Beyond Safe Driving – Better Training for Drivers

This New York Times piece describes a school district in South Carolina where dedicated training for school bus drivers helped make them a productive part of the students’ education.

In Hartsville, disciplinary infractions were being issued at a much higher rate on school buses than at school. A child development expert from Yale identified two key problems: “first, there wasn’t a real relationship between the drivers and the school; and second, the drivers didn’t have any training on how to deal with children or families — the only training they’d received was how to drive a bus.”

The district’s response, a two-year training curriculum for drivers, benefits both students and drivers:

They provided basic information about the developmental pathways along which kids develop, and suggested constructive ways to interact with students and parents (for example: speak to every child every day, learn everyone’s name, and try to build relationships with the children and their parents). “The goal was to make the drivers feel like a valuable part of the whole picture, and to help them start asking for the behavior they did want, instead of talking about the behavior they didn’t.”

They also reviewed the bus referral form itself. “It listed 48 possible infractions — and no rules,” said Camille Cooper, who directs the program’s learning, teaching and development initiatives. “If you’ve got tons of referrals but no rules, the expectations for the kids were not being clearly communicated.”

So the drivers honed in on the behaviors they thought were most important. They continued to explore strategies for better communication between the children and their families. And they reduced what had been a long list of opaque infractions into a short list of five rules, which ranged from the mundane (staying seated) to the aspirational (treating one another with respect).

Cooper also worked with Hartsville’s elementary school principals to help them strengthen their bonds with the drivers. “I’d never worked with the bus drivers in any capacity before,” said Tara King, the principal at West Hartsville Elementary School. “There was never any relationship there, let alone a professional development opportunity.”

The article goes on to detail how these new professional development opportunities have helped improve education outcomes for students.

Are educational success stories like this one made less likely when cities try to force students from school buses onto public transit, districts contract out service, and labor relations break down, as has happened in Boston?

And what could public transit agencies learn from the success of this long-term, ongoing professional development example? Instead of one-time, basic customer service training, ongoing development and practice could benefit both passengers and employees — especially in Boston, where transit employees have to deal with the likes of this.

Privatization and the Crisis of Bus Drivers in Santiago

Early in the morning of June 2nd, 2014, Marco Antonio Cuadra walked into a bus depot as he had done for his preceding 25 years as a bus driver in Chile’s sprawling capital city. This morning, however, instead of setting out to cover his routes across Santiago, he doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire, shouting, “This is for the workers! Let it mark a precedent!”  By the time his coworkers grabbed fire extinguishers from their buses and doused the flames, 90% of his body had been severely burned. Waiting for an ambulance to arrive, one of the drivers asked Cuadra why he taken such drastic action. The pained response (as seen in an extremely graphic video uploaded to Youtube): “For our coworkers – because of how [corporate managers] abuse us, how they don’t pay our wages, and how they fire union leaders, but nobody complains. ¿Hasta cuándo?”

Two weeks earlier, Veolia, through its Transdev branch and Chilean subsidiary Redbus, had initiated the firing of Cuadra, a leader of Redbus Union 2. The company claimed he and the treasurer of the Union failed to fulfill “the obligations expressly indicated in their work contract.” Other employees dispute this claim and note that Veolia/Redbus, a private operator for the public Transantiago/Metropolitan Public Transport Directorate, initiated the firing three days before employees were set to present a new collective bargaining plan.

The ambulance took Cuadra to Santiago’s main hospital where he underwent a series of amputations and surgeries as his organs progressively failed over the coming weeks. His wife shared her thoughts in an interview:

A memorial for Marco Cuadra in Central Santiago (picture from Laurel Paget-Seekins)

A memorial for Marco Cuadra in Central Santiago (picture from Laurel Paget-Seekins)

He was distraught because of all the injustice. He was enraged when he saw how [Veolia/Redbus] made the older drivers, and the workers in general, work very late, how the company didn’t respect them, and how they had to use diapers because of the lack of bathrooms and the length of the routes… I pray to God that he’ll come through this so he can tell me what really happened. What I think now, based on what I saw and what his coworkers have told me, is that it was a result of utter frustration, the most extreme frustration that a human being can take.

On June 27, twenty-five days after his act of desperation, Cuadra died from his injuries.
Continue reading ‘Privatization and the Crisis of Bus Drivers in Santiago’

MyCiti – BRT Launched in Cape Town

The complete Phase 1A of Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus rapid transit system commenced operation in mid-May. It was originally planned to open in April 2010, but only the airport and stadium links were operational in time for last year’s World Cup. The BRT corridor and stations between Cape Town Civic Center and Table View were completed by this past January, but contentious negotiations with minibus taxi and bus operators led to a series of delays.

