Urban bus operation in North America
If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it so we can fix it.
MANY transport managers in Britain, in whatever field they operate, consider that international comparisons are of little value. Operating conditions, pay structures, even public attitudes to transport services, differ markedly from anything known here. The legal framework of operation, too, may be very different from British practice.
It has always seemed to me that operating practices and public and staff attitudes abroad are of great interest and relevance here. Most of our Ministers of Transport seem to think so too—visits to Europe and the United States are not infrequent. Perhaps within the next decade large transport operators will arrange exchanges of staff with foreign counterparts as a matter of routine. There is no good reason why instructional tours, or exchange working arrangements, should be confined to the heads of prosperous transport firms.
A recent visit by Mr. Antony Wren, of the Department of Computational Science, Leeds University, to study transport scheduling in the United States and Canada well illustrates my point. His visit was made possible by a grant from the Science Research Council with other financial support from the London Transport Board, Ministry of Transport, and the Universities of Leeds and West Virginia. His report deals with current operating circumstances generally, as well as with the detailed scheduling applications which inspired the trip. As such, it seems worthy of much wider publicity than it would presumably receive within the confines of London Transport, etc.
In his opening general survey Mr. Wren points out that urban bus transport in the USA is generally known as "transit"—as opposed to "rapid transit" which normally refers to transit vehicles running on private rights of way, usually at high speed, with few stops. Rapid transit may refer to certain conventional railway systems, such as subways or street-car lines with large sections of private track, but in future the term is likely to be used to describe other, at present experimental, forms of transport.
Single-deck predominance "Transit" is generally bus-dominated, though a number of cities still have street car (tram) or trolley-coach (trolleybus) systems. All these vehicles are now singledeck, one-man operated—the only exception in Mr. Wren's experience were the San Francisco cable cars, which have a conductor. The buses are longer than ours, with a capacity of around 100 people, of whom up to 50 may be seated.
Fare structures simplify one-man operation. Flat rates vary from 15 cents (San Francisco) to a reported 40 cents in a city not visited. If 15 cents (Is 3d) seems high for a standard fare, the different cost of living must be borne in mind. Bus drivers' standard rate of pay is between $3 and $3.50 per hour, so that this fare is about 5 per cent of an hour's pay, if this level is accepted as typical of American wages. Mr. Wren suggests that, in fact. American bus drivers are much better paid, relative to the rest of the community, than their British counterparts.
Urban crime in the United States is an increasing factor affecting all kinds of transport operations. There have been several violent robberies on buses and a driver was held up and killed recently in Washington. Hence the requirement in some cities that passengers must tender exact fares which fall into a sealed fare-box built into the bus and only opened at the garage. This system has been well accepted by the public, who realize its necessity.
Unfamiliar tokens The tendering of excess fares is discouraged, though drivers are supposed to give a receipt for any excess fare paid, cashable at the company's offices. (Mr. Wren did not see any receipts given on the buses he travelled on.) Companies usually sell fare tokens, sometimes at a discount, at their offices and these may be tendered in place of the fare, though in one city visited by Mr. Wren the first driver to whom he proffered a token did not recognize it at first! The driver subsequently apologized, saying he did not often get one. In Washington, where violence has been severe, many banks and stores cooperate with the transit company by selling tokens to the public without profit. (Perhaps this is a modest step along the road to subsidized buses in the land of free enterprise!) In some cities there is a simple zoning system, fares being increased above the standard rate on journeys into certain suburban areas or reduced on journeys entirely within a small central area. Flat fares usually entitle a passenger to one or more free transfers, though a small charge (5 cents) may be made for the transfer facility. Mr. Wren was told that one result of the free transfer system was that passengers usnally boarded a bus going only part of their way, then transferring, rather than wait for a through bus. This was particularly valuable when some buses did not run to the outermost terminus in the evening peak.
Mr. Wren makes the useful comment that in Britain an operator has to provide enough buses to the outer terminus for passenge:s travelling beyond an inner terminus, after some places have been occupied by shortdistance travellers, with the result that buses may be lightly loaded between the inner and outer termini. In America, only enough buses' are provided beyond the inner terminus to meet expected demands beyond that terminus —a system that fully utilizes the buses.
Reversed fare-collection • In Kansas City passengers pay when boarding on* inward journeys and when alighting on outward journeys. This commonsense solution relieves congestion at city centres, allowing drivers to pull away quickly from stops as soon as all passengers have boarded. This is especially useful where several routes use the same stop and there may be a waiting queue of buses.
In Los Angeles, where there is a complex fare zoning system, Mr. Wren frequently observed drivers counting tickets and change while driving, and apparently giving little attention to traffic. He commented on this to the operating company but they did not feel the practice to be dangerous, since the drivers would only do this in "light" traffic! At zone boundaries drivers check the tickets of all passengers in Los Angeles buses.
