Blocking Better Bus Service

How often are Baltimore’s bus-only lanes obstructed?

Eric Norton
Oct 19, 2018 · 4 min read
Trucks seem to be frequent violators of bus-only lanes. Photo courtesy Melvin Blickenstaff.

As part of the rollout of BaltimoreLink, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and the Baltimore City Department of Transportation (City DOT) partnered on creating dedicated bus-only lanes on certain downtown street segments. The goal of bus-only lanes is to improve bus service by improving speed and reliability, thereby moving more people through a congested corridor.

But an analysis of those bus-only lanes found that they were on average obstructed a full quarter of the time. Of the observations we conducted obstructions ranged from 2% to 100%. The high being an instance where a truck was parked in the bus lane for the entirety of a 50-minute observation period.

Over the span of about 6 weeks, Transportation Alliance staff and volunteers observed bus lanes for almost 22 hours and watched 547 buses travel through the lanes. Of those buses, 139 either had to changes lanes or slow down because of a car or truck illegally stopped or parked in the lane. You can check out the data from our observations HERE.

Since the bus lanes were installed we had observed or experienced bus lane violations on occasion, heard anecdotal accounts, and seen postings to social media.

Twitter screenshots showing various bus lane violations.

But there was no official reporting from MTA or City DOT about how often bus lanes were violated, how strictly they were enforced, and how violations may be impacting bus service and people who ride the bus. We decided to find out for ourselves if bus lane violations were occurring regularly and, although this is not a comprehensive analysis, it is a small sample of what is really happening on the ground.

You can see it up ahead and you think, oh no.

— How one bus rider put it when describing their reaction to seeing a vehicle blocking the bus-only lane.

We support bus-only lanes because they prioritize moving people efficiently. Traffic congestion occurs when too many vehicles try to fit through a street or highway at the same time. In many ways, congestion is a good thing because it’s a sign of economic activity. Economic productivity does not happen everywhere — it is highly concentrated in dense clusters such as downtown Baltimore. In Maryland as whole 42% of the jobs are on less than 1% of the land. High-capacity vehicles, like buses, are an essential tool in fostering economic growth in these areas because they use space more efficiently.

The ability of transit to move more people more efficiently, especially in dense areas, is why many cities are choosing to prioritize bus-only lanes. The efficiency of buses and bus lanes is not always intuitive. For that reason people use visualizations such as this one:

A typical visualization for highlighting the spatial efficiency in transit. See other versions here and here.

The animation below does an even better job, by showing how much time it takes to move the same number of people by different modes. Cars are a highly inefficient use of space which carries a high cost in intensively used places like central business districts.

There’s also a version of this animation focusing on how space is used here.

Additionally, bus-only lanes (and other forms of dedicated rights-of-way) support improvements to the Five Basics for Better Transit. Improvements to speed and reliability mean that people have more access to life’s opportunities. But these improvements will be limited if MTA and City DOT do not make a concerted effort to fully enforce the lanes. We were not able to quantify how the 25% obstruction rate impacted bus speeds and travel time, but it could be significant. Imagine if we experienced the same rate of obstructions for cars on the road. Would most people find it acceptable if for 15 minutes each hour a car just parked in a lane of the Beltway?

Despite the anecdotal evidence and the lane violations we were able to document, MTA has said the bus only lanes have improved travel times for buses. However, there has been no report and data released publicly that we could look at to verify these claims. Additionally, neither MTA nor City DOT have set specific goals and performance measures for the lanes. Without information to the contrary, we believe bus lane violations and uneven enforcement of those violations are having a negative impact on the effectiveness of the lanes.

MTA and City DOT should more openly evaluate and report on the bus-only lanes. MTA and City DOT should execute a memorandum of understanding or some other formalized agreement that will hold both parties accountable for prioritizing the movement of people in transit vehicles over those in single occupancy vehicles. The agreement should outline agency responsibilities and establish mechanisms for regular and on-going communications and coordination. Additionally, MTA and City DOT must explore options for enhancing bus lane enforcement through either on-board or stationary camera systems. A recent study from the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board indicates that automated enforcement can be a cost-effective solution.


The Transportation Alliance would like to especially thank our volunteers who helped collect this data: Melvin Blickenstaff (@bilcksneatff), Sue Carlin (@sucarlin), and Daniel Yi.

Central Maryland Transportation Alliance

The Transportation Alliance was formed in 2007 as a diverse coalition of leaders uniting around a common agenda: improving and expanding transportation options for Central Maryland. Our singular focus is to be a catalyst for improving the region's transportation system.

Eric Norton

Written by

Director of Policy & Programs, Central Maryland Transportation Alliance

Central Maryland Transportation Alliance

The Transportation Alliance was formed in 2007 as a diverse coalition of leaders uniting around a common agenda: improving and expanding transportation options for Central Maryland. Our singular focus is to be a catalyst for improving the region's transportation system.

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