The New York City Bus Lane Blues: Paint Is Not Enough

Separated bus lanes. Elected officials are calling for them. The next version of enhanced bus service on 34th Street may include them. Why does New York City need them? Well, take a look at how the city’s current crop of bus lanes are working out for riders. Streetfilms’ Robin Urban Smith went on a couple of excursions this week, heading over to the 34th Street bus lane and the Fifth Avenue bus lane. This is what she found.

In a recent survey of bus lane violations by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office, staffers observed 350 drivers parked in bus lanes over the course of 40 hours. Every day, tens of thousands of New Yorkers ride the buses these drivers are blocking.

As DOT and the MTA move closer to releasing plans for Bus Rapid Transit on the East Side of Manhattan, advocates see a clear need for bus lanes that won’t get obstructed by other vehicles. "On First and Second Avenue, there’s plenty of lane space, as well as a
lot of support by local electeds," said Joan Byron, Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development’s Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative. "DOT and the MTA need
to set the bar high by going with a physically separated busway."

"For bus lanes to work, they have to be bus lanes, not lanes that cars can enter whenever they want," Tri-State Transportation Campaign director Kate Slevin told Streetsblog. "Red paint is only so convincing. You need to add physical separation or strong enforcement to make sure that drivers stay out of the lane."

The NYPD has so far proven to be a non-entity when it comes to bus lane enforcement. In all their time counting bus lane-blocking drivers, Stringer’s staff did not observe police issue a single ticket. (Based on Robin’s footage and several photos we’ve received from readers, police are actually some of the worst perpetrators of bus lane violations.) With approval from Albany, New York could supplement police enforcement of bus lanes with camera enforcement. A bill sponsored by Brian Kavanagh in the State Assembly would do just that.

Lately, however, approval from Albany has been hard to come by. Physical separation remains the dysfunction-proof way to give bus riders the priority they deserve on the street.

  • Im in Mexico City right now, and was shocked to see how well respected the bus only lanes for trackless trolleys are. They sit in the rightmost lanes, divided from traffic only with a double white line and cat-eyes, and yet the only cars using them are those making legal right turns. (Im not talking about the BRT lines which are divided with concrete)

    The shocking part of course is how it compares to the rest of traffic, which is extremely hectic. One way streets for example are always two way streets in practice.

    Another interesting bit is street parking. Outside of the historic downtown street parking is completely unregulated. It’s free, and there’s no permit system. No signs either, if there’s a curb, you can park next to it….and yet every bus stop I saw was clear.

    I wonder why? I doubt it has to do with traffic enforcement…..because that doesn’t really exist.

  • Gwin

    Part of my commute (down 5th Avenue next to the Park, then up Madison through Midtown) is on streets with bus lanes that are NOT AT ALL respected by non-bus traffic. Very frustrating!

  • What’s your problem? Everyone knows that someone in a car is more important than three/ten/thirty people on a bus.

  • Peter Smith

    lot of worry about how poor, little buses are going to fare against big, bad cars. how ’bout some physical separation for those wicked, huge bicyclists?

  • Car Free Nation

    I don’t know what’s so hard about this for the DOT. It seems obvious that we should have protected lanes for buses whenever we can. Is there something that we don’t understand that DOT knows? Is there a need for emergency vehicles to enter the lanes? Or is it a hedge-your-bets strategy in case the political winds change?

  • A fair amount of the blockage shown in the 5th Ave. segment of the film reflects motorists entering a right-hand bus lane preparatory to making a right turn. One of the few rules motorists usually observe is to “get right before turning right” (because they are much more concerned about inconveniencing motorists behind them than anyone else on the road). DoT has done absolutely nothing to educate motorists that turning does not create an exception to the “buses only” rule–if in fact that is how DoT interprets the “buses only” rule.

  • Allan

    There is an amazingly easy solution to this: mount cameras on busses and start mailing tickets to the offenders (liscense plates collected from the cameras). There is no way that drivers will afford these so when busses are coming people will move out of the lane or get caught! Enforcement is the only requirement to solve this problem!

  • Ian Turner


    That approach requires Albany approval, which was denied.

