Tight Schedules, Part 3: Fixed Route Transit Service

For reasons different than those of other modes, transit schedules are often tight. In many urban systems, all or most schedules are tight. When schedules are tight, drivers compromise passenger, pedestrian and motorist safety to comply with them.

A number of common safety compromises are summarized below. A deeper treatment of those compromises typical of fixed route transit service may be found on safetycompromises.com., and in the 12 National Bus Trader articles published on this subject in September through December, 2017 and April through December, 2018 issues. That series was organized by type of safety compromise. This series, organized mode by mode, focuses on the incident scenarios triggered by tight schedules – the most common cause of safety compromises on all public transportation services, and the dominant cause of these compromises in fixed route transit service.

On-board Slips and Falls

One rarely finds even child-like information about inertial and centrifugal forces in driver training manuals. These forces are particularly problematic for a mode that accommodates standees. But standees at least have both feet firmly planted while they grasp horizontal or vertical stanchions. Those boarding who have not yet reached a seat or stanchion do not have even this luxury. So when the driver zooms away from a stop, they can be tossed rearward. When they arise and walk toward doors as the bus approaches their stops, they can be thrown forward. Passengers are never warned about either scenario. Letting a boarding passenger reach a seat or stanchion before pulling away may take only 10 or 15 seconds. (Boarding passengers are encouraged to walk toward the rear door.) But a driver who does not let 50 passengers do this, at a score or two of stops, can shave a good 10 minutes off his or her running time on every run.

Wheelchair and Passenger Securement

Even apart from loading and unloading time, it can take a good five minutes to retrieve and properly secure a garden variety wheelchair and, at the drop-off, remove and stow the hardware — especially with antiquated securement hardware. With a schedule already tight, many drivers are not going to run further behind by doing all this. Not securing a wheelchair can create more recovery time than any other single omission. But not bolted to the floor, this passenger’s seat is wildly vulnerable to inertial and, especially, centrifugal forces. Unfortunately, passengers riding in these seats are usually more vulnerable than those using regular seats. Further compounding this, drivers who do not secure wheelchairs rarely secure their occupants into them. The loose chair can literally catapult its occupant out of it.

When wheelchairs are secured at all on transit buses, drivers often secure only the aisle-side positions – reasoning that if the chair begins to tip toward the wall side, the sidewall and window will keep it from tipping over. The problem is that this only works for a wheelchair secured on the curb-side when the bus turns or swerves to the left. On a right turn, this chair flips right over to the left – as centrifugal forces make it. Vice versa for a wheelchair secured on the street side. Without the access to both sides of a chair often available in a van- or minivan conversion, a bus driver often has to crawl beneath a wheelchair user’s feet to secure chair’s front, wall-side position. With their failures ignored until a chair actually tips over, drivers have little incentive to secure it at all, much less thoroughly. But they have strong disincentives to do this when their schedules are tight.

What distinguishes wheelchair tip-overs from other safety compromises is that wheelchair tip-overs are automatically civil rights cases. As per 49 CFR 38.23(d)(5), a wheelchair may not move more than two inches in any direction under normal vehicle operating conditions. Good luck defending a wheelchair tipover.  Good luck containing the damages. And good luck keeping the case at the respondeat superior level.


Speeding is the most rudimentary safety compromise. In most parts of an urban service area, top speeds are limited by traffic and the constant pulling in and out of stops every few blocks. So speeding often occurs mostly on freeways, on- or off-ramps, and during turns – particularly left turns. But if a driver speeds on even portions of the run, he or she can shave several minutes off the vehicle’s running time. Tiny moments can be shaved from running time if the driver constantly accelerates and decelerates excessively, even while he or she may never exceed the speed limit in doing so. So drivers rarely receive citations for such stunts. Otherwise, when schedules are tight, drivers will speed, and accelerate and decelerate wildly even at the outset of a run – constrained somewhat by the fact they cannot depart early from stops. But this concept becomes moot after a handful of stops on a tight route. So if the drivers do not speed where they can, they will fall even further behind schedule.

More recently, transit agencies and their contractors have fallen for ruses like the computerized determination of excessive turning speed and harsh braking. Apart from any context (e.g., the radius of the turn, or the need to brake), such concepts are asinine. But as always, assigning monitoring to computers and robots eliminates labor and accountability. More importantly, it replaces meaningful monitoring. Otherwise, constrained by criticisms of safe and unsafe actions alike, much less out of context, drivers can focus their speeding on the “in-between places” – long stretches of unsignalized straightaways. And they can outsmart robots which do not measure acceleration, or pull outs before boarding passengers have reached a seat or stanchion (as noted above).

Failure to Kneel

Most transit buses contain kneeling features at the front door, while most specifications ignore the fact that the same apparatus can make the bus kneel at the rear door – a door more often further from the curb. Either way, it takes a total of about six seconds to kneel and then raise the corner or side of a bus (or motorcoach). But omitting this procedure a few dozen times adds up.

The general rule is that buses should kneel when the doors are more than a foot from the curb (although the one-to-four foot “gray zone” should be avoided either way). The floor surface of even a low floor bus is 12 inches above the ground. Adjacent to a curb and kneeled, the passenger need step down only about three to five inches. Without a curb or a kneeler, the step down is 12 inches. To a passenger who is not the first off the bus, these differences can have startling consequences. So the failure to kneel is particularly problematic during alighting. As noted, it is also  problematic in transit because so few buses are configured to kneel at the rear door.

Pulling Adjacent to the Curb

For a variety of reasons, many buses “nose in.” This scenario leaves the rear door further from the curb. The most dangerous consequence of this practice is that the tail of the bus blocks the drivers’ view of vehicles approaching from behind the bus, through the street-side exterior mirrors. The compromised visibility makes pull outs precarious.

