Small Contributions to Major Concerns

Freedom. The superficiality America promotes itself to have around the world. An easier con I cannot imagine. An obvious example in the motorcoach sector is our failure to regulate limits of shift inversion – which Canada, Europe and Australia employ and enforce. In contrast, we are still battling over issues related to electronic logs.

Shift inversion is not the theme of this article. It merely illustrates a broader theme that courses through our society, and which is, bit by bit, falling apart – and the world is noticing. This is certain true of our transit service; I have written about this recently in National Bus Trader. But the motorcoach industry is still hurting from ridership losses from COVID-19 – and from ignoring recent and past suggestions from National Bus Trader to take advantage of gaping opportunities.

Even in shift inversion, it is not fair to single out the motorcoach sector. While regulated at the state level (even while many trips are interstate), few states have meaningful shift limits for TNCs. Some, like California, have none – unless this has changed recently. Where hours-of-service limits are “on the books,” enforcement is barely existent: While TNC vehicles are required to have noticeably visible placards on the front and sides (or rear and sides), I do not recall ever seeing one. (Of course, I have never ridden with Lyft or Uber for reasons I have written about often in National Bus Trader (see https://transalt.com/article/uber-and-lyft-even-worse-than-expected/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-1-introduction/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-2-the-rise-fall-and-transformation-of-supershuttle/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-3-invasion-of-the-tncs/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-4-judicial-heroism/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-5-executive-branch-responses/; https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-6-industry-and-association-responses/ and https://transalt.com/article/bad-regulations-and-worse-responses-part-7-conclusions/.

But TNCs are hardly alone. Taxi drivers are allowed, in most states, to operate 12 hours a day, six days a week – slightly more enforceable because of the ease and common sense of breaking a day into two pieces. In days of yore, drivers could catch a kitten-nap between runs or deadhead time (a bit less where service concepts repositioned vehicles between runs, to reduce response time). Longer catnaps are now possible since TNCs have reduced taxi deadhead time to 30 to 40 percent (according to most drivers).

Transit drivers in most systems enjoy no breaks between routes because their schedules are often too tight – and almost every route in our major cities (see https://transalt.com/article/tight-schedules-part-1-the-other-achilles-heel/, and https://transalt.com/article/tight-schedules-part-3-fixed-route-transit-service-2/). Years ago, I served as an expert witness for a collection of contractors in California whose drivers have been deprived of lunch breaks, and where most schedules contained no recovery time, for five years; we settled for tens of millions.

These characteristics well illustrate the freedom our nation general enjoys: The freedom to do whatever we want without rare consequences. And these consequences depend largely on the rare attorney willing to seek and effect the changes. (I recently withdrew from a case that would have made AMTRAK’s rail yards safe, but where the attorney was afraid to ask for the costly remedies.)

To be fair, many extremes in other nations are far harsher. In Russia, one can go to prison for merely speaking ill of government policies. In some Middle Eastern countries, one can have a hand chopped off for pickpocketing. But here, little things wrong are completely ignored until they explode into major problems – and only then are measures “considered,” yet rarely taken. About 10 years ago, when New York City has only 50,000 homeless residents, I tendered a solution to house half of them at no cost, and actually many benefits (see https://transalt.com/article/making-more-money-part-10-the-homeless-bus-2/). Now the City has 125,000, and 50,000 are housed in underutilized fancy hotels (since so many former travelers now work remotely). When this smaller problem could have been addressed, it was ignored. Now it is unsolvable. Similarly, in the heart of COVID, I suggested a solution that would have gotten students to physical school safely two days a week (see https://transalt.com/article/getting-students-back-to-school/). Not a school in the country implemented this, admittedly, challenging solution – even while it would have created 5.5 million jobs – when we needed them.) More recently, National Bus Trader suggested an approach that could easily have put thousands of motorcoaches to work. This solution was also largely ignored – except by some commercial airline companies that jumped on it without any genuine changes that did not eliminate the inconvenience and discomfort of the passengers (see (see https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-1-magic-corridors/ and https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-2-the-magic-coach/).

