Second Doors and Second Chances: The Safety Benefits of a Rear Door on Motorcoaches

Other than wheelchair, walker and cane users, motorcoach passengers board and alight via a single front stepwell. When they are in the stepwell, of course, the coach is not moving. So we tend to forget the other component of boarding or alighting: The trek between the white line and a seat. This trek can be particularly treacherous on commuter-express service, especially when 45-foot coaches are deployed. The risks are compounded by the largely elderly, often out-of-shape individuals who dominate modern motorcoach ridership as a whole, albeit somewhat less so in commuter-express service. Witness:

Seated in the rear row over the divan, an overweight middle-aged commuter’s 45-foot juggernaut reached the dense, urban end of the route, and began dropping off passengers. With the bus schedule typically too tight, the passenger knew she had no remote chance of alighting if she simply chimed the driver but did not arise and begin walking forward before the coach began pulling into her stop. As she reached the forward, down-sloping section of the passenger aisle (an unneeded design feature since none of this vehicle’s passengers ever stowed luggage, and thus a luggage compartment was pointless), the coach’s intense deceleration, braking and merging pitched her forward into the farebox.

Economics and Eye Rollers

To understand the tightness of transit routes, and the sometimes aberrant behavior of many drivers as a consequence, one needs to wind the clock back half a century. While memories of the Sixties may be dominated by the Beatles and Vietnam, one radical change was the near-complete disappearance of non-subsidized transit service – a direct consequence of the Defense Highway Act of 1954 and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Insurance Act. These two pieces of legislation created nearly 50,000 miles of highways largely to nowhere – until builders began taking advantage of them to create what we now know as “suburban sprawl.” Once our population was distributed into the vast suburbs that quickly became our predominant “urban form,” the densities for any given bus route thinned out exponentially, and profit-making transit died a slow and natural death. The last major unsubsidized system left standing was New Jersey Transit; NJT closed its Maplewood, NJ doors in 1969 – only to reopen immediately with an influx of Federal funds which began flowing into urban areas in 1964 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Urban Mass Transit Administration – a tentacle of the Johnson Administration’s Model Cities Program that was moved into the USDOT when it was created in 1967, and which evolved to become the Federal Transit Administration in the Early 90’s. Prior to UMTA’s formation in 1964, some urban areas had gone without transit service whatsoever for years. More commonly, Federal funds arrived to bolster and expand the troubled systems whose fleets were aging, whose drivers were starving, and whose ridership was dwindling.

Within a single decade after the creation of “operating funds,” Federal subsidies had increased to comprise more than half of the transit industry’s operating costs. Addressing this crisis, in 1977, UMTA and APTA co-sponsored the National Conference on Transit Performance – a conference I had the fortune of designing and managing. One focus of the “subsidy crisis” was the fact that 62 percent of every dollar of Federal funds translated almost immediately into higher drivers’ salaries. Exacerbating this inflation was an extreme degree of featherbedding: Many transit routes had recovery times longer than their running times.

When he took office in 1980, former President Reagan began an assault on transit costs – including the not-well-known reversal of the Carter Administration’s doctrine of “full accessibility” – the Seventies precursor of the Americans with Disabilities Act that arrived almost two decades later. A more well-known impact of the Reagan Administration was, of course, the suppression of the clout previously enjoyed by unions. One huge impact of these dynamics was the drastic reduction in a transit route’s recovery or layover time.

With recovery time pared to the bone, the stage was set for what may someday be referred to as the Era of Accidents and Law Suits – more generically, the operation of tightly-scheduled fixed route service in the ADA era. Unlike the drivers of complementary paratransit, non-emergency medical, taxi, special education, tour and charter services, fixed route transit drivers never know when they are about to encounter a wheelchair user – an encounter which easily gobbles up 10 minutes in boarding and alighting via use of the lift or ramp, the need to secure the wheelchair at four positions and then deploy a lap and shoulder belt, and the need to unfasten all of them at the wheelchair user’s destination. In anticipation of this contingency, transit drivers often shave seconds from their running time continuously, through a variety of measures that include not properly securing wheelchairs, not letting just-boarded passengers reach a point of seating or securement, requiring alighting passengers to arise before the vehicle comes to a complete stop (the example above), and stopping on the wrong side of an intersection because the driver made or missed “the light.”

Fast-forwarding 50 years to modern, urban commuter-express service provided largely by motorcoaches with a single door, one can understand the no-win situation in which transit drivers are placed with respect to safety versus on-time performance. When this enigma plays itself out at the operating level, many drivers are not about to pull over to alight a passenger unless that passenger’s torso is “up and moving” and the driver can see it approaching in the interior rear-view mirror. Merely “chiming” the driver is often not enough: Unless the passenger arises and begins walking forward, the driver is likely to ignore the chime and pass the stop right by. These dynamics translate into passengers having to arise and walk forward during their most vulnerable moments: When the bus is decelerating, braking and merging into the bus stop zone. So it is not surprising how many passengers are injured during the early stages of alighting.

