Another Aspect of On-Time Performance - Inside the Bus

One of the Charm City Circulator buses. The Charm City Circulator is a free service that covers all the sights in downtown Baltimore. Christopher MacKechnie

Another Aspect of On-time Performance - Inside the Bus

Most people would agree that on-time performance in one of the essential ingredients of a successful transit system, whether you measure it based on the bus arrival's relation to a time printed in a book ( schedule-based adherence ) or if you measure it based on the bus arrival's relation to the arrivals of the buses before and after it (headway-based adherence).

With the advent of automatic vehicle location systems (AVL) , we can model the usual traffic conditions at different times of day in different locations and set the schedule accordingly.

However, what goes on outside the bus is only one aspect of on-time performance. On-time performance is also affected by what goes on inside the bus. Everything that goes on inside the bus that can affect on-time performance can be summed up as either driver distraction or driver effort.

Driver Distraction

Like automobile drivers, transit bus drivers can also become distracted. Due to transit agency regulations, transit bus drivers do not have as many ways to become distracted as automobile drivers. For example, most agencies prohibit drivers from eating, drinking, or playing music while driving (though when I was a bus driver we were allowed to play music and I found that not only was it good for my morale but actually decreased my distraction by allowing me to filter out passenger conversations).

In addition, thanks to several high profile accidents using a cell phone while behind the wheel is cause for almost immediate termination in at least Boston (MBTA) and Washington, D.C. (WMATA).

One element of distraction that has not been eliminated is the distraction that is caused by conversations between drivers and passengers.

While some agencies have policies prohibiting anything but necessary conversation between drivers and passengers, while others forbid the ride-along of friends and family, these regulations, as you may expect, are difficult to enforce. If anything, the recent push towards hiring drivers who have strong customer-service skills as opposed to strong driving-skills (of course, in a perfect world, you would hire drivers who have both) has increased this kind of distraction. While it makes sense that friendly, extraverted drivers would desire to talk with their passengers (especially attractive members of the opposite sex), such conversation, while not unsafe, causes them to drive less efficiently - thereby affecting their on-time performance.

How can we reduce driver distraction to ensure that bus routes are being driven at the optimum speed? Well, it will be interesting to see what effect the installation of driver compartments in places such as New York City to reduce the number of driver assaults will have on driver - passenger conversations. These compartments, in conjunction with the nearly ubiquitous low-floor buses which have separation between the driver and the first row of passenger seats, may help to ensure that the driver focuses on driving and not on finding his / her next girlfriend / boyfriend.

Driver Effort

We have all been on buses where it seems as though the driver believes themselves to be on a Sunday drive, thereby causing us to arrive at our destinations late. What should we do about bus drivers who either do not have skill to do their job effectively, or who just choose not to put much effort into it?

Bus driving seems like an easy job for those who have never done it; people who have done it, like myself, know it is much more difficult than it looks. You have to combine driving a large vehicle that takes a long time to stop with superlative customer service directed at people whom most of the time do not want to be on the bus.

Many bus drivers succeed at the difficult task of driving safely, staying ontime, and answering passengers questions and comments with a smile. But some people do not.

Due to some combination of lack of skill and lack of effort, some drivers meander down the road constantly late. They frustrate both the passengers, who are made late, and other bus drivers who may have to deal with a large influx of passengers as a result of the other driver's lack of effort.

These drivers also frustrate people in scheduling, such as myself. It is impossible to give them enough additional time for them to actually arrive at their timepoints on time, yet not making the attempt portrays the scheduling department in a negative light for poor ontime performance. Many of these drivers always come to work, never get into any accidents, and never generate any complaints. Because they are breaking no rules, these drivers, like teachers, can drive for years before retirement. Is there a way we can gently coax them into considering different employment? The answer is that we do not have to do anything that drastic; recent experiences at my place of full-time employment suggest that driver counseling may be enough to rectify this situation.

Sometimes lack of effort is caused by a fear of getting into an accident. Exceptionally strict Safety and Training Departments may cause drivers to drive exceptionally slowly and timidly, which in addition to making them late may, ironically, cause them to drive unsafely. For example, braking at a green light in the hopes that it will turn red could cause a car behind the bus to hit the bus.


Overall, on-time performance is more than just what goes on outside the bus - traffic, passenger volumes at stops, etc.

What goes on inside the bus is just as important. By reducing driver distractions and ensuring the proper amount of driver effort is put forth, transit agencies can help to improve their on-time performance.