For each route in each direction, transit stops are almost always located on one side of an intersection, not both. Stops just before the intersection are referred to as 'near-side' stops. Those just after the intersection are referred to as 'far-side' stops.
For decades, and still-debated, there are trade-offs between these two stop positions, although mid-block stops are nearly taboo for transit service. The "Bible" for evaluating these trade-offs is TCRP Report #19: Guidelines for the Design and Location of Bus Stops. The latest thinking is that, if all things are equal, far-side stops have more advantages and fewer disadvantages than near-side stops. Of course, things are rarely equal, and serious consideration should be given to the best position near the intersection at which to place a stop.
Trade-Offs and Sell-Outs
I too could write a book about the numerous considerations in stop selection, particularly as a veteran expert witness in nearly 100 law suits involving crossing. Many of these cases involved mid-block stops, and many involved modes of public transportation other than fixed route transit. But these issues are not the point of this article. The point of this article is that, in fixed route service, bus stops are almost always designated. The principal exceptions for fixed route transit service stops occur:
- In rural areas, where drivers are allowed to exercise their judgment in making or accommodating requests for "flag stops."
- On long blocks with major trip generators on one side of the street, and/or so many travel lanes that they discourage anyone from jaywalking across them, mid-block stops may be used.
The problem is that, other than with these two exceptions, transit drivers often deviate from the stop's designated position with respect to an intersection, and stop on the opposite side of it. A few examples from my experience should provide some insight into the consequences:
- An urban transit driver was operating an ultra-tight route with no recovery time. Along the way, his bus got "caught in the light." With his schedule already too tight (even while letting almost no boarding passengers reach a seat or stanchion before zooming away from the stop), he stopped on the near side of the intersection while the designated stop lay on the far side. An elderly woman alighted onto a slab of just-poured, wet cement, slid immediately to the ground, and broke her hip.
- Another urban transit driver caught in the light also let his passengers out on the near side. But his sudden stopping on the near side gave him no chance to pull his bus close to the curb. The second passenger alighting at the front door, who had less time to analyze the distance of the door to the curb than her immediate predecessor, realized how far from it was from the curb only in mid-step. Stretching to reach what turned out to be a broken curb, she stepped on a loose chip that immediately sailed away, and fell, breaking both her hip and one leg.
- Another transit driver chose to skip the near-side stop to "make the light," and stopped on the far-side of the intersection where the rear door lined up perfectly with a mailbox and several other obstructions. With the rear door properly pulled close to the curb, it could not be fully opened, and the passenger trying to alight from it squeezed through the tiny gap like a contortionist, slipped off the bottom step, fell into the obstructions at an awkward angle, and broke all kinds of things.
In simple terms, many drivers "sell out" their passengers for a minute or two in which to catch their breath at the end of a run.
One important and dangerous thing about safety compromises is, once again, the fact that they are almost always deliberate. What makes them so dangerous is that multiple compromises are often made, compounding the risks more greatly than any of them would individually. The most common safety compromise is a tight schedule with little or no recovery time in all or most runs, and often negative recovery time. With this compromise, a driver must create the opportunity to catch his or her breath by committing other compromises.
Many transit schedules are so tight that they remain tight even with the insidious "white line rule," whereby most passengers boarding are not provided with time to reach a seat or stanchion before the vehicle zooms off. In a lawsuit where both of these compromises occurred, I rode and timed the schedule (to find it had less than no recovery time). Along the way, the driver casually told me that once a passenger steps over the line, "he is fair game." Citing this chat in my deposition frightened the defendant's counsel into offering a lucrative settlement. Yet I have ridden and timed numerous routes with tight schedules whose drivers routinely committed this compromise yet the schedule was still 20 to 30 minutes too tight -- sometimes on a run less than 90 minutes long. In another case (see "The Mysterious Force" in NBT issue December, 2001), I timed a route with 55 minutes of cycle time (the time for it on the schedule) which took 75 minutes to complete (its running time). Compounding this illusion, the contract service provider was literally embezzling vehicles out of the route. This crime was undetectable to a normal contract manager bureaucrat since no runs operated remotely as the schedule suggested they would. Keep in mind that negligent monitoring is the Achilles Heel of public transportation in the United States, as it is in many other countries.
The point is that, when the schedule is obscenely too tight even without letting most passengers reach a seat or stanchion before pulling out (wait for the next installment of this series, or see safetycompromises.com), additional compromises like stopping on the wrong side of the intersection are inviting.
Not remotely in their defense, drivers are not always tuned into the fact that the designated stops (at least in urban systems) enjoy the benefits of "stop treatment" -- including a flat, stable surface onto which one can alight. The jury is still out as to whether knowing this would make any difference to a driver yearning to catch his or her breath.