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Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Residue Clogging the Bus Lanes

Creating a dedicated bus lane requires the displacement/destruction of the pre-existing uses within that right-of-way. Those uses almost always have a lower social value than a bus lane, and often so much so that those uses can actually be detrimental to the quality of life in a neighborhood. Nonetheless, the existing uses are fully enmeshed in the daily lives and habits of the community. That's why change can be so very hard, even when the results may be so clearly beneficial.

When the change in use prevails, it is rarely an immediate, complete transformation. Residues of former uses remain. An examination of those residues can be quite enlightening. Change exposes hidden sources of power. While illicit exploitation of street space has occurred in these locations for a very long time, the new conflicts created by the bus lanes bring the activities new exposure. Part of what becomes exposed is the accommodation of the City's enforcement apparatus. Far from random occurrences or oversights by busy departments, the pattern of enforcement demonstrates a set of cultural priorities. In the case of the bus lanes, what shows through is the prioritization of a car culture above the rule of law or the needs of the citizens who rely on transit.

The consistent failure to address violations by commercial businesses that encroach on the bus lanes demonstrates an informal policy that accepts the appropriation of public space by these businesses as a supposedly reasonable practice to provide what is viewed as an important service on constrained, urban sites. This is a value judgment that puts the interests of a car culture (which is the minority in New York City) above the needs and rights of the residents who take transit and walk in the area.

This car wash blocks the bus lane all day, every day
At the Vision Zero town hall meeting at the Bronx Library Center on April 1, there were repeated complaints about problems with NYPD's uneven enforcement on our streets. Among the specific complaints were auto drivers using the bus lanes, and commercial businesses taking over portions of streets and sidewalks. High-level NYPD officials were there and assured the audience that these problems would be taken seriously. Unfortunately, there has been little sign of improvement.
Following the town hall meeting, there was a very small increase in enforcement of the bus lanes in the 52nd Precinct, where the town hall was held. The 52nd Precinct encompasses two different Select Bus routes that have dedicated lanes. The Bx41 runs almost the full length of the precinct north to south on Webster Avenue, while Bx12 runs clear through from east to west on Fordham Road. As of the end of April, there were only four violations so far this year for driving in the bus lanes that were issued in the 52nd Precinct. Sure, three of those were written during the month of April, after the town hall meeting, which represents a gigantic leap in percentage terms from the single violation written in the entire three preceding months. But one summons every ten days for more than five and a half miles of bus lanes quite clearly is not a meaningful level of enforcement. It can hardly be called enforcement at all.

To illustrate the issue with an example of the lawless conditions, I'll simply describe a bike ride down Webster Avenue between Mosholu Parkway and Fordham Road on a recent afternoon. Within that relatively short distance, I witnessed two different cars turn into the bus lane to bypass traffic waiting at a signal light, only to recklessly cut back in after the intersection. A car wash at 198th Street was parking vehicles on the sidewalk and out into the bus lane while wiping them down. Further down the block, an auto repair shop, which often parks cars in the bus lane while making repairs to them, had a car parked in the middle of the sidewalk. These exact problems were all specifically discussed with the NYPD at the Vision Zero meeting, yet they continue unabated.

This auto repair shop works on cars in the bus lane

 The NYPD might almost excuse the low level of enforcement with the claim they are focusing their resources on more serious safety problems while relying on video enforcement on the buses, but the facts just don't support the argument. As was explained during the town hall meeting, there are vehicles blocking the bus lanes that are not oriented in a way that allows the video enforcement to capture them. This is particularly true where commercial businesses like the car wash on Webster at 198th Street routinely usurp the lane. Relying on buses will not catch the numerous drivers who recklessly use the lane to jump the queue when a bus isn't there. Moreover, the summonses they have issued so far this year have not targeted the most dangerous violations. They have written more than 900 for illegal tinted windows and a mere 63 for failing to yield to pedestrians. With aggressive enforcement, there are individual intersections where they could write 63 failure-to-yield tickets in just a few days.

There really is no way drivers darting in and out of the lane and businesses continually occupying it could continue their violations without the tacit approval of those responsible for enforcement decisions. The data on the summonses they are issuing (and those they are not writing) only proves that there is no true effort to address these conditions at all.

So the residue that clogs up the bus lanes clings to the pavement through the engrained cultural values of the enforcement officers, who simply do not endorse the bus lanes in practice.

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