person who could benefit: Developers. With more permanent street parking, perhaps that could take the place of portions or all of the parking minimums that they are required to include in their developments, meaning more bang for the buck without having to waste valuable space on expensive parking infrastructure.

by Dave Murphy on Jun 12, 2010 1:59 pm • linkreport

just give streets road diets by taking out excessive travel lanes (which just benefit thru traffic going to the suburbs) and replacing them with angled on-street parking... watch neighborhood sidewalk-oriented retail grow. plus a little slow traffic on the street never hurt a retailer.

by poncho on Jun 14, 2010 4:02 am • linkreport

It does seem to me that I'd want to try better enforcement first. Obviously, even one person parking in the lane defeats the purpose of the restrictions. And that person is there all too often. But it's clear that the additional lane would be very useful to handle the extra volumes during those times of day.

I think it's unrealistic to think that traffic would flow better without the restrictions.

And I think the statements of benefits are also unnecessarily optimistic. 5 additional shopping hours? Even small town retailers on main street don't open before 9 or 10, cause no one is shopping that early. And most of the streets you are talking about here have substantial pedestrian traffic between 4 and 6:30. Would retail sales really increase that much if parking was allowed?

by Josh S on Jun 14, 2010 9:55 am • linkreport

@jcm, when you say "The sweeper cams have been successful in improving the street sweeping, as far as I know" how do you know that? I would be very interested in any objective analysis of whether or not this has changed anything other than the revenue side of the equation.

DC has long had one of the most effective parking-enforcement operations in any city. Even in the Barry days, while potholes remained unrepaired, residents have always been able to count on getting a ticket within minutes of most parking violations.

I have never in my life here found that residents ignored street-sweeping restrictions. Sure, people make mistakes now and then, but since we all have expected to be ticketed immediately since the invention of the parking ticket in DC, I really don't see how the cameras are likely to have changed things.

Actually, I kind of expected that they might even result in less money - since now, instead of being able to ticket cars within a 2-hour window, once the sweeper has gone, most people probably won't get busted anymore, unless the manual-ticketing operation is still in effect.

But was there actually a major problem with street sweepers navigating because of many illegally parked cars before the cameras? Not that I ever saw. Is it "better" now? I can't fathom how or why.

But as I said if you know something I don't know, I'm interested to read it.

by Jamie on Jun 15, 2010 9:04 am • linkreport

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