Boston takes the plunge on bus lanes

Thousands of Boston commuters grimace through slow bus trips on Washington Street. That’s why the city’s experiment with a dedicated bus lane is a smart policy that promises substantial improvement at little cost.

Ten MBTA bus routes — from Roslindale, Hyde Park, and West Roxbury — converge at Roslindale Village, then inch along Washington to the Orange Line station at Forest Hills. With so many buses mixing with car traffic, the 1.5-mile stretch of roadway often snarls during rush hour.

To move buses faster, the city and MBTA conducted two one-day trials in the fall, cordoning off one of the parking lanes so that buses could zip through. It worked: Average bus commutes were four minutes faster, a big gain for such a short stretch of road, and the trial drew rave reviews from commuters.

In the spring, the city plans to conduct a longer trial, which could lead to a permanent bus lane. Inbound buses will use the lane in the morning, which will switch to outbound traffic in the evening. Bicyclists and school buses will also be allowed into the lane.

Boston is following the lead of cities like New York and, closer to home, Everett, which have carved out dedicated busways from city streets. Buses don’t have the glamour of train routes and gleaming stations, but they are a critical service, especially for low-income commuters. Excessive commute times impose an invisible burden.

Still, improving bus service often takes a back seat in Boston, because buses fall in a political no-man’s land. The T runs the buses, but the city provides the streets and traffic signals.

That makes the city’s new openness to bus experiments especially welcome. In addition to bus lanes, the transportation department could also expand the use of “signal prioritization’’ — a technology that senses when a bus is coming and gives it a green light.

Overall, assumptions about how to use the limited space available on streets seem to be changing for the better. Free parking isn’t a right, and slow bus service isn’t a fact of life — both are the result of decisions that can be revised. On Washington Street, an estimated 60 percent of the people who travel are on buses, and it makes sense for the city to align the rules to more closely meet their needs.