Life in the bus lane

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Cheryl Schweizer

The executive leaving work early (BMW, dress shirt but no tie, 3:30 in the afternoon) had every right to honk at me. I was in the wrong place.

But the case can be made it was all due to ineffective civic virtue.

Seattle has its attractions, apparently. On a sunny late summer Thursday it was attractive enough to attract traffic, although not enough to overwhelm the place at 3 p.m. What snarled traffic – and since it took about 20 minutes to get two blocks there was time to think about it – was that gesture of civic virtue, the bus-only lane.

Of course effective civic virtue usually is a good thing. Ineffective civic virtue? Not so much.

The bus lane took up the center of the street, squeezing cars trying to go north into one little tiny left lane, and cars trying to go south into one little tiny right lane. And there was the bus lane – with occasional buses to be sure, but hardly bumper-to-bumper buses. Tempting drivers with insufficient civic virtue.

There were those who didn’t resist the temptation. They used the bus lane to jump the line, zooming past the clotted traffic and jumping back in line further ahead, thereby worsening the traffic clot behind them.

There were sternly-worded warning signs, of course, telling people to stay out of the bus lane. And of course they were ignored. There was a black-and-white police car that showed up. (In the bus lane. But in fairness, it’s probably OK for them.)

“Seattle Police,” it said. “Traffic,” it said. Nobody paid the slightest attention.

The situation was complicated by the cross street, and vehicles on that street attempting to turn right into the southbound lane. After about two blocks and half an hour, a teeny-tiny little slice of room opened up across the intersection. I made a run for it.

And a car turning right got there first.

Hence the honking, early-work-leaving executive, and he was right. I was in a crosswalk, almost in the lane of cross traffic.

So at 3:30 p.m. it was time to take stock. Did I have enough chutzpah to bluff one of those drivers turning right to get that last little sliver of room in the southbound lane?

Of course not.

Traffic in the right-turn lane wound around the corner out of sight. Drivers jumping the line zoomed through the intersection in the bus lane. Two pedestrians were visibly annoyed.

No choice. When the light changed I turned right and went – well, that’s a good question. Somewhere.

At the next block the southbound freeway entrance had disappeared. There was a hill. I followed that until I got to what looked like a good place to turn south again. It took a while, 20 minutes or so, but eventually I ran across an alternative means of escape.

Up to a point the reasoning of the Seattle city fathers (and mothers) is easy to understand. Buses are good because of the environment. And it’s possible the city mothers (and fathers) don’t really care if drivers are inconvenienced, if they decide to take the bus as a result.

But in the actual course of events, the bus lane doesn’t do its job. It would take East German levels of surveillance to keep non-virtuous drivers out of it. But it's likely everybody who supports bus lanes feels very virtuous, and maybe that's what's most important.

In the end, the freeway exit at Moses Lake never looked so good.

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