I never much liked the cliché ”What goes around comes around.” But it often does. When it does in transportation, it can be surprising.
Gridlock and Getting Even
More sophisticated nations than us in many ways – for example, former Yugoslavia – had little gridlock. Instead, they had spiders. For those readers who have never spent any time outside this country, a spider is a flatbed truck with a crane attached to it. If and when your vehicle blocks an intersection, a law enforcement officer whistles you to stop, and the spider picks up your vehicle and drives it to an impound lot. Less sophisticated contraptions simply tow it there. Not wishing to lose a week’s pay, most motorists do not block these countries’ intersections, and their populations waste far less time sitting in traffic.
Because we do not employ such advanced technologies, and tend to enforce the law only against perpetrators of street crimes while our banks and corporations run wild with corruption and impunity, our police officers do other things to vent their frustration, and those perpetrators of gridlock whom they can identify pay most heavily for it. One short walk in mid-town Manhattan or downtown D.C. – where I spent my last 14 years, and 11 years from 1969 through 1980, respectively – will easily identify the worst perpetrators: Motorcoaches. So why are we surprised that these two cities’ police officers appear the most overzealous in their distribution of citations for heinous criminal activity like idling?
Is this fair? Of course not. Because we rarely employ “traffic cops” – which operate as “switches” rather than the less-efficient “hubs” that traffic signals comprise – cheating is often the only way to even pass through an urban intersection: When vehicles block the intersection perpendicular to your path when you have the green light, the only way to get through is to sneak out into the intersection and squeeze through the end of the queue at roughly the time the light is about to turn green, once again, for the same traffic stream whose vehicles had previously blocked it. Of course, your efforts to squeeze through this queue forces your vehicle to block your opponent’s path in the same way, and forces its phalanx of vehicles to continue the process. Obviously, this enigma slows overall traffic movement almost exponentially. But if curing this idiotic mess involves having to hire a live Earthling, and a few flatbed trucks and drivers, you can bet Americans are not going to do it. Because of their size, particularly as most motorcoaches are now 45-feet long, they stand out noticeably in this snafu, and suffer the most, directly and indirectly, as a consequence. Yet if their drivers failed to play the game, they would have the most difficult time of any vehicle moving through the traffic stream. Thus, the game continues, and the law enforcement community takes out its wrath on us wherever and whenever it can. Have you ever wondered why a motorcoach whose passengers replace more than 40 automobiles pay fuel taxes? Tolls? Well, if you were paying attention to the solutions noted above, perhaps the wondering should stop.
In simple terms, motorcoach drivers victimized and forced to violate the law are not punished directly because we do not possess the capability to do so. Instead, we are harassed and punished, indirectly, elsewhere. When a society grants its enforcers the impunity to enforce the law whimsically, it will. This too should hardly come as a surprise.
Inside Out and Outside In
When order collapses, behavior that would otherwise comprise safe practice can literally invert itself. Nowhere in transportation is this more evident than in the relationship between law enforcement and following distance. Driving defensively, universally accepted as the best practice, includes a spacing between vehicles appropriate for their speed. Thus, employing the four-second rule, or even the more primitive “one-car-length-per-every-10-mph” of our youth (an approach that becomes less effective as speeds increase), vehicles traveling at 65 or 70 miles an hour need to be spaced seven to 10 vehicles apart in order to ensure their drivers’ and passengers’ safety, particularly as most motorists do not apply the defensive driving approaches commonly taught to professional drivers. Yet one cannot hope to stay alive with this practice on the freeways of cities like Los Angeles, which have almost no remote presence of law enforcement officers. On such freeways, the one out of every 10 motorists who weave constantly from one lane to another also never signal. So the remedy to survive in this mélée is to not allow them enough space to do so. If you do, they will cut in front of your vehicle continuously. So the only way to prevent this is to decrease your following distance. In other words, commensurate with the absence of law enforcement is the need to tailgate. In other words, what would normally comprise the least safe practice becomes the most safe practice, given the alternatives that the twisted operating environment has presented us with.
Another cliché I really hate is the advise to “look within oneself” to find the real problem. This is not even baloney. It is head cheese. Without support and control, the transportation sector – including personal occupancy vehicles (automobiles for the most part) – is powerless to solve its safety problems. The clichés of safe driving – like the motorist rear-ending a fellow motorist’s vehicle is always at fault – are still “on the books” in most states’ motor vehicle regulations. Yet last year, assisting an attorney whose client was literally beheaded when her driver rear-ended a school bus, I helped force the defendant school district into a costly settlement. In violation of other state regulations, the school bus engaged its amber flashers less than a third of the distance from a bus stop that it was supposed to, and compounded this unwelcome surprise by pulling only halfway off the roadway.
This example may appear to be purely a transportation problem. It is not. In paratransit operations more than two decades ago, I paid my drivers a starting salary of $7.50 an hour. The school bus driver involved in the incident cited above earned barely much more two years ago. Public transportation in America is not falling apart simply from our own mistakes – although, like the proposal to spend $58 billion on high-speed rails, we seem to be making more and more of them. It is largely falling apart because we are making mistakes everywhere. And we fail to connect the most obvious dots. We judge the success of our society by indicators like stock market indices. Well, if you cannot name the two ways to best increase stock value I will: Outsource and automate. So is it any surprise we have rabid and growing unemployment?
The nations clearly at the top now – Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Brazil – and those approaching it, like China, simply think more clearly, act more responsibility, and with the exception of China, vote more effectively. The majority of their populations do not choose to continually shoehorn the vast majority of their nation’s wealth into the smallest number of citizens. If we choose to imbue thousands of billionaires with obscene shares of our overall wealth, we cannot hope to have enough left over for the number of teachers, nurses, policemen, roads, bridges and tunnels we need to maintain a society with any sense of logic or order. Fairness is now so far beyond the horizon it does not even enter the dialog.
While we may be far from perfect, the problems we suffer as transportation professionals are not largely our own fault. It is time to look without, and welcome clear thinking and accountability back into our lives, our culture and our society. As transportation professionals, we have proven we can do this: Today’s buses emit a mere one percent of the pollutants of buses less than two generations ago. And our most innovative operators have cleverly doubled vehicle capacity – and lowered fares geometrically in the process – by simply deploying double-decker buses. But we cannot fix all our transportation problems by ourselves. Instead, we must become more involved in the bigger picture, particularly when it affects our community. We must put a stop to the madness of high-speed rail. And we must put a stop to the increasingly-unjustifiable light- and heavy-reail “new-starts” in cities where bus ridership is marginal. But we must also stop other increasingly dysfunctional practices, like granting amnesty to 29,000 Americans identified as shielding their tax evasion bonanzas in a single Swiss Bank.
When those promoting and reinforcing an increasingly deadly distribution of wealth label nations with an obviously more successful distribution of it as “socialists,” we should draw to their attention that those nations do not only have more values. They also have more buses. One would be a fool or a crook to not recognize and acknowledge the connection.