Tired of scofflaws, bus riders call on city and MTA for better bus lane enforcement

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A truck blocking dedicated bus lane St. Paul St. on July 19, while passengers wait for bus to pick them up. Photo by Danielle Sweeney.

Baltimore’s dedicated bus lanes were supposed to move buses through traffic faster, boost the city’s sluggish public transit system, improve bus on-time performance–and maybe even increase ridership.

The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) spent $3.5 million creating five-and-a-half miles of dedicated lanes on St. Paul, Pratt, Light, Charles, Baltimore and other streets in the central business district, claiming it was “rolling out the red carpet for buses.”

But after one year, riders and transit advocates aren’t so sure the lanes are getting the star treatment. The big problem with Baltimore’s bus lanes? Cars and trucks are blocking them.

Annoyed at what they regard as haphazard enforcement, riders have been airing their grievances to MTA and on social media and Baltimore 311.

Sue Carlin, a bus rider who works downtown, has been especially vocal. Yesterday, she reported a delivery truck blocking the bus lane on St. Paul Street, just up the road from MTA headquarters, for at least the 20th time.

Today, it was a Pepsi truck.

Just last week, Jed Weeks, policy director for cycling advocacy organization Bikemore, tweeted about six vehicles blocking the dedicated bus lanes on Baltimore Street, but only one car–the one that was obstructing the regular travel lane–got towed.

City Councilman Ryan Dorsey (3rd District) created the #baltiXmore hashtag to help document bus lane violations. Dorsey replied to Weeks’ tweet (and this author’s comment on it) noting that bus-lane blocking is also a tow-able offense.

In a statement provided to Baltimore Fishbowl, Dorsey said the lack of enforcement in the bus lanes “sends the message that the convenience of the few takes precedent over the rights of the many.”

He went on to say: “Baltimore City has never done what is right for public transit riders or pedestrians. The obvious failure to anywhere near adequately enforce bus lanes is just one small piece of this.”

Disgruntled bus riders have been calling out the MTA and the city for slack enforcement all summer.

On Aug. 20, Twitter user @whitemansayswhat called out the Downtown Partnership trash truck for blocking the bus lane during peak rush hour on Lombard and Pratt streets.

Brian O’Malley, director of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a transit advocacy organization, said the complaints are common. He believes that Baltimore’s dedicated bus lanes are “struggling.”

On June 1, O’Malley himself reported to the MTA nine cars simultaneously blocking the bus lanes on Charles street at 4:20 p.m.–20 minutes after the peak bus lanes went into effect.

Image via Facebook

“With blocked dedicated bus lanes, you have the worst of both worlds,” O’Malley said in an interview. “You lose a vehicular travel lane and you have what amounts to VIP parking for scofflaws.”

“I applaud MTA and city DOT for piloting the bus priority lanes–bus lanes were one of the good things that came out of BaltimoreLink–but too often we’re not seeing if the lanes are effective because cars and trucks are blocking them.”

Kevin Quinn, MTA’s administrator, said in a statement that based on an analysis of bus lanes on Pratt and Lombard streets, MTA has seen reductions in bus travel times of up to 25 percent.

As for enforcement, he said Baltimore City is the primary law enforcement agency for violations that occur on city streets, but MTA Police have a memorandum of understanding with the Baltimore Police Department to enforce traffic laws as well.

DOT, BPD and MTA police together enforce the city’s dedicated bus lanes.

Data obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request show that MTA Police wrote 277 citations for dedicated bus lane violations (and 149 written warnings) during the first six months of 2018. They wrote another 881 tickets for parking in or blocking bus stops during that same time.

While MTA police fine bus lane blockers only $25, the fine doubles if the officer witnesses a bus forced to divert from its path to travel around a violating vehicle.

DOT spokeswoman Kathy Dominick said DOT’s Safety Division (which includes Parking Enforcement) averages about 600 parking in bus lane/bus stop citations per month.

Open Baltimore records show that the city has written more than 5,000 citations for “parking or standing in a bus stop or bus lane” since the end of last year. The fine for that violation is $252. DOT staff wrote another 1,070 tickets for “parking or standing in transit stops” during the same time. That fine is $77.

In a statement on co-implementing the dedicated bus lanes with MTA, Michelle Pourciau, director of Baltimore City DOT, said: “We did this carefully, because there must be a balance among uses of the roadway, which also has to serve the movement of traffic, parking, loading, maintenance of utilities, etc. Balancing these activities while creating bus-only lanes is challenging, but we believe it is the right thing to do….We must encourage drivers to respect the restrictions of public automobiles in these lanes so that they are available for buses.”

It’s not known how many tickets city police have written for blocking bus lanes. City police spokesman Jeremy Silbert said the department doesn’t track parking violations by categories.

New Delivery Locations, and a Field Study

MTA has been aware of the enforcement problems since the bus lanes were installed, and has set up an online form to field complaints.

In addition, Quinn said MTA staff have met with some businesses in the bus lane areas and worked with DOT and the Parking Authority of Baltimore City to explore potential solutions. Specifically, they are addressing the unloading activity that occurs on St. Paul Street near the intersection with Saratoga Street.

“MTA staff has engaged with the business on site and are testing out a delivery location outside of the dedicated bus lanes, which has shown preliminary success… and are exploring potential design solutions that would create delivery space along the curbs of either Saratoga or St. Paul Street,” Quinn said in an email.

O’Malley, from CMTA, said his organization wants to know how well the bus lanes are performing. (This is perhaps especially important in light of MTA’s and the city’s plans to install more of them on North Avenue in 2020 as part of the North Avenue Rising project.)

Quinn had previously told transit advocacy organizations that a report on the dedicated bus lanes was expected in the spring. MTA spokeswoman Veronica Battisti said that while a dedicated bus lane study is underway, it has not been completed.

In the meantime, O’Malley said the CMTA is conducting a bus lane field study of its own. Starting later this month, CMTA staff will record when and where the bus lanes are being blocked, which bus routes are affected, and if the buses are forced to stop or slow down because of cars and trucks.

Said O’Malley: “We really want to see Baltimore’s dedicated bus lanes be given a fair shot to be successful.”

For Dorsey, the problems with dedicated bus lanes are part of Baltimore’s larger problems with public transportation. If the city were truly behind transit alternatives, he said, the lanes would be all over the city.

“That this is not the case is just proof positive of a lack of commitment to making public transit a success, reduction in vehicle emissions and congestion, and the City doing the very best it can to become more economically viable,” he said.”

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