  • Mike Mac

    While I hate the people who disrespect the bus lane, a lot of the video showed police and emergency vehicles in the lane. I think they have priority.

    Also, how are car supposed to make a turn from the middle lane. It’s NY F*cking City. There are a LOT of people. If your bus is delayed 20 more minutes youll live.


  • Mike Mac, there is no crosstown subway at 34th St. or virtually anywhere else.

    Also a lot of people (elderly and others) can’t take the subway.

    Finally, if you observe the lanes regularly, you’ll see that those police vehicles are mostly not sitting in those lanes responding to emergencies. In fact, they’re often traffic enforcement vehicles.

  • Erin

    Some percentage of the police who block the bike/bus lanes are doing something they deserve priority for. But certainly not all. Whatever they are doing, they can find someplace that’s NOT the bus lane to do it. If they need to block a lane, block one of the car lanes. Period.

  • Streetsman


    And don’t forget to note many those turns are occurring on a street with no right turns allowed. Check the :54 mark where three cars are lined up in the bus lane to make a right turn where there is a no right turn sign and directly in front of a traffic agent. Why do we bother to have traffic regulations at all? If you mean it, say it with concrete.

  • Streetsman,

    I think that “no right turn” regulation applies only during 10 am to 10 pm (see 0:44). Don’t ask me why–it makes no sense to impose the more restrictive turning regulation after rush hour ends–but I think the sign shown at 0:54 is the same as the one at the 0:44). If I’m right, since the filming was done before 10 a.m., the right turns are legal.

    By coincidence, I saw a cop enforcing the bus lane rules at Lexington and 35th this morning. There is no terra cotta lane there, and the signs say “buses only 7 am to 7 pm except right turns.” The cop pulled over a guy who did not have turning signal on.

  • J. Mork

    The cop pulled over a guy who did not have turning signal on.

    And then proceeded to block the bus lane for 10 minutes while he issued the ticket.

    This is exactly why we need camera enforcement of bus lanes, and yet another reason why Albany sucks.

  • Has TA done any longitudinal studies of cars in bus lanes at any give point? I think video evidence along with a well counted longitudinal study would do far better than anecdotal evidence like this (even though this is _very_ important). If you can show that there are major trip time delays as a result of cars in bus lanes then you will likely be able to get better responses.

    And don’t forget to talk to your politicians…

  • Streetsman

    Good call – yeah that is a little strange to see a reg starting after am rush but continuing through daytime and pm rush. Can’t for the life of me figure out why they wouldn’t also want to ban turns during am rush.

  • they just repainted the Broadway bus lane earlier this week: crews painted “Buses Only” instead of “Bus Lane” in the area around NYU…

  • Rs201112

    Chad Ochocinco Women’s Jersey are becoming more popular. No longer do you have to wear a Tom Brady Women’s Jersey that is made for men. Now women’s NFL jerseys are available. They are cut to fit a woman and often come in feminine colors like pink. The selection is limited for women’s NFL jerseys, but the team’s best players are normally available.

  • k9gardner

    And here we are, seven years later, in the same situation! My street, W. 23rd Street, has just been screwed up by the DOT (I presume) trying to solve one problem and creating another. The heaviest traffic on this street is always in the westbound direction, as it delivers traffic to both NJ tunnels. So of course, the DOT has decided to reduce westbound traffic to one lane, from two, by moving the center line several feet to the north. It became clear finally last night what they were doing: creating a red-painted bus lane in the eastbound direction, so we’re actually looking at a single lane of traffic in ~each~ direction, on one of the major E-W streets in the middle of Manhattan. It is obvious to the most casual observer that this is foolish, and is already creating continual problems for all the car traffic, to solve a once-every-20 minute bus traffic problem. What is less obvious is that it is further compromising the safety of the pedestrians in the area, as the motorists are doing crazy things to try to jockey for position, zipping into the other lane, going along the parking lane, crowding through the intersection, blocking the box, forcing pedestrians trying to cross the street to navigate their way among cars that may or may not decide to move again. It is certainly at the very least an accident waiting to happen.


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