Second Doors and Second Chances

Understanding this history helps illustrate the need for a second door on motorcoaches deployed in commuter-express service. Not only would boarding and alighting be faster (even if passengers were required to board only through the front door, in order to ensure their payment of the fare), but the need to arise and walk while the bus is still moving would be largely eliminated: Those seated in the rear could reach the rear door in seconds, and drivers who stopped to let them off would not have to wait countless seconds for them to walk forward most of the length of the passenger aisle. Because alighting would occur more quickly, bus drivers would not insist it begin when the bus was still moving. Incidents and lawsuits like the example above would be dramatically fewer and further between. Equally as important, several minutes of running time could be eliminated from the schedules of those drivers who actually adhered to some modicum of safety when alighting passengers. For every given set of funds, this reduction in running time would translate into more buses and coaches on the road, and more drivers employed. In contrast, even the slight expansion of schedules would translate into fewer incidents and law suits.

As always, there may be some constraints. For example, there may not always be paved surfaces to accommodate passengers alighting from the rear – although most commuter-express stops are shared by buses providing local and regional services, and whose passengers need to be accommodated at both doors. Where paving does not exist for the rear door, passengers can be instructed to alight only through the front door. In contrast, where two doors are feasible, the generally superior durability, suspension systems and steering of coaches, and the availability of luggage bays for occasional use, may make two-door motorcoaches more practical than two-door buses, particularly as most commuter-express passengers take relatively long rides, by the very nature of this form of service.

Taken together, these dynamics illustrate why most public transportation vehicles contain at least two doors. The singular exceptions are school buses and motorcoaches. In school buses, this exception reflects the naïve and short-sighted operating structure whereby school bus stops are either pickups or drop-offs, but rarely both. This trend reflects the history and evolution of pupil transportation services. Until recently (largely with the emergence of scheduling software), school buses typically provided only a single “run” of service, to either elementary schools, middle schools or high schools. As concepts of efficiency began to dawn on the pupil transportation community, service evolved into the provision of “tiers” of service – transporting a load of high school students followed by a load of middle school students followed by a load of elementary school students – with a load of kindergartners and/or preschoolers often sandwiched in between. While the mixing of passengers in different grade levels has long been a staple of rural school bus service, it is rarely employed in urban and suburban service, even though the presence of attendants and/or video-cameras might render this mixing of age groups reasonably safe and secure.

Similar to school bus service, and unlike other forms of transit service where boarding and alighting passengers overlap, commuter-express passengers board at one end of the route and alight at the other – eliminating bi-directional activity in the single stepwell, and permitting the vehicle to contain only one. However, the mayhem that the single stepwell creates is often ignored or overlooked by those responsible for vehicle selection and specification.

Big Hits and Baby Steps

As this column was being written, the New York State Assembly rejected New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s Congestion Pricing Plan – a plan that would have immediately provided the City with $354 million in Federal operating funds, and half a billion more in several ensuing years.

The cause of this colossal failure of modern American government was largely the arrogance and impunity of State Assemblypersons from “da boros” – Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Feeling “spurned” by Mayor Bloomberg’s failure to stroke their backs, these politicians refused to vote for a measure that they perceived would benefit Manhattan residents at the expense of fees paid by commuters from the surrounding boroughs. The thousand or so motorcoaches into which these funds would likely have translated never came across the politician’s radar. Nor did the quickening of what we may someday refer to as the Emphysema Age.

Clearer thinking at most levels of the public transportation industry would not likely have turned the tables on New York City’s missed opportunity. Still, in an automotive-oriented society, public transportation is perceived largely as a road to higher taxes. So things we can do to reduce operating costs are not of minor importance. A technology as simple as a second door could reduce running times of commuter-express service by several minutes without compromising the safety of the passengers. If we implemented a slate of similar improvements, they might collectively give public transportation a much-needed boost – and occasionally a second chance at a barrel of money which we otherwise ain’t got.

Improvements in public transportation like cleaner engines may appear to be baby steps of progress, and in the short run may even bog down the industry’s expansion because of their higher capital costs and dysfunctional consequences like more bus fires from hotter-burning engines. But in the long run, such improvements are what may be needed to place the value of public transportation higher up the voting public’s collective eye. Imposing one’s will on a room full of politicians is a struggle. If Hurricane Katrina failed to wake them up to our industry’s importance, its not likely that a single event of any kind will. But these failures only underscore the importance of our making progress where we can find it. If the primary rationale is passenger safety, so much the better. But as New York City’s debacle clearly illustrates, safety is a blood relative to a basketful of problems that sometimes share common solutions. When we fail, passengers who are not even injured must sometimes share the pain.

Publications: National Bus Trader.