The political clashes and strikes leading up to MyCiTi’s implementation have their roots in historical difficulties regulating the informal minibus taxi industry:

In deregulating the minibus taxi sector in the late 1980s, and subsequently aiming to return to regulation through formally structured interventions such as the Taxi Recapitalisation Programme and the creation of a government-sanctioned representative structure (ie SANTACO), government has not created conditions conducive to the formalisation of minibus operating or business practices. Past interventions have, rather, contributed to the entrenchment of informal operating practices, the creation of ‘warlord’ figures fervently opposed to a loss of control of the sector; representative structures and operator associations well organised to violently disrupt the transport system and threaten public safety; and fluid loyalties within the industry. [Herrie Schalekamp, ACET Research Officer, in Mobility Magazine]

In one of the meetings I had with Herrie, he described the city as attempting to use BRT as an “infrastructural solution to a social issue.” Attempting to address transportation regulatory and governance issues by building dedicated rights of way and BRT stations would clearly lead to the “imbalance in work streams” characteristic of the project, with physical infrastructure delivered far earlier than operational and organizational structures. Further complicating the efforts to formalize and regulate the taxi industry (which receives no operating subsidies but generally pays no taxes) were unrealistic promises made by politicians and the lack of reliable data on existing operations.

Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher

These two factors combined to confound the process of compensating existing minibus operators. At a national level, politicians promised that existing operators would not suffer any “legitimate loss of revenue” due to the implementation of BRT. Yet in most South African cities, revenue from legitimate minibus taxi operations is difficult to calculate accurately, especially considering the industry’s marginalized origins in the apartheid era. In Cape Town, transportation officials do not know accurately how many minibuses operate, or on what routes they operate, since so many minibuses are unlicensed. Given the promise to compensate existing operators for business taken by the BRT system, Cape Town officials must either offer jobs or monetary compensation to a growing list of (licensed and unlicensed) minibus owners whose routes will be affected. Officials agreed to compensate owners with unlimited permits for seven years of lost income, owners with limited permits for three years of lost income, and owners without licenses for one year of lost income. In agreeing to compensate unlicensed taxi drivers, they undermined earlier government attempts to negotiate only with legitimate taxi owners associations. The industry’s ongoing fragmentation has been a significant cause of delays to BRT implementation. As Herrie summed the situation up, “it’s a mess trying to regulate without the data.”

Cape Town’s private commuter bus operator, Golden Arrow, receives a R630 million subsidy annually, and has been another agent delaying MyCiTi’s inauguration. Golden Arrow was registering their concerns with BRT plans as early as 2008; in a 2010 speech at the South African Bus Owners Association Annual Conference, Golden Arrow’s General Manager FE Mayer objected:

The first and probably most important issue we have with BRT is that the concept was sold to Government on a false but convenient promise. The promise was that BRT will not need any operating subsidies. We say this is not possible and it will require more subsidy than current services require. In the recent past, Government has mainly held a negative view on the current bus subsidy system, and in most discussions it becomes evident they believe they are not getting good value for money. When they therefore heard that such a good system as BRT does not require subsidy, it was obviously an answer to their prayers. In itself it was enough for Treasury to buy into the concept.

Golden Arrow was clearly reluctant to give up their monopoly on subsidized road transport in the Western Cape. After two years of negotiations, they were able to pressure the City of Cape Town into letting them remain an independent operating company within the MyCiTi setup, instead of integrating with minibus operators to form a joint operating company as was originally planned. The Cape Times reported on the taxi industry’s displeasure at the city’s February capitulation to Golden Arrow:

This plan has annoyed TransPeninsula Investments [run by minibus leaders], which provided post-World Cup IRT services for the city. The company has already earned R1.5 million and R42.3m in two separate deviations from the city for the service. A senior executive of TransPeninsula said taxi operators concur about a third operator. “This will become evident soon. They want to give Golden Arrow their own company even though they’ve been having a monopoly for the last 150 years,” said the executive, who asked not to be named.

Transpeninsula threatened litigation, leading to further delays. Their recalcitrance is explained partly by the benefits they received from delays. As the provisional World Cup operator, Transpeninsula only was supposed to have contract for airport shuttle and special event operations (such as shuttles for the Cape Argus Cycle Tour) until October. Delays to BRT implementation meant extensions of their contract.

As late as April, officials were not confident that negotiations would be complete by May. The persistent effort of local and national government leaders eventually achieved success, and contracts were signed one day before the beginning of a phased rollout. The system has received generally positive publicity. With so many regulation and negotiation hurdles cleared, the implementation of future phases will likely be much easier.

