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Bus Stops and Land Mines

As Originally published by National Bus Trader, June 2009.

By: Ned Einstein
Tel: 212-766-1121
Email Mr. Einstein

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Question: What is the difference between a poorly-selected and -designed bus stop and a land mine? Answer: Very little. When you step on either of them, your ankles, knees and hips are likely to explode. The genuine difference is that the carnage from land mines is intentional, whereas that of poorly-selected and -designed bus stops usually reflects incompetence and, often, indifference.

In past articles, I have described stops that became dangerous because of errors and omissions created by bus or coach drivers - as, for example, when a driver "makes the light," ignores his or her near-side stop, and discharges passengers on the far side of the intersection. Similarly, drivers "caught in the light" and not wanting to stop twice at the same intersection, discharge their passengers on the near side - sometimes informing them that they "better get off here because I'm not stopping in this intersection again." I have written about failures to position the bus or coach properly (see "Controlling the Gray Zone" in July, 2008, NBT, "Parking on the Hillside" in June, 2003, NBT, "Precision and Virtuosity" in March, 2008, NBT, and "Repositioning and Regret" in August, 2008, NBT). I have explored cases where drivers have deliberately maimed their passengers (see "Smiting the Passengers" in May, 2005, NBT). And I have discussed dangerous stops created when drivers were simply lazy or thoughtless (see "Clearing the Mirrors" in March, 2006, NBT).

One characteristic of these incidents is that their stops were rendered dangerous largely by driver errors and omissions, and the underlying factors that typically induce them. Many or most of these errors and omissions are really symptoms rather than problems --.the core problems being either the lack of running and recovery time in the schedules (see "Running Time and Cycle Time" in November, 2004, NBTand "The Mysterious Force in November, 2005, NBT), and/or the fact that the stops were selected by software programs instead of live human beings (see "The Price of Digital Madness" in August, 2001, NBT, and "Evaluating Bus Stops" in May, 2007, School Transportation News).

Static Bus Stop Deficiencies

There is another class of bus stop deficiencies that lay apart from those alluded to above - stops that are deficient statically - simply the result of the nature of their design or concern (or lack of concern) for it:

  • A transit agency selected as one of its many bus stops in the area a simple patch of grass lying between the sidewalk and curb - a path that had long ago been warn down to dirt from its constant use by passengers boarding and alighting. One wet winter morning, when this muddy path and everything around it was covered with a thin layer of ice topped with a layer of powdery snow, an elderly passenger alighted onto this trap, immediately lost his footing, and fell down, breaking his hip in the process.
  • This same transit agency, in another part of the state, actually moved the far-side stop - a level, cement stop with a handicapped-accessible bus pad - to the near side, where the stop consisted of a convoluted series of slopes and moguls in multiple directions paved with smooth-surfaced cement tiles. One winter day, when the entire cement ski slope was covered with snow and ice, a passenger alighted and, almost immediately, slipped and fell, breaking all manner of body parts in the process. During my investigation of the incident, I measured some slopes to be as much as 15 degrees.
  • When a nincompoop school board in a fast-growing county decided to grant "free choice" (which I considered a policy of "needless choice") to its student population - permitting them to attend any school in the county they chose to - it failed to increase the transportation system's budget commensurate with the chaos and long trips such a policy decision would surely, and indeed did, create. With limited staff, one school let its software select the stops. Crossing one of these stops - the staggered, unsignalized intersection of two tiny side streets with an 8-lane freeway plus two left turn lanes and a wide median strip - a middle school student who actually "made it" to the median strip, ran across what she perceived as the second gap in traffic, and was run over by an automobile traveling in the oncoming curb lane. As this school district's fourth such fatality, the Board finally ordered the staff to manually inspect its entire array of bus stops - and found roughly 300 of them as bad as the one described here.
  • A schoolbus and transit stop were consolidated at the unsignalized juncture of a six-way intersection dominated by a high-volume arterial street that ran through the center of town. In basketball fashion, some motorists exiting from side streets actually used the red flashers of loading or unloading school buses as "picks" for entering the intersection, since the buses' flashers presumably held back the flow of traffic on the main thoroughfare on which the buses stopped. After several unaddressed complaints by one student's mother, the high school student decided to cross the street in front of her house and then walk several blocks to the stop on the same side as the bus - eliminating the dangerous crossing at the bus stop. One morning, as she began this journey, she was struck and killed by an automobile passing in front of her house.
  • A bus stop was located at an unsignalized, mid-block position along a four-lane, 50 mph highway lined with a combination of high-density land uses on both sides. One late afternoon at dusk, an ambulatory adult with Cerebral Palsy alighted to cross to his home in a subdivision on the opposite side of the highway. When a seemingly timely break in traffic induced him to cross, he made it almost to the opposite side, but a few feet before reaching the curb was struck by an automobile traveling in the oncoming direction's curb lane.
  • The sides of a bus shelter in a long bus zone were plastered with advertising posters which blocked the drivers' view of passengers waiting inside the shelters. Waiting for some minor maintenance to be completed on his bus, one driver spoke casually with a woman - with two infants seated in a tandem stroller - who was waiting in the shelter for her husband's return home on a later bus. When the initial bus' maintenance was completed, the driver "cleared" his mirrors, and pulled out of the stop - not able to see the passengers still seated in the shelter. As his bus accelerated, the roar of its rear engine frightened the child in the front section of the stroller, and she jumped into the street where she was immediately crushed by the bus' curb-side rear tires.

Guidance and Responsibility

There seems to be almost no end to the variation of stupidly- and recklessly-designed bus stops - including some involving motorcoaches (although none of the examples above included any of these) where there is nothing that either the drivers or passengers can do to mitigate the risks faced by the latter in boarding, alighting or crossing to or from them. Admittedly, every choice of a bus stop involves some sort of tradeoff. These considerations were systematically identified, explored and organized in a superb 1996 publication by the Transportation Research Board titled TCRP Report #19: Guidelines for the Location and Design of Bus Stops. To my surprise in one case where I served as the plaintiff's expert, the defendant actually cited this document as one that its planners relied upon for stop selection guidance. Otherwise, the awareness of this document or others like it seems almost non-existent among stop selection personnel in virtually every sector of the industry.

In our often frantic modern lives, particularly in a collapsing economy where cuts in our already-thin management staffs are increasing, we cannot seem to find the time to do the litany of things necessary to keep our passengers safe. But when choices must be made, it is evident that common sense and digital paraphernalia do not suffice for bus stop selection.

It is also a shame that reading has become one of the functions squeezed out by these dynamics. This is because a knowledge of certain principles, and a familiarization with key documents, are essential to the consistent making of safe choices. The price of our failure to make time for such enlightenment is the killing and mutilation of our passengers, pedestrians and fellow-motorists. Constantly examining the consequences of these failures, I cannot begin to describe how sick I am of seeing bus and motorcoach passengers referred to, in operating manuals, as "our most precious cargo."

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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