Early in my 42 years working in the public transportation field, I learned that the industry’s Achilles Heel is negligent monitoring. Almost no one knows how to do this effectively. Few agencies or companies do this at all. Most of their officials do not care. So the industry is rife with crossing accidents, negligent retention, wheelchair tipovers and passenger molestation, among other common accident and incident scenarios. (See transalt.com/expertwitness/scenarios).
From years observing patterns of failure, I’ve come to recognize that a second Achilles Heel in public transportation is tight schedules. In my examination of evidence in more than 600 public transportation-related lawsuits, tight schedules were the principal cause of more than half the accidents and incidents.
Tight schedules translate directly into compromises of passenger, pedestrian and motorist safety. But tight schedules are more problematic in some modes than others. From mode to mode, they take different forms. The rationale for tight schedules, the dynamics that lead to them, and their consequences differ by mode as well. This series of installments in National Bus Trader will look at tight schedules mode by mode.
Future installments of this series will discuss the problems of tight schedules in detail, mode by mode. And consistent with past National Bus Trader series (see “Safety Compromises” in September – December, 2017, and April – September, 2018 and safetycompromises.com), future installments about tight schedules will focus on the safety compromises they trigger. A brief overview of these modes’ problems are presented below. Important lessons are embedded in each of them.
Fixed Route Transit
In “The Car Country,” all public transportation services are grossly-underfunded. This shortfall is compounded at the institutional level by an ignorance of and disinterest in system design, and a sweeping incompetence in policy-making and planning. As a result, fixed route transit service is the most relentless generator of tight schedules, and the greatest perpetrator of safety compromises. Particularly in urban transit systems, it is sometimes hard to find a single route for which the schedule is not too tight.
This reality is important for motorcoach companies because they are increasingly being engaged to provide service to transit agencies, even beyond commuter/express services for which contracting has been common for decades. Yet even in those modes where contracting has been dominant, the emergence of international mega-contractors has made the competition more ruthless. Further, the haplessness of lead agencies in writing requests for proposals has enabled the least safe and least caring contractors to dominate the market.
The lesson is that prudent would-be contractors should ride-and-time the real-life “running times” of those routes put “out to bid” before haplessly agreeing to operate them. Keep in mind that private contractors will be asked to indemnify the “lead agencies” with which they contract. So by contracting out, transit agencies can avoid all or most of the monetary consequences of their tight schedules and the mayhem that they induce.
Complementary Paratransit Service
Schedules are often tight in complementary paratransit services for a variety of reasons. The most common reason is the fact that both the provision of service and the derivation of schedules are usually contracted out to different parties. Zealous software developers (rarely held responsible for their zeal) are asked to make the service as efficient as theoretically possible (i.e., schedules too tight) while providers of the actual service are asked to adhere to these schedules. And because of the malfeasance of public agencies in crafting requests for proposals and evaluating the proposals submitted in response, most contractors try to comply with the schedules with poorly-paid drivers and limited monitoring staff. This problem is compounded by the practice of assessing service providers countless petty “liquidated damages” for late service. For the contractor, it is much cheaper to accept these damages than to undertake the research to refute them.
The clash of these forces translates into relentless safety compromises, ranging from the failure to secure wheelchairs to passenger molestation. In the midst of a class action suit in which I was involved years ago, the software developer added 30 percent more travel time to the schedules. Before then, the provision of service was madcap.
Non-Emergency Medical Service
Tight schedules are almost endemic to NEMT service. This is largely because payment for trips is made on a combined per-trip and per-mile basis. Unlike even a metered taxi (where the meter merely runs more slowly at red lights and other stops), an NEMT provider earns nothing when the vehicle is not moving. The fact that it could take five minutes to properly secure a garden variety wheelchair, the rampant number of wheelchair tipovers should be no surprise. I will continue to testify that in many vehicles I have examined, no wheelchair has ever been secured throughout the vehicle’s life.
As the installment about this particular mode will explore in greater detail, the problems in NEMT service have spiraled out of control as healthcare agencies have increasingly wiped their hands of any obvious responsibility, and contracted out the selection and monitoring of actual service to brokers. Brokers are not only paid on a basis that bears no relation to how services incur costs, but they are usually allowed to keep the money they do not spend on the actual provision of service. And just as the brokers indemnify the agencies which hire them, the service providers indemnify the brokers. The consequences of these dynamics are obvious and reasonably foreseeable.
Transportation Network Companies
The primary means of eliminating the endless stream of mostly-part-time drivers from the landscape is a short record of poor customer ratings. Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, Juno and other TNC drivers cannot risk taking too long to get wherever they are headed. Yielding 20% or so of the fares immediately to an “app,” they also cannot afford to. So even without fixed schedules, many trips involve a compromise between taking too long and not frightening the passengers.
