The transit priority lane has been in effect on King Street through downtown Hamilton since October 2013 and has been somewhat successful. The desired result of improving travel times has informally been met, as reported by some transit operators who travel the stretch of roadway multiple times a day through the week. There are some issues which have arisen since the implementation of the bus lane.
One of the issues surrounding the lane is that, while it is intended to be used exclusively by transit buses, the lane is being used increasingly by other motorists. If you spend any amount of time observing traffic patterns in the downtown core you will spot car after car using the lane throughout the day. Why?
One of the main factors for the illegal use of the lane is the fact that it is not sufficiently marked. The lane itself had special lines and markings painted during the fall to call out the lanes’ exclusivity. However since that time the markings have faded so that they have virtually disappeared just a few months later. Also while the roads are snow covered these markings are also not visible.
The city is aware of the issue and have plans in place to repaint the lines.
“Staff are aware of the fading markings in the transit-only lane,” said Kelly Anderson, Public Affairs Coordinator of the Public Works Department for City of Hamilton in an email. “Traffic markings do not get applied in the winter months because the weather conditions aren’t favourable and the paint would not adhere to the road. Staff plan to reapply the markings in the bus lane this spring. Hamilton Police are continuing their enforcement efforts in the bus lane.”
The pavement markings aren’t the only concern however as the posted signs area also not clear enough to some.
“Signs at side of road are not clear and often obscured,” commented one Hamilton transit operator. “Signage needs to be clearer.” Another driver echoed that sentiment. “The signs are poor, and the road markings are all but gone. Not fair really to anyone. Need better signs.”
There are signs posted on poles along the northern curb, however these signs pointing to the second lane aren’t very prominent. Signs fastened to arms above the lane, such as is done closer to Dundurn, would be clearer.
So has the bus lane made travel time quicker? Reaction has been mixed among bus operators and it depends which section of the lane is being discussed. West of Catherine Street there is a noticeable difference. The same can’t be said for the section between Catherine and Wellington.
“In peak hrs yes when it was not obstructed,” said one bus operator about improved travel times, “However that was offset at times with the traffic backup from Wellington to Catherine.”
General traffic is limited to just two lanes west of Wellington along King Street, but the stretch between Wellington and Mary is a traffic bottleneck where ALL traffic is limited to two lanes, buses included. While buses generally have an easier time west of Mary, this stretch slows things down a lot.
But is the bus lane to blame for all of this congestion?
The timing of the traffic signals in the downtown appear to have more of an impact.
“Riding the green wave” in Hamilton has become a phrase referring to the ability to travel quickly east to west through the city with the successive timing of green lights on the one-way King and Main Streets. While this works well enough when traffic is flowing steadily, if there is even mild congestion this can actually compound the congestion.
The way the green wave works is that the light will turn green at the first intersection followed by the next one five to ten seconds later. Then each successive intersection will in turn change to green one after the other. When traffic is moving freely this works. When traffic is backed up it doesn’t.
For example, when the signals at John St turn green, cars cannot proceed because the traffic signals at the next intersection of Hughson are still red. With cars filling all of the spaces between intersections, cars at John can’t go ahead until those in the way at Hughson begin to move. Those cars can’t move even when their traffic light turns green, because the vehicles at the following intersection of James are still facing a red light and are also in the way. By the time the traffic signals are all green and traffic can begin flowing, the light at John Street is again changing back to red. Only a few rows of cars may actually get through.
Changing the signal pattern from the “green wave” so that the signals changed in the reverse order, or even multiple intersections simultaneously, could help improve traffic flow through the downtown. Simultaneous signal changes are already used in other parts of the city.
A question and comment which is often posed relates to buses travelling on King Street which travel in a general traffic lane instead of the bus lane along King Street. Mountain buses (routes 21,22,23,24,25,26,27,33,35) make the turn from John Street onto King Street and left into the MacNab Transit Terminal. These routes have no stops on King Street at all, so these buses often stay in the far left lane and don’t use the bus lane.
These buses not using the bus lane actually improves traffic flow for one main reason: signal priority. If the mountain buses used the bus lane (second lane from the right) they would need to merge across two lanes between James and MacNab in order to make the left turn into the bus terminal. With nine routes all making this same merge, and a peak frequency of these routes fifteen minutes, traffic would be slowed down with a bus making this merge about once every few minutes.
Signal priority is the idea of having a separate traffic signal for buses that activates before the green light. A signal such as this at James Street would give buses in the bus lane a five second “jump” on the rest of traffic, allowing these mountain buses to merge across King Street without affecting traffic.
The transit priority lane pilot project will continue through the year until at least October 2014 where it will be evaluated by council.
The concept is sound and the flow for buses (HSR, GO Transit, Greyhound, Coach Canada) has improved for the last few months. As with all new projects there will be growing pains, but adjustments must be made to improve and make things better. Adjusted traffic signal timing, clearer signing, more pavement markings and priority signals are all improvements that may help traffic flow downtown. Not only for buses, but for all motorists.
This is an opinion piece by Jason Nason, originally published in January 2014 on the Hamilton Transit website.