Thursday, April 11, 2019

We got the bus lanes. Now we need to make them work!

In the age of incessant package delivery, Uber, Lyft, ZipCar, bikeshare and a gazillion private shuttle services the public street and especially its curb have become a hotly contested space. Nowhere does this become clear than on those 5 miles of red lanes the MTA claimed for their frequent bus service in Baltimore. (Lanes were only installed when there where at least 18 buses per hour or one every 3.3 minutes).
Red Bus Lane on Lombard Street (photo: Philipsen)

If the goal is to move people and not cars, the combined bus-bike lanes make a lot of sense, even if the bus comes only every few minutes. Some routes move 1,100 people per hour in buses and only about 500 per lane in cars, a clear case for a bus lane. It also makes sense to give transit riders the reward of moving a bit quicker and get to their stop without being stuck behind a long line of cars since their dwell time at stops slows them anyway compared to cars. Except....

Theory and practice are always two different things. When it comes to turf, the battle is taken up by constituencies which do not argue about lane capacity but privilege and rights. Since overall only less than 17% of trips in the City are taken by transit, many more people would take issue with losing space than appreciating the benefit, no matter that in the metropolitan context, the 5 miles of Baltimore bus lanes are negligible. As with bike lanes, people in cars will always see an unused but forbidden lane as a waste, no matter how many people are actually moved there.  To set the facts straight, the MTA did a real study about their bus lanes and compared travel time before and after their installation. The 16 page report was published in February.

The bus lanes are big progress in a city where streets are managed by City DOT and the buses are run by the State's MTA. Good transit needs a lot of cooperation between the folks who own the space and the folks who operate on it. The bus lanes were one of the first times where this split was approached in a cooperative way (except for the joint work on planning for the Red Line). The need for cooperation between many parties has been also recognized elsewhere. A bus lane study in the Washington DC region published in 2017 states:
The blue and red bars indicate violations under the
conditions on the left and on the right. Red lanes
are way more effective (San Francisco)
Case studies from across the country indicated that it is essential to have cooperation among state, regional, and local agencies, as well as traffic engineering and transit service planning officials, at all phases of  implementation.
Interagency cooperation is not just essential in the planning, design, and construction phases, but also in the operational phase of a project. The transit operating agency is rarely the agency responsible for maintaining lane markings, setting traffic signal timings, and other essential components of effective bus lanes (National Capital area buslane study)
The bus lanes are also a step towards seeing streets as more than conduits for cars. So how successful are the lanes in Baltimore? While the bus lanes were the result of some analysis in the planning stage for Baltimore Link, the public wasn't necessarily well prepared for the appearance of those red lanes. This has been a flaw as the DC report correctly observed:
Effective design, education and outreach strategies are critical during both the planning and post-implementation phases, and all play critical roles in achieving the potential benefits of bus lanes.(National Capital area buslane study)
Everyone who stood only for a short while on Pratt Street, Lombard, Baltimore or Fayette Street will have seen that the red lanes don't guarantee smooth sailing for buses or bikes (aside from the fact, that those two users present their own set of conflicts). People park in the lanes to get a soda at a CVS, the Brink money truck sits in the lane to load up cash, cars use the lane to get faster to the front and UPS and and FedEx unload their packages on the red lane. Ironically, the frequency in which vehicles block the bus lane is unprecedented high right in front of the MTA headquarters on St Paul Street, one has to surmise that the culprits are frequently MTA employees themselves.
Violation on Fayette Street: A quick pick up at CVS
(Photo: Philipsen)

Still, in spite of all the obstacles, on some routes the bus got faster by around 30% (which isn't lightening fast, mind you. It could mean the bus moves now 12mph instead of 9mph). The point of the lanes is less the absolute average gain in bus speed but the reduced variability. In other words, bus lanes prevent that a bus gets stuck in gridlock for extended periods, bringing the entire schedule down.
MTA bus lane study: Absolute time savings on 

In some cases the absolute time gain shown in the study is so small that riders would hardly notice. But again, its less a matter of averages than extremes: In the case of entirely congested roadways, bus riders will certainly appreciate that they are still moving while everyone else sits still.

The MTA study also looked to what extent average trip times in the remaining travel lanes changed because of the bus lane. Surprisingly, on average, the trip times in the general lanes hardly changed after the bus lanes were installed.