Taxi and Limousine Service
Taxi drivers have been known to speed and drive wildly for decades. Now that their passenger densities have been thinned by the invasion by TNCs, and the percentage of deadhead time has increased, these grossly-underpaid pawns are even more frantic. In hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of taxi rides, I do not recall ever being asked to affix my seatbelt before the vehicle zoomed away. Oddly, some taxi drivers whose incomes have been decimated by the emergence of TNCs are resigned to their fate, and have actually slowed down.
Limousine drivers do not generally speed, and these drivers are not as prone to committing the same swath of safety compromises as taxi or TNC drivers. The exception is party buses. Otherwise, limousines do not speed as much because the trip itself is often part of the experience. In taxi or TNC service, the ride is usually the means to an end.
General Education Schoolbus Service
Fixed route schoolbus schedules are more tame than transit services because the standard of care for schoolbus services is higher, and the violations are easier to identify. No standees are permitted on schoolbuses in any of the 50 states. Otherwise, as more and more schoolbus schedules are being created by software, and as low-bidding has grown more common as a handful of ruthless global contractors have depressed driver wages and thinned management, tight schedules have increased. One consequence is that crossing accidents have increased. This trend is difficult to isolate because the schoolbus community has failed to effectively respond to “pass-bys.”
Special Education Schoolbus Service
Effectively paratransit service for kids traveling to and from school, “special ed” schedules are increasingly being created by robots. Because of the sensitivities and special needs of many of the passengers, and the frequency of on-board problems, routes are often delayed. Many drivers sense some pressure to make up for these delays. Rarely do scheduling robots take such occurrences into account. On-time performance is particularly problematic on in-bound routes, when the passengers must be on time at the destination. But since the monitoring of on-time performance is rarely undertaken, special ed services are awash in passenger molestations. Yet, oddly, wheelchair tipovers in special ed service are rare.
It is hard to generalize about tight schedules in the motorcoach industry because the phenomenon is different in each sub-sector — tour service, charter service, intercity/scheduled service and commuter/express service. Tight schedules in commuter/express service are rampant. However, many vehicles in this sub-sector make only a single run. In these cases, unless the route is interlined with another route, the drivers can at least catch up without being late for their next run.
Intercity service schedules have their own problems, particularly then the drivers must layover for the night, and especially where the layover time does not ensure drivers enough time for a good night’s sleep. Further, the regressive approach to driver assignment common to all unionized operations is more problematic for motorcoach services provided during those hours when drivers would normally be asleep (including shifts which begin in the wee hours). The presence of fatigue blurs the consequences of tight schedules. Yet fatigue can lead to speeding and other safety compromises because drivers often try to “get it over with” before their biological clocks and recklessly-indifferent driver assignments betray them.
Tight schedules are to some degree a necessity in “Code 3” ambulance operations (where the sirens and flashers are engaged, and when nurses are often on board). Ambulance drivers not operating in Code 3 situations commonly “take it easy,“ because their passengers are usually fragile and/or very ill. So while other safety compromises are occasionally committed by ambulance services (e.g., the failure to secure wheelchairs or gurneys), tight schedules are usually not a problem. Part of this is explained by the exorbitant cost of ambulance service and, as a result, the fact that each trip is scheduled to be followed by another specific trip. Along with these costs, ambulance drivers are usually more skilled that the drivers of vehicles of the same size deployed in other modes.
Words to the Unwise
Whenever I am called by an attorney (on either side) about a crossing case, a wheelchair tipover, a passenger securement case, an on-board slip-and-fall or many other common themes (see transalt.com/expertwitness/scenarios), I know immediately that the schedule was too tight. But the attorney or paralegal calling me cannot know this. So I only suggest this theme – and prove it down-the-road if and when the attorney listens and the firm is not too cheap to explore it properly.
There are no excuses for tight schedules with a common carrier (as motorcoaches operators are in every sub-sector of operations), held to the highest standard and duty of care. At the highest levels, the individual in charge knows or should know which of its schedules are too tight. When this is proven, it is hard to restrict the blame to a driver, and to contain the case at the respondeat superior level. Jurors are usually more sympathetic about an underpaid pawn operating the vehicle than they are about some often-overpaid suit at the top of the policy-making and management pyramid.
Public transportation providers in The Car Country are fortunate that many of their victims’ attorneys are cheap, lazy and often outright crooked. Tight schedules obvious to me as the underlying cause of so many incidents may never cross the minds of attorneys representing the victims. Or they may simply not wish to invest the resources to find out. But if and when they do, an operator whose incident reflected a tight schedule will be served to the jury on a platter.
My strong suggestion to every reader is ensure that your schedules are not too tight for drivers to execute them safely (other than in rarely-foreseeable emergency situations). Passenger management problems and traffic, among other constraints, are not among these situations. Try not to be among the unwise.