DC’s most ambitious bus lanes in decades opened this week, on H and I Streets downtown. Following their first days open, here are seven observations about how well—and not well—they seem to be working so far.
1. Broadly speaking they are working
Buses absolutely appear to be moving through downtown faster than before the bus lanes were present. Most car drivers are following the rules, and buses are skipping past a lot of traffic. Every other point in this article follows from the base observation that yes, these bus lanes look overall effective.
Huge kudos to DDOT for doing them, and to the Metropolitan Police Department for enforcing them. They’re a meaningful step forward for sustainable transportation in DC.
2. Red pavement sends a clear message, but only sometimes
Unlike other DC attempts at striping bus lanes on 7th Street and Rhode Island Avenue, which did not feature red pavement and which many car drivers completely ignored (if they knew bus lane restrictions existed at all), drivers are mostly staying out of the H & I lanes. With bright red pavement, there can be no excuses, no believable claims from drivers that “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t see it.”
For such a simple thing, the red is incredibly effective.
Many drivers are even staying out the red lanes at off-peak times when parking is completely legal. At 10:15 Monday morning, 45 minutes after the bus lane opened up for legal car parking, I Street’s curb lane was about 80% empty. Normally parked cars would have filled that space. They didn’t, presumably because “red = no cars” is a clear message.
Except “red = no cars” isn’t what the bus lanes actually mean. Parking is allowed off-peak. As drivers become accustomed to the concept that “red = sometimes no but sometimes yes,” will they continue to respect the bus lanes at rush hour? Or will drivers who can’t reasonably claim they didn’t see the bus lane learn they can claim they were confused about the hours, and assume they can get away with scofflaw parking?
Time will tell, but I fear the latter.
3. Truck loading is a problem, but enforcement is catching most of it
Cars may be mostly staying out, but trucks are not. All through the rush period on Monday, drivers of trucks and loading vans pulled into the bus lanes to load or unload goods. In every instance I witnessed, the police arrived after only a few minutes and cleared them out.
Seeing the police enforce bus lane rules after so many years of frustration made me want to cheer. It’s wonderful they’re doing it, and wonderful that DDOT and the police department were able to coordinate here. But clearly vigilant and ongoing enforcement is necessary.
Even with the police combing the lanes and shooing people off, one catering truck apparently stayed in the bus lane for at least a half hour on Tuesday.
4. The other big scofflaws are taxis and ride-hailing
Taxis are allowed to legally use the bus lanes for travel, but not to stop. In practice, they’re doing the opposite: Avoiding the lanes for driving, but pulling in to pick-up and drop-off passengers. Of course, Ubers and Lyfts do the same, and buses have to stop or go around every time.
Unlike loading trucks, it’s virtually impossible for the police to enforce against this behavior. Unless a police car happens to be on the same block at the same time, a ride-hail pick-up is fast enough to be in and out before the police arrive.
Meanwhile, taxis cannot safely drop off passengers from the middle lane, with buses whirring by between them and the curb. It’s hard to blame drivers for this behavior, and even harder to imagine it ever stopping, unless DC forces app-makers to geo-fence those curbs against pick-ups.
5. Right turning cars aren’t scofflaws, but do delay buses
Car drivers can legally enter the bus lane if they’re turning right at the next intersection. This is a safety issue; you don’t want drivers doing right-hooks across the bus lane. But it clearly causes delay among buses.
Whenever an H or I Street bus lane light is green, so is the crosswalk light for pedestrians in parallel crosswalks. This means cars turning right have to wait for the crosswalk to clear, which means they have to sit in the bus lane at exactly the moment when buses want to get through the intersection.
There are solutions to this kind of problem. Curb-protected busways with dedicated bus traffic signals can avoid the right-hook problem. Banning right turns completely would also do it, though would be hard to enforce. But those are heavier lifts, bigger committments with bigger political costs. And in the meantime, striping the bus lane is a big improvement over not having one at all.
6. Bikes and scooters are allowed, but it’s not a bike lane
Bikes and scooters are allowed in the bus lane. And I did see many of both using the lane safely. However, these lanes aren’t an especially comfortable place to bike, with some buses hoping to skip by quickly, and others stopped in the lane to pick up passengers.
More importantly, riders who rightly or wrongly are accustomed to thinking of bike lanes as two-way, and who feel safe illegally “salmoning” against traffic, absolutely cannot do so on these lanes. I witnessed one scooter rider attempt to salmon east on the westbound I Street bus lane, only to come face to face with a fast-moving 40-foot bus. That rider made it out of the way, but the next might not. A move that’s illegal and a little dangerous on a normal bike lane is horrifically unsafe in a lane mixed with buses.
7. More buses benefit than you might think
Most likely this is a result of these other buses having existing stops along H and I Street. It will be interesting to compare the bus lane benefits for local Metrobuses versus commuter buses to distant suburbs.
Bottom line: Thumbs up so far
No doubt there will be more lessons as we all gain experience with these lanes, and then as actual data on their operation becomes available. As with all new things, there are hiccups and learning curves and imperfections.
But after a couple of days, these lanes look like winners to me. What do you think?