Of course, the more congestion, the more tempting is unauthorized use of the bus lanes which may appear empty. Drivers do not recognize that at signals and bus stops, even one or two cars can gum up the works. That would be espcially true at signals, where bus can call up a slightly early green signal.
Surely, without the infractions, the improvements would be much stronger. Which begs the question: What about enforcement? Why isn't there more enforcement, especially regarding illegal parking or stopping in those lanes? Asking this gets into many issues, from Baltimore police capacity to the legalities of enforcement methods.

Luckily, help is in sight. A bill introduced by Baltimore Delegate Robbyn Lewis passed in Annapolis this session. It stipulates that City DOT and MTA continue their collaboration to work out an enforcement scheme by the end of this year. In the lingo of this bill, this is what must be done:
The Maryland Transit Administration, jointly with the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, shall:(1) study and analyze dedicated bus lane enforcement mechanisms used by peer transit agencies in the United States; and(2) develop a plan to enforce violations of dedicated bus lanes in Baltimore City.(g) (b) The study required under subsection (f)(1) (a)(1) of this section shall include:(1) an examination of best practices and technologies that have been effective in reducing violations of dedicated bus lanes by unauthorized users;HOUSE BILL 130 3(2) a review of potential capital and operating costs associated with dedicated bus lane enforcement mechanisms; and (3) an evaluation of the most effective methods for ensuring compliance with and enforcement of existing law, including the issuance of fines and exceptions from current prohibitions.
On or before December 31, 2019, the Workgroup Maryland Transit Administration and the Baltimore City Department of Transportation shall report its their findings, recommendations, and enforcement plan to the Governor and, in accordance with § 2–1246 of the State Government Article, the General Assembly. 
New York bus lanes are camera enforced
(Photo: WMATA report)
The Baltimore team can easily get a running start by looking at peer agencies that have already several more year of experience with dedicated bus lanes and enforcement strategies, including the already mentioned enforcement study for the DC area. For example, it addresses the issue of automated enforcement using the many cameras on the bus which are already part of a standard MTA bus. One of the cameras is forward looking and would see non-authorized vehicles in the lanes. However, pulling still photos with location coding from those cameras for enforcement would neither be easy without modifying the system, nor would it be immediately legal. As the DC report states:
New York and California are the only states in the U.S. with specific bus lane camera enforcement, and each required enabling legislation before implementing camera enforcement. Specific legislation enabled each state to begin camera-based bus lane enforcement as a pilot or a demonstration program, then extended and expanded their pilot programs as part of an iterative legislative process. (National Capital area buslane study).
Legislation to enable MTA to have on bus enforcement power was briefly considered in this legislative session but withdrawn because of the cost estimated to be $7.63 million for MTA in the first year and half a million thereafter. Another method of automated enforcement would be stationary cameras that could be installed as an extension of the existing red light and speed camera program operated under City DOT. Baltimore has already established an increased penalty of $250 for lane and bus stop violations. MTA's Administrator has instructed the MTA police force in assisting City police in enforcing lane and stop violations. Still citations per day remain low.
Bus lanes in Baltimore (MTA lane study)

Studies elsewhere have established something that is an almost universal truth: The initially  cheapest and easiest implementation strategies (in this case: white lane markings) are also the least effective and in the long run, they are not even cost effective. The 3x as expensive red bus lanes have a much higher compliance rate, and over ten years, automated enforcement will yield by far the highest returns, in spite of the initial high cost.

All the enforcement in the world won't solve the problem of a shortage of curb-space for all the services needed. The Cty-MTA team needs to assign space for deliveries and pick-ups as well for those vehicles to stay off the bus lanes for good. At times this will mean, that the bus lane may have to be installed alongside a parking lane as is planned for North Avenue. This increases the conflicts but, on the plus side, it provides a smoother ride than travel with two wheels in the gutter.

Relying heavily on buses for the region's transit, any way to speed up the bus is vital for transit to be effective. Cashless payment, signal priority and all door boarding are other methods, to accelerate the bus. MTA is studying all of it.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Danielle Sweeney: Bill would require city and MTA to collaborate on bus lane enforcement
House Bill 130, 46th District Del. Robbyn Lewis
WMATA Bus enforcement Study 2017

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