Except in rural areas with vast distances between intersections, a bus stop can reasonably be placed in one of three positions:
There are several considerations for selecting the safest positioning for a schoolbus stop with respect to the nearest intersection. Because every selection involves some sightline blockages - among other differences - selecting the position for the stop necessarily involves some trade-offs. Among these trade-offs, one of the most important factors to consider is the "crossing orientation" of the bus:
Exceptions occasionally occur. For example, when a transit bus stops on the near-side of a signalized intersection, alighting passengers may encounter a green traffic signal inviting them to cross in front of the stopped bus. If the pedestrian enters the roadway late in the light cycle, however, the light may change before the pedestrian emerges from in front of the bus, and a vehicle alongside or behind the bus may accelerate through the light and, sight unseen, into the pedestrian. And unlike schoolbuses, transit buses contain no lights or other devices to signal motorists that an alighting passenger is about to cross, whether that crossing occurs behind the bus or in front of it.
In my work as an expert witness, a full half of the 50 or so crossing incidents I've examined involved improper crossing orientation: Pedestrians crossing behind schoolbuses or in front of transit buses, rather than the reverse. Putting it another way, if bus passengers and other pedestrians simply observed proper crossing orientation, half of the crossing-related deaths and serious injuries would not occur.
With some exceptions, American schoolchildren below 6th grade should not be riding transit buses without an adult to supervise them. Apart from the obvious concerns for security, the primary reason for this guideline is the fact that children below age 10 (and to some degree below age 13) have trouble remembering to simply cross in front of their schoolbuses. If they also ride transit buses, when they alight from either bus they must (a) remember what type of bus they were just riding, and then (b) determine what type of crossing orientation correlates with that type of bus. Beginning at or slightly beyond age 10, most children have the capacity to process these questions. But only if rigorously instructed and constantly reminded. Below age 10, this critical correlation may be hard to grasp, much less retain and apply.
Another factor that complicates crossing is the complexity of the crossing environment. In a suburban setting involving "local" or "collector" streets, young children can more easily J-walk across a street than negotiate its intersection. But the opposite is true where both the streets and intersections are complex. The more complex the streets are to cross by themselves, the more complex their intersections will be. Adults may find it easier to negotiate a signalized intersection than to J-walk near it. But the opposite is true for young children who find almost all intersections disproportionately more complex to cross than the streets the intersection connects.
Because mid-block stops induce J-walking, they are rarely considered in transit service. One exception is urban areas with large trip generators located mid-block and only short distances to or from at least one intersection. Another exception occurs in rural areas, where the distance between intersections may be vast. Apart from these exceptions, most transit bus stops are positioned on either the near-side or far-side. Further, unless specific intersection characteristics deem a near-side stop safer, the general rule is to locate the transit bus stop on the far-side of the intersection. This is because passengers and pedestrians are supposed to cross (a) behind a transit bus, and (b) at the intersection. A far-side stop permits the crosser to do both. In contrast, a near-side transit bus stop poses a dilemma.
Insofar as crossing, the logic of positioning schoolbus stops is the exact opposite of the logic for positioning transit bus stops. In schoolbus service, a near-side stop is generally safer than a far-side stop:
As a matter of crossing safety, a near-side schoolbus stop is generally better than a far-side stop.
When roadways are relatively easy to cross (particularly because of low traffic volumes), locating a schoolbus stop at a "mid-block" position may be safer than locating it on either side of the intersection. This is because a simple roadway is easier for a young child to cross than a simple intersection. Far more importantly, the schoolbus contains its own traffic signal, and effectively creates an intersection wherever the driver stops it and engages its crossing equipment. Compared to a regular intersection, the intersection created by the engagement of a schoolbus' crossing equipment is dramatically easier for a pedestrian to negotiate. This is because all vehicular traffic, in all directions, is required to stop - at least as a regulatory matter.
In contrast, placing a schoolbus stop at an already signalized intersection may create a confusing conflict for pedestrians, motorists and even bus drivers: Which set of signals (i.e., the intersection's traffic light or the bus' flashers) "rules" or "trumps" the other? And for which party? Similarly, when schoolbus crossing procedures are not properly articulated at mid-block stops, the controlled intersection that the bus' equipment would otherwise create does not materialize, and the pedestrian's crossing effectively becomes J-walking - replete with all its risk and dangers.
The trade-offs between the three possible intersection placements for a school bus stop are exaggerated, and often distorted, when the bus' own crossing equipment is not properly engaged. Instead of simplifying pedestrian crossing, improperly-engaged equipment makes it more complex and more dangerous.
Properly correlating stop placement with crossing orientation is important, and is a core "building block" for designing and operating a safe pupil transportation system. In contrast, an improperly-positioned bus stop or improperly-engaged crossing equipment can be lethal. Their combination is a formula for carnage.
Ned Einstein is the President of Transportation Alternatives, a passenger transportation and automotive consortium engaged in consulting and forensic accident investigation and analysis (more than 600 cases). Specializes in elderly, disabled, schoolchildren. Mr. Einstein has been qualified as an Expert Witness in accident analysis, testimony and mediation in vehicle and pedestrian accidents involving transit, paratransit, schoolbus, motorcoach, special education, non-emergency medical transportation, taxi, shuttle, child transport systems and services...
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