Motorcoach Freedom

In contract, what sells in the Land of Freedom are motorcoaches fraught with danger and devoid of any meaningful regulations or enforcement, like the aforementioned Party Bus. Once in a blue moon, a dangerous new mode (that makes little operating sense) emerges only to bite the dust: This past December 20, electric scooter company Bird Rides filed for bankruptcy (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/20/business/dealbook/bird-bankruptcy.html). I’m hoping my expert assistance in a lawsuit against this company (Duker v. Bird Rides, CA, 2022) help sink this rocky boat just a bit.

Bad Ideas Certain to Emerge and Proliferate

Numerous times in National Bus Trader I have mentioned that the problems we face lie beyond our ability to solve them. But I usually see little evidence that we tried. The main theme of this article – a problem certain to come – will come first to the poor, also unsubsidized school bus sector – and only small shards of it will emerge in the motorcoach sector. The problem I speak of is an explosion of truancy. (That’ right: Remember the days when one had to attend school!)

Educators (and a few parents) may recently have become aware of the fact that school attendance has drifted sharply from mandatory to voluntary – far from the “draconian” days of truant officers and parental punishment. “Nationwide, the rate of chronic absenteeism…nearly doubled between 2018-19 and 21-22 to 28 percent,” according to a study recently conducted by Stanford University (The New Yorker). Michigan’s rate was 39 percent, the third highest. Some states have rates well into 40 percent range. Some students simply skip the classes they don’t like. Others skip school altogether. Those who attend ignore the teaching and play with their phones – which most school districts refuse to make them deposit them in a closet during class Again: The Land of Freedom. “This issue has also attracted surprisingly little attention from leaders, elected officials or otherwise…” (The New Yorker). The problem appears to have begun when students began “attending school” remotely. Not only was attendance hard to monitor, but paying attention was harder. Many students logged into their classes remotely, but devoted their attention to social media, video games and all sorts of things that did not require them to even glance at the computer screens carrying their school activities.

Prior to this, most schools took attendance. At minimum, attendance was noted on report cards – and responded to by those parents who bothered to read them (or who even got them). Logging into one school’s computer may have been traceable. But attendance at every class was challenging or impossible (if it was even done). Determining which students paid attention – even minimally – was impossible.

But logging in and paying attention were school problems. Attending schools was a totally different problem – but to some degree a transportation problem, since schoolbuses did not run throughout the day, empty seats cost taxpayers’ money, and with ridership was unpredictable, adjustments in vehicle sizes could not be made. And most schoolchildren did not have drivers’ licenses. Few had access to a vehicle. So to the degree they needed to travel, these trips were made mostly on subways and buses, and to a lesser agree by taxis or TNCs (for those students who could afford them) or occasionally by motorcoach. In the latter case, charter trips (and almost as difficult, tour service) would seem to be impossible, while in contrast, certain intercity service was accessible. These additions to motorcoach ridership would naturally be slight, and likely unnoticeable to most drivers, and certainly to their companies. Any increases in ridership would likely be attributed to “recovery” from the decimation of ridership from COVID-19. These additional trips would be even more disguised on systems where students did not receive discounted fares.

Recognition and Responsibility

In the days of truant officers, if a schoolchild boarded a motorcoach, the driver was likely to state, “Say, aren’t you guys supposed to be in school?” Nowadays, the drivers would simply collect the fares. Values have changed a lot – among them, the freedom of schoolchildren enjoy to depart from what used to be norms. So it is not fair to blame motorcoach drivers for not “reporting them.” In truth, to whom would they even do this? Unlike schoolbus drivers, motorcoach drivers don’t know which schools these students even attended (while they might have some good guesses from the pickup points, and had access to a dispatcher who might render a good guess).

Could or should they call the police? This is not meant as a joke, but I cannot imagine a police car flagging down a motorcoach to confront a teenage passenger on his or reasons for being out of school – especially where 30 or 40 percent of them do not even attend school, and no one seems to care. And with such latitude about attendance, what good could be accomplished if the drivers notified their dispatchers to call the students’ schools? Drivers would be hard pressed to even get the students’ names, much less the schools they attended. In rare cases, a driver would place him- or herself at risk even asking such questions.

