Safety advocates rejoiced today as the Washington State House passed House Bill 1793, which permits Seattle to use camera enforcement to dissuade motorists from blocking crosswalks and clogging bus lanes–a frequent problem. The House vote was along party lines with Republican members in lockstep against safety and transit reliability.
On Sunday, the Washington State Senate voted 27 to 22 to move their amended version of HB 1793. Senators Lisa Wellman (Mercer Island) and Kevin Van De Wege (Sequim) were the only Democrats to vote against the bill, while Senator Sharon Brown (Kennewick) was the sole Republican to join the Democratic majority in backing the bill.
Seattle–including the Mayor, City Council, and members of the Move All Seattle Sustainably coalition–had made camera enforcement legislation a priority the last two years. Nonetheless, the bill stalled out last session due to opposition in the senate, where apparently some Senators feared they’d be paying the tickets themselves given their less than lawful driving habits.
The lack of camera enforcement has meant that the Seattle Squeeze has been worse than it needs to be since would-be bus lanes are often clogged by scofflaw motorists, as are crosswalks. In such a world, more people choose to drive and people who can’t drive, such as disabled folks, seniors, and kids, are left as second-class street users treated to daily indignity and danger of weaving between bumper-to-bumper traffic to cross the street.
After clearing the crucial hurdle in the Senate, HB 1793 returned to the House for concurrence so that the House could approve the changes. With House approval at around 3:30 this afternoon, the bill is now headed to the Governor’s desk. Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien), who authored the bill, thanked supporters for seeing the bill through before the vote. Presumably, Governor Jay Inslee will sign the bill–especially given that speeding up transit and promoting walking, rolling, and biking has a very positive climate impact.
While the two-and-a-half-year pilot program is not as broad as some safety advocates would hope, it will allow the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to install traffic cameras at intersections within a half-mile of Downtown Seattle and four miles on some street, and give $75 tickets for “blocking the box” (as obstructing crosswalks and intersections is referred to) at up to 20 intersections starting on January 1, 2021. Until then tickets would be warnings, as will the first infraction. The pilot program will expire on June 30, 2023.
Camera enforcement of bus lanes would be permitted on non-interstate highways within four miles of Downtown Seattle. This means the West Seattle Bridge and Aurora Avenue as far north as Phinney Ridge would be included for possible camera enforcement of bus lanes.
King County Metro has indicated Third Avenue would be its priority for enforcement as the busiest bus corridor in the city with more than 100,000 daily riders affected. The agency has hinted at mounting cameras on its buses as a means to implement enforcement, although we don’t yet know exactly exactly how SDOT and Metro will put their new enforcement authority into action (which is separate from the 20 intersections to get don’t block the box treatment).
Senator Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle) proposed an amendment in transportation committee that was passed, altering the House bill. It includes the Senate’s preference to lower the fines to $75 and cap the intersections for blocking the box enforcement to 20, among other tweaks. Senators Saldaña, Joe Nguyen (D-Seattle), and Marko Liias (D-Edmonds) were key in shepherding the bill through the Senate.
Advocacy groups like the Rooted in Rights (who made a video that popularized the issue) and Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) hailed passage as a major victory. “Safer streets & more reliable transit are on the way,” TCC tweeted, and encouraged supporters to send a thank you note to legislators via their blog.
“Everyone should be able to access our streets and sidewalks, especially those of us who rely on walking, rolling and buses to get where we need to go,” said Anna Zivarts, Program Director at Rooted in Rights. “Thanks to everyone in the legislature who stood up for the disability community and their transit-dependent constituents!”
TCC noted some of the features of the final bill.
- “Cameras cannot capture a driver’s face, only the license plate number.”
- “Bus operators will not be at risk for hits to their driving records (as it pertains to King County Metro requirements) if they accidentally block the box due to traffic cutting across an intersection.”
- “All tickets issued must be reviewed by a commissioned officer and there is an administrative appeals process for truck operators that accidentally block the box due to traffic cutting across an intersection.”
- “The legislature will receive a report on the impacts of the pilot, including a racial equity assessment.”
Parking in places reserved for emergency vehicles and blocking access points for ferry loading could also be targets for camera enforcement, which should also make traffic move more smoothly.
While Seattle getting the right to enforce the rule of law on its key transportation arteries was a long time coming, it’s still a sweet victory. Transit should run more reliably. Crossing the street should become less harrowing at enforced intersections.
Whether $75 tickets are enough to tame motorists on Seattle streets remains to be seen. But it’s a good start.
Perhaps, the state legislature could raise the fines (or offer a progressive fee structure) if some deep-pocketed bus lane cheaters persist. And if people realize how much better streets work without motorists illegally blocking crosswalks, intersections, and transit lanes, hopefully the state legislators will allow the pilot to go citywide (and ultimately statewide) after the pilot period. This could be a key turning point in the campaign to reclaim Seattle streets for people rather than exclusively for cars.
Doug Trumm is the executive director of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.