Mar 21, 2023 - News

Cameras caught drivers illegally using bus lanes 110,000 times

Illustration of a pedestrian crossing sign with a dollar sign.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

New automated cameras caught drivers illegally using Seattle bus lanes more than 110,000 times last year, the city transportation department says.

Why it matters: Transit-only lanes are supposed to remain car-free so buses can quickly move a large number of people through traffic. When cars clog bus lanes, it makes gridlock worse, transportation officials say.

Catch up quick: In 2020, Seattle got the Legislature's permission to launch a pilot program to use automated traffic cameras to catch bus lane scofflaws.

  • The city set up cameras at four intersections and began issuing tickets on March 31, 2022, after 30 days of giving only warnings. Automated camera enforcement began at a fifth intersection in June.

How it works: The city sends drivers one courtesy warning the first time they're caught. But if drivers are caught again, they get a $75 ticket in the mail, which doesn't go on their driving record.

By the numbers: Between March and December of last year, the cameras gave out 84,076 warnings and 26,092 tickets for people illegally driving in bus lanes, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation.

  • That amounted to about $825,000 in revenue, a small part of which goes toward the cost of running the cameras. Half of the remaining revenue goes to a state fund dedicated to bike and pedestrian improvements.
  • The other half is kept by the city and must go toward improving transportation access for people with disabilities.

Zoom in: The cameras captured the most bus-lane violations at Aurora Avenue North and Galer Street, followed by Third Avenue and James Street.

  • Fewer violations were caught at the other three intersections: Fifth Avenue and Olive Way; Third Avenue and Stewart Street; and First Avenue and Columbia Street.

What they're saying: Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the city transportation committee, told Axios that if the cameras cause even a few people to change their behavior and stay out of the bus lanes, "That's a success."

  • "We want to move the most people in the fastest and most environmentally friendly ways, and that is transit," Pedersen said.
  • With police stretched thin because of low staffing, he added, "automated cameras are the way to go" for enforcing the law.

Plus: The city also started using cameras last year to catch people illegally blocking crosswalks and intersections, sometimes called "blocking the box."

  • Those cameras, set up at four intersections, issued substantially fewer tickets than the bus-lane cameras last year — only 58 citations over roughly eight months, according to Seattle Municipal Court data.

What's next: The city is supposed to deliver a final report to the Legislature in January 2025 about how the camera pilot program is working.

  • After that, the Legislature will decide whether to let Seattle continue using the cameras to enforce bus lane and intersection-blocking laws, or whether to end the experiment.
  • Between now and then, Seattle can expand the camera program to more intersections.

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