Bus Crashes

Overturned Bus on the Cinta Costera

Overturned Bus on the Cinta Costera (Photo from Critica en Linea - Click on the photo to see more)

Racing each other to pick up more passengers, the old school buses in Panama City collide with alarming frequency. One particularly horrific crash, which injured nearly three dozen people, occurred on the Cinta Costera in January, 2010. Here is a translation of excerpts of an article about the event:

Transit: Race Leaves More than Thirty Injured
Panic on the Coastal Beltway

Oh my God! The shout was followed with alarmed screams of the more than sixty passengers aboard a Panama Viejo bus, which rolled over several times as crushed sheet metal crunched over the hard pavement. Out of the completely overturned vehicle climbed men, women, and children, some bleeding, others in pain, and the rest in hysterics. Thirty-five injured was the final count, among them ten seriously injured and two infants.

It was about 10:40 AM yesterday, Sunday, when the vehicular tragedy occurred. The Panama Viejo bus, license plate B-3388, expired since 2003, was racing with another Panama Viejo bus, which fled the scene. During the race the young driver lost control and ended up crashing into a lamp pole. The bus destroyed the signs, literally flew and spun in the air, fell 20 meters away from the impact, and ended up facing in the opposite direction. People escaped from the emergency door and the front on their own, but several passengers were trapped inside the vehicle. A young man’s right arm was trapped between the pavement and the heavy bus; more than fifteen soldiers were able to move the diablo rojo to free him.

Tears, pain and blood – the scene was sad. The injured, trembling in panic, sat among the steps that are used daily by dozens of children for fun, waiting this time for the help of paramedics. Most victims were women.

The driver of the vehicle, Elías Eliecer Guerra Singh, 20, was unhurt in the accident. He is not licensed to drive public transport, only private cars. In addition, his age is not adequate to drive that kind of public transport.

The second bus involved was located hidden in Panama Viejo, where it was impounded.

With such graphic and sensational media reports about diablo rojo crashes, it’s no wonder the government is making the implementation of Metrobus such a priority. At a November event with the first of the newly delivered buses, the Presidential Minister made the ambitious claim that there would be zero diablos rojos in the city by August, 2011. When questioned about the seating capacity of the new Volvo buses, he replied “The important thing is not to go seated, the problem is to go safely, in a comfortable and trustworthy manner.” Crashes like the ones above only heighten the government’s ability to replace the existing system and eliminate the existing drivers. Metrobus drivers will not be competing for fares, so there should be little incentive for them to drive at such high speeds.

Maybe Panama City’s congestion is another cause of speeding; perhaps drivers release their road rage, pent up from hours of sitting in traffic jams, by driving at excessive speeds if any space opens up. If the traffic is so bad that no space for a cathartic momentum binge opens up, then defeated bus drivers sometimes give up, tell everyone to get off, turn around, and go home (as my bus driver did one night when I was coming back from Santa Librada).

Luckily, my experiences riding (and driving) Panama Viejo buses were much safer. Luís, a friend who works as a conductor on a Panama Viejo bus, knew Elías Eliecer Guerra Singh (along with many of the other Panama Viejo drivers) and even showed me some cell-phone pictures of his bus before the crash.

I was, however, involved in one minor collision. One afternoon, riding a Vía España bus from Via Veneto to Plaza Cinco de Mayo, we were caught behind another bus that was loading. After some ineffectual honking, our frustrated driver finally pulled out into the other lane and started to speed down the street. The bus that had been loading, not wanting to fall behind and lose out on passengers further down the street, lurched off and the race (regata in Spanish) was on. As the drivers raced, someone on our bus yelled “parada (stop),” and our driver had to pull over to let her off. He misjudged the speed of the bus to his right, cut it off, and, with a loud bang, clipped its front bumper with his rear one. It was clear that settling the incident would take a while, so we all filed off the bus, not paying any fare to the sheepish driver and heading up the street to find another bus.

Panama City’s Metro

METRO DE PANAMÁ from 5sentidos on Vimeo.

One of the friends I made through Alianza Pro Ciudad was a fellow transportation engineering student. His perspectives on the country’s history, politics, and development were fascinating especially given his work with a consulting firm on Panama’s planned Metro. The project to alleviate the city’s congestion is a major priority for President Martinelli’s administration. I enjoyed his stories about having to go through security checks to attend project meetings at the Presidential Complex and the unrealistic deadlines the politicians set for the engineers.

Metro Bus – Replacing the Diablos Rojos

Panama’s national government has made alternatives to the diablos rojos (old school buses) in Panama City a top priority. One approach is to formalize bus operations, consolidating operations into the municipally run Metro Bus system. The government offered to buy the buses of existing drivers, but buy-in has still been a problem. The government also produced the following video, which has some great footage of the existing problems.

Documental Metro Bus Panamá. from 5sentidos on Vimeo.

The short documentary opens with the story of Jose, a worker who lives in the Pacora neighborhood and has to wake up at 3:00 every morning to catch the bus. Other Panamanians