Most transit companies in Mr. Wren's experience tailor services to demands very rigorously, with the result that service frequencies vary enormously and are in some cases very irregular. Costly methods are used to determine route demands and Mr. Wren hints that service demands and traffic conditions on any particular day may be so uncertain as to cancel any benefit from the exact observations.
For as he points out, costs of bus operation are largely determined by the peak service and it may be rather futile to prune the service excessively at other times. To do so may mean that crews are paid for time not actually worked in order to bring their wages up to the agreed minimum. Would they not be better employed providing an improved service to the customer? "A better approach might be to determine the service necessary to meet the peak demand, develop a formula which would allow one to compute from this the number of crews required, and to schedule the remainder of the day so as to use these crews to best advantage, given some target wages cost."
Mr. Wren met some bus executives who felt that they might be putting too much effort into determining the exact requirements. The cost of the elaborate exercises might be justified in reduced operating costs but clear evidence on this was not obtained during the tour.
Free with the facts Because of the irregularity of many transit services, wide publication of timetables is essential. Usually they are issued as individual leaflets for each route or group of routes. They may be sent free of charge on request but they are supplemented by public relations material handed out at every available opportunity. Large firms, department stores, etc. help in the dissemination of timetable details.
The public are conditioned to telephone for information. One authority received no fewer than 800,000 such calls in 1967. (How many British bus companies keep such an accurate "tab" on the position?) Though Mr. Wren was assured it was very easy to get details of any journey he might wish to make be did not find it easy, as a stranger, to find his way across cities, Bus stops were generally uninformative with few, if any, details of services using them; even route numbers were often absent. But once on a bus, drivers were usually obliging with advice as to where to change buses, and what connecting services to use. British bus companies could well take a leaf out of the active public relations policies promoted by American .bus companies to cultivate good relations between driver and passenger. Drivers are made "courtesy conscious" and passengers may be invited to nominate the "driver of the month".
More managers In a shrewd staffing comparison, Mr. Wren suggests that American transit companies have larger managerial staffs than their British counterparts. He felt there was more mobility of staffs between companies, even at relatively junior levels. Frequent schedule changes demand large staffs of schedulers: in one organization operating 1,000 vehicles there was a Superintendent of Schedules, one chief schedule maker, thirteen schedule makers, a production clerk, a supervisor of service, a supervisor of checking, two senior clerks and eleven junior checkers. (That revelation may cause some fluttering in the dovecots in British bus undertakings and trade unions!) Although crew scheduling is based on the same principles as in Britain there are differences in labour agreements. There is no national agreement in the United States but there is sufficient similarity between local agreements to put them into a different class from those operated in the UK.
The unit of work for pay purposes is the day rather than the week with a minimum work-day of eight hours and time-and-a-half payable thereafter. After the compilation of duties the men pick their work in the order of seniority. Daily duties are grouped into five-day weeks by some managements, and men pick the week they prefer. As a rule, the men are free to pick their five individual days. Generally they pick the same, or a similar, duty on each day. Once duties are picked, they will be done by the same man for three to six months until the next "pick". The system gives men the choice of deciding whether they opt for easy duties paying relatively little, or duties yielding the maximum overtime.
No fixed break
Generally, Mr. Wren noted that there were more restrictions in the United States on the number of routes, or indeed of individual vehicles, which could be operated in the course of one duty. But other restrictions were less severe than here. Often there was no statutory meal break—something for our American cousins to look into after their moon conquest!—and where breaks were obligatory they were usually short and paid. Drivers generally could work for longer before or after their break than in the UK, allowing the scheduler more flexibility. Penalties are payable for duties with large spreads, as in this country.
For obvious reasons direct comparisons between American and British bus undertakings need to be treated with caution but the figures quoted by Mr. Wren, taken from the 1967 report of the Philadelphia Transportation Company—taken over by a public authority in September 1968—may interest some readers. In 1967 the company operated 2,440 vehicles covering 1,631 route miles. They carried 277m. passengers, and operated some 62m. miles. Employees, of all grades, numbered 5,828 and there were over 14,000 shareholders.
Most of the transit buses, says Mr. Wren, are made by General Motors for although the Flxible company is also in the business GM would seem to have a near monopoly. All the companies he visited were buying only GM buses now and they did not seem worried over the lack of choice. In practice, GM will incorporate any special features required, thus satisfying customers. "However," notes Mr. Wren, "all the companies I visited were relatively large, and I believe that smaller companies had often to take the standard issue, or follow a pattern ,set by a larger company. There were several sizes of vehicle, generally much larger than our own bus, holding up to about 50 seated passengers, and perhaps as many again standing. Buses seemed to cost $30,000 to $35,000."