The Magic of Red Painted Bus Lanes

3rd Street bus lane in San Francisco. Photo: SFMTA
3rd Street bus lane in San Francisco. Photo: SFMTA

Drivers may be seeing red, but bus drivers are seeing only green.

Washington, D.C.’s new red-painted bus-only lanes on H and I streets downtown appear to be a success just one week in, with buses are moving faster, and most drivers are following the rules and staying out of their way, according to a quick, early analysis by Greater Greater Washington.

This latest bus lane experiment stands in contrast to the city’s earlier experiments with bus only lanes, says the site’s Dan Malouff:

Unlike other D.C. attempts at striping bus lanes on Seventh 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 and 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.

Taxis, trucks and Ubers parking in D.C.’s new bus lanes has been a little bit of a problem. But Malouff reports the red paint sent such a strong message, drivers didn’t seem to understand that the city is allowing them to park in the red lanes at off peak hours.

Things could change as time goes on in the nation’s capital, but red paint has been a surprisingly effective tool in other regions as well.

San Francisco’s SFMTA found [PDF] bus lane violations on Third Street fell 51 percent after the lane was painted red. Among a series of interventions to prevent driving or parking in the bus lanes, SFMTA’s analysis found red paint was the most effective.

“Red bus lanes are especially important as a transit priority tool because they don’t cost a lot and can be implemented very quickly,” Ben Fried, a spokesman for Transit Center, told Streetsblog.

Since they were installed in Baltimore in 2017, the city’s transit agency MTA says they have improved travel times on nearly all routes. The city amended its laws to impose a $250 fine for parking in them. But enforcement is still an issue, according to the Baltimore Sun, despite Baltimore police issuing 1,700 citations and 500 warnings.

Despite their effectiveness red bus lanes are still in use in only a handful of U.S. cities.

Even though the Third Street red bus lanes have been so effective in San Francisco, improving not just bus travel times but also safety, the city has struggled to expand them. Residents of the Mission neighborhood have successfully fought to against plans for red bus lanes on 16th Street.

Another barrier, unfortunately, is federal policy.

“The [Federal Highway Administration] still considers them ‘experimental’ despite the fact that American cities have used them for more than a decade,” said Fried. “That creates completely unnecessary red tape, adding time and cost to what should be inexpensive transit improvements. FHWA should remove the ‘experimental’ designation to expedite these projects.”

9 thoughts on The Magic of Red Painted Bus Lanes

  1. The paint can affect tire traction in wet/snow cases. The need for a full paint treatment illustrates a basic dumbing down of the driving public.

  2. This article is not stating the facts. In San Francisco, the violations you are quoting that are reduced by 51% are merely cars going straight through in intersection and the the compliance was already high to begin with. You have been fed this information and have not done the homework yourself. In San Francisco the buses did NOT go faster, and in San Francisco, they did not to any study on double parking violations. So this blog, like all others put out by STREETSBLOG, is a complete broad brush lie and does not stand up to the actual facts. There is no data backing up faster buses in San Francisco due to red paint. I defy you to find it and cite it. Another typical “tell the public crap to justify the $16 psf this stuff costs to put on the ground. Until someone calls us on it”

  3. Ben Fried is a liar. The buses are not traveling faster. The red lanes have been used in one City, New York, for over ten years. No where else. Ben Fried is payed to spread BS. If 3rd Street was working so well for the SFMTA, they would not have designated the arterial as a high injury corridor and would not be re-doing the red lanes and moving them to the middle lane of the arterial from the right hand lane. None of what this man is saying stands up to the facts and the data. What is “Transit Center” anyway? Who are these people? Public agency employees using tax dollars to spread completely untrue stories about how they spend money. Like Ben Fried trying to tell us that it is not necessary to have the red lanes as an experiment, when in fact the very organizations that are trying to use the red lanes to promote bus ridership are incapable of property conducting an experiment to show if the buses run faster with or without red paint. This whole article is just complete fantasy and this communications guy named Ben Fried has no idea what he is saying. Pathetic.

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