Bus Driver Speeding is a Scheduling Problem

Every time I visit Boston I notice a pattern I've seen in a few other cities: MBTA buses being driven beyond a safe speed. Not only is this potentially dangerous; it also provides an uncomfortable ride for passengers and is at least discourteous toward other road users. There are three main factors responsible for unsafe driving practices:

  1. Insufficient schedule time.  Buses must be given enough time to complete each trip and be ready for the following trip. As discussed in Episode 2 - Transit Scheduling, schedules should take into account the maximum normal running time at that time of day, as well as the layover time which consists of a 10-20% recovery period and a short driver break. Failure to provide enough total time causes well-intentioned drivers to try to stay on schedule by driving faster. The possible lack of a driver break is also dangerous because it increases their stress level, a primary cause of aggressive driving.
  2. Lack of a schedule adherence policy that is strictly enforced.  Aside from making people miss the bus and causing bus bunching, allowing operators to leave major stops before the scheduled time creates a powerful incentive to drive faster since doing so will likely result in a longer break at the end of the trip. Some drivers also play games such as deliberately catching up with the previous bus so as not to have as many passengers to pick up. Enforcement of scheduled departure times removes any incentive to drive faster than the allotted time, since no operator wants to sit and wait with anxious passengers on the bus asking why they're waiting.
  3. Inadequate training and supervision.  Transit operators need to be retrained periodically and monitored frequently. Many transit agencies, in desperate attempts to minimize the impact of budget cuts on service availability, have cut essential behind-the-scenes functions beyond a reasonable limit. As a result places like Boston have very few supervisors on the street to monitor for service problems and identify necessary schedule changes or operators who may need retraining or disciplinary actions.

Boston's MBTA suffers from all three of these problems. They should look to the New York City MTA where aggressive bus driver behavior is rare. Although the MTA has had to eliminate some services and layoff employees, they seem to have retained enough staff to make the necessary schedule changes and monitor service on the street.

Many agencies resist adding time where needed because it would either require changes to connecting services or cost money. Increasing the travel time reduces the number of trips you are able to run with the same number of operators, which may violate the policy headway or cause overcrowding. But you have to do it; pretending a trip only takes 30 minutes does not make it so. Transit agencies should plan their budgets in a way that permits a reasonable growth or reduction in operating costs during the fiscal year, so that these constraints are avoided.