The problem is that with barely any concern about this problem, there is certainly no structure for addressing it. Given the myriad of other serious problems overwhelming our nation at this time, I cannot see coordination in monitoring and enforcement between schools, parents, law enforcement officials and transportation providers – with any other institution from stores, malls, recreational centers or, certainly, from the venues of drug dealers. So, frankly, what would be the point of a motorcoach driver even reacting? Were I a dispatcher receiving a call from a driver like, “Hey, there are a bunch of high school students on my coach,” I would most likely respond with, “So what do you want me to do about this?” Keep in mind, many former high school students of high school age have also dropped out of school altogether –are not truants, and have every right to ride motorcoaches or any other mode of transportation.

Questionable Contributions

God help us if we must await a study of this tiny shred of a much larger problem that most of us are barely aware of – like the University of Michigan did for the broad problem of truancy, nationally (from those states what even had data about the problem). Plus, frankly, motorcoach carriers would more likely simply welcome the additional ridership. But that rare large motorcoach company that cares about life in America overall could make a contribution by noting and counting these riders, tabulating the results, and submitting them to some source (National Bus Trader would be a good choice to trigger a small article, but not necessarily the most effective.) One could not remotely hope that a fixed route transit operation would instruct its drivers to make note of such phenomena, much less count and tabulate the results, and report them to some educational organization – although a local newspaper might result in at least a school board’s awareness of this phenomenon. Yet with such a large number of students not attending school, those riding motorcoaches or transit would be a small fraction, and barely worth noting.

Small Ideas Start Somewhere

Lest anyone forget, some rather large ideas and movements emminated from a single person or single source. The most obvious examples who come to mind are Jesus, Galileo and Darwyn – whose ideas hardly were compatible, but went a long way toward near-universal adoption. Every idea has to start somewhere. And contributions to it can come from anywhere.

This piece is not meant to start a movement. Its purpose is mostly for those in the industry to become aware of slight changes – changes like a rare outburst of violence on the coach from teenage (or even middle school) riders traveling mid-day during the week. After all, those students skipping school to take a day trip are not likely members of the student counsel. Or even star athletes. They are the deviants. So if nothing else, motorcoach drivers should take notice of even these slight aberrations in the “ridership profile.” At best, they can mention it to others in the broader community – particularly a rare elected official or schoolboard representative they might bump into. Or even a note to a local newspaper, suggesting a short investigation followed by a short article. But flagging this “pebble” is worthwhile. For it represents a much larger and far more dangerous trend in American society. Imagine returning to an era where the majority of students do not attend school? If more than 40 percent of students in a few states do not attend school, we are not that far from such a future. Speculating on the short- and long-term consequences of this trend should not require much imagination. Even in tiny bits and pieces, one would do well to do what one can.

In 1971, famous psychologist B.F. Skinner – the author of famous Walden Two, wrote a shattering book named Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which described a Utopian world revolving around freedom – again, for which our nation is (or was) known and respected. But I hardly think that people, here and abroad, will have the same feeling about this when, internationally, students throughout the world – especially female children — are fighting and begging for the right to attend school, while our students for whom it is free and available abandon it. Should we turn into a nation where our children roam free as a band of ragamuffins, I doubt this image of our nation’s “freedom” will last much longer.

Again, this is not a problem for the motorcoach industry, and will not likely become one, even if and when it is noticeable. But keeping any eye out for even tiny ridership trends in this direction, and conveying them to others, will make a small contribution to a deeply-polarized country that most citizens feel is coming apart at every juncture, and slowing unraveling with every new opportunity – often beginning to those that seem infinitesimal – although 40+ percent of schoolchildren not attending school is hardly an example of such insignificance. Instead, we are genuinely unravelling. And no one seems to notice or care. Better to catch small deviations of such trends where we find them than to admit, after the fact, that we saw signs of such things, but felt them too insignificant to notice or mention them – and now its too late, because suddenly it’s a big problem.
On modes on which ridership is low, small trends – like a large percentage of students not attending school – can matter. The motorcoach industry should watch such indicators closely.

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