Monday, November 29, 2010

The Flashing Red Lights

Picture, in your head, a transit bus. Now picture in the other side of your head, a garden-variety yellow school bus.
TriMet bus (courtesy Wikipedia)

What are the differences--vehicle-wise--between the two? For one thing, the school bus will likely have a single boarding door (ignoring emergency exits, the locations and usage of which are drilled into the brains of school-age children round the country) and a coach-style seating configuration, whereas transit busses typically have two doors (one for entry and one for exit), if not more, and a whole lot of standing room. At a given stop, either people get on or get off the school bus, but seldom both--whereas simultaneous entry and egress is the norm on transit. School busses don't have fare collection infrastructure, and are sturdily built but infamously uncomfortable--it's been often suspected that much aversion to public transit (especially the rubber-tired sort) in those unfamiliar with it derives from unpleasant experiences on the big yellow bus as a child.
A school bus (courtesy Wikipedia)

But the difference I want to discuss is on the outside of the bus, not on the interior. School busses are equipped with flashing red lights, with which they can halt traffic when they stop to pick up or let off passengers. Public transit is not so equipped--while some public transit agencies (including TriMet) nowadays drive busses with flashing "yield" signs on the back, traffic still goes whizzing on by when one is stopped at the curb.

A safety feature?

Stop arm (courtesy Wikipedia)
What is the reason for this dichotomy? The obvious answer is for the safety of children--many of whom are too small for motorists to clearly see, or not well-versed in the art of safely crossing a street. However, there are a few holes in the safety argument. The relevant law in the state of Oregon is ORS 811.515 (12), which states:
12) Bus safety lights shall only be operated in accordance with the following:

(a) The lights may be operated when the vehicle is stopping or has stopped for the purpose of loading or unloading students who are going to or from any school or authorized school activity or function.

(b) The lights may be operated when the vehicle is stopping or has stopped for the purpose of loading or unloading workers from worker transport buses.

(c) The lights may be operated when the vehicle is stopping or has stopped for the purpose of loading or unloading children being transported to or from religious services or an activity or function authorized by a religious organization.

(d) The lights may be operated when the vehicle is stopping or has stopped in a place that obstructs other drivers’ ability to see the bus safety lights on another vehicle.

(e) Notwithstanding any other paragraph of this subsection, the lights shall not be operated if the vehicle is stopping or has stopped at an intersection where traffic is controlled by electrical traffic control signals, other than flashing signals, or by a police officer.

(f) Notwithstanding any other paragraph of this subsection, the lights shall not be operated if the vehicle is stopping or has stopped at a loading or unloading area where the vehicle is completely off the roadway.

The first thing to note is that two other categories of busses--worker transport vehicles (provided by an employer to transport workers to and from work) and church busses (provided by a religious institution to transport parishioners)--also are permitted to operate safety lights (as the law calls them)--though church busses require a special permit to do so (see ORS 818.260 for more info on that). Neither of these categories applies exclusively to children, and worker transport busses, by definition, are likely to only be used for transporting those of legal working age (adults and adolescents). On the other side of the coin, Portland Public Schools contracts with TriMet to provide transport for high school students (who are provided with a bus pass good through the school year)--and despite being used in this role, TriMet busses are not entitled to operate safety lights.  Similar arrangements are found in many other large cities, and many employers provide bus passes to their employees; a fact which doesn't make the local transit agency's busses "worker transport busses" either.

In short, while safety is probably a good guess, and probably a big part of it--it isn't the whole picture. My suspicion is that this dichotomy in law is not due to any sinister forces or anti-transit conspiracy; but simply due to different codes of law evolving over the years.

Should transit vehicles have flashing lights?

Which brings us to the obvious question: Should transit busses be equipped with flashing lights, assuming the law were amended to permit this? Several advantages to the agency and its riders would immediately come about:
  • Less concern with having to merge back into traffic after the stop is complete. It's long been observed that pullout-stylet bus stops are not there for the benefit of the bus or passengers, but for motorists who get to whiz by a stopped bus rather than being stuck behind. Pulling out of traffic to stop naturally requires pulling in to traffic to continue the journey. Even though busses in many jurisdictions have the right of way over cars in completing this maneuver; if the bus stop precedes a red traffic signal, it's often the case that the lane is full of stopped cars. Were the bus to stop all traffic, it would then have an empty road in front of it when it continues. (This is one advantage that the Portland Streetcar has over busses, at least where it currently operates--cars are seldom blocking it when it leaves a stop, as they are all stuck behind).
  • A better pedestrian environment. Many transit users have experienced the frustration of needing to board a bus which stops across a busy street--and watching their bus come and go while they wait for the crosswalk signal to change. Schoolchildren do not suffer from this problem--they simply wait on the opposite side, and when the bus comes and stops traffic, then they cross and board.
  • More convenient bus-bus transfers, for the same reason. Many transfers occur at busy intersections where bus lines intersect, and getting from one line's stop to the other requires crossing said busy intersection.

Of course, the political difficulty is that motorists will be inconvenienced by this--and there are no doubt many roadhogs out there who tolerate school bus laws because they have children themselves, they have far less sympathy for transit users. Likewise, I expect traffic engineers to start screaming bloody murder were this idea to be advanced.  (And it wouldn't surprise me to learn that longtime bus passengers might resent this as a nanny-state intrusion, just to be ornery).  And were this crazy idea to become law, I'd happily exclude places like the Portland Transit Mall, for obvious reasons.

It's worth noting that the dedicated "school bus", complete with flashing lights, is a predominantly North American phenomenon.  In much of the rest of the world, children take public transit (as there is a far greater likelihood of finding usable public transit for them to take), and like public transit here, the vehicles havelack the ability to stop traffic.

But if a protected pedestrian environment is appropriate for children, workers, and churchgoers whose rolling stock happens to be owned or operated by the school district, employer, or parish in question--why is it not appropriate for the rest of us, including those children, workers, and churchgoers whose rolling stock is owned/operated by a transit agency instead?

And who knows--maybe this is an idea that will catch on overseas.

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