Often a driver must nose in because the bus zone is not long enough and/or no-parking zones are not enforced. Nosing it can shave a few seconds from the pull-in time. More importantly, the tail of the bus often stops approaching vehicles from proceeding, and thereby eliminates the time the bus driver would need to merge back into traffic. Of course, other vehicles swerve around the bus, trading off the time savings of both vehicles for potential side-swipes.

Multiple episodes of nosing in can create a meaningful amount of recovery time (or at least keep the bus less behind schedule than it would have been without this and other safety compromises). In return, passengers exiting the rear door must step down into a triangle or trapezoid, too far away from the curb and often in the “gray zone.”

Stopping on the Wrong Side of the Intersection

Rarely are stops for the same route located on both sides of an intersection. Designated stop positions are chosen by considering a series of trade-offs. And designated stops are usually rendered stable, and often accessible. Stops on other sides of the intersection usually are not. While passengers wait for their pickups at designated stops (unless the system allows them to board wherever they wish), alighting passengers must alight where the drivers discharges them.

Caught in a light before a far-side stop, a driver may discharge passengers on the near side. Making the light may induce a driver to skip the designated near-side stop and discharge passengers on the far side. As light cycles gobble of lots of time, stopping on the wrong side of the intersection even a few times each run can create or extend recovery time significantly. But this savings often comes at the expense of passengers stepping off onto broken curbing, wet cement, construction zones, mail boxes, utility poles, trash bins, puddles, or ice and snow – and likely some scenarios I have not yet encountered in my sometimes-role as an expert witness.

Boarding and Alighting

Many passengers are injured when the bus is not even moving. Particularly overrepresented as victims are walker users asked to board via the stepwell – a senseless concept for a passenger who needs a walker to merely stand or shuffle along on a flat, dry, level surface. Another inexcusable error is closing the front door on a passenger (which occurs more often in boarding). Because passengers entering the front door board right in front of the driver’s eyeballs, most transit agencies do not specify sensitive edges or interlocks on the front doors. When drivers close the doors on passengers’ hands, arms, shoulder or bodies, and pull away, the passengers get dragged down the street until they are pried loose, after which they commonly slip beneath the bus just forward of the curb-side rear tires, from which they are crushed.

Letting passengers merely enter the stepwell would seem to take little time. So it is hard to understand this error as a safety compromise. Yet it usually happens when schedules are too tight.

A most curious boarding or alighting incident occurs when drivers kneel or lower the stepwell with passengers still in it. Kneeling features can easily be configured to prevent this. It is a marvel that so few are, and that manufacturers are willing to sell buses that are configured backwards. Still, most of the blame is usually placed on the customer who wrote the specifications.

Rolling Turns and Sharp Turns

A study conducted by Seattle METRO in 2015 correlated left turn accidents with insufficient running time. As a result, METRO added back $11M worth of service.

Because of the small radii of right turns (see “Dancing in the Oncoming Lane,” National Bus Trader, August, 2016) and the need to often pull the nose of the bus over the centerline of the intersecting street, drivers are typically cautious in making right turns. The are far less cautious rolling through left turns, which can only be safely negotiated by the bus first coming to a dead stop or a crawl. But doing this consumes running time, and often traps the bus in lights.

The problem with rolling left turns, at moderate speeds, is related directly to a bus driver’s two-second reaction time/distance and braking distance. A 150-lb. pedestrian is no match for a 38,000-lb. bus whose driver spots the pedestrian only when its too late to stop. Rolling turns is a safety compromise which translates into the most carnage, and the highest damage awards and settlements. (See crossingaccidents.com and turningaccidents.com)

Passenger Assistance: Standards, Practices & Disincentives

Requirements for passenger assistance vary considerably by mode and type of passenger. Unlike many modes, transit and schoolbus drivers do not assist most passengers on and off the bus. And unlike motorcoach drivers, transit drivers do not spot passengers at the bottom of the stepwell. In contrast, wheelchair users must board via a lift or ramp, while walker users and many cane users should board via the lift —  but are rarely given this chance unless they proactively request it.

Those passengers not assisted by transit drivers are often challenged by poor stepwell designs and, particularly, poor handrails. With virtually no regulations for stepwells or handrails, their designs have often revolved around style.

Big Problems, Troubling Solutions

Driving a 38,000-lb. bus is hard work. It requires constant and intense focus. It demands sustained, moment-by-moment alertness. And it requires quick judgment. For all these things to gel, drivers must have moments to relax and manage stress. Policy-makers, planners, schedulers and/or management often do not give drivers a chance to catch their breath because schedules are too tight. When drivers do not have these moments in the course of their assignments, they will create them by making safety compromises.

More troubling to operating companies and their insurance carriers is the inverse: Safety compromises are telltale signs of tight schedules. In a lawsuit, tight schedules move the blame up the management hierarchy far above the driver level. Jurors have far less sympathy for some overpaid white collar bureaucrat than they have for the workers who gut it out, day after day, for marginal wages.

In the transit industry, every general manager knows, or should know, which of his or her routes have unachievable schedules. With the right attorney and the right expert, cases involving tight schedules settle for much more. Mayhem committed on or from buses with tight schedules reeks of incompetence, indifference and greed. But with the tight schedule familiar to the agency’s top gun, it also borders on malice.

In a courtroom, the M-word can trigger a judge to instruct the jury that it can award punitive damages. A transit authority whose driver and tightly-scheduled bus kill or mutilate a passenger, pedestrian or motorist should be wary. So too should be any contractor working for and indemnifying that authority. Facing the right plaintiff’s attorney with the right expert, that authority or contractor, and/or their carrier, is likely to have problems.

Publications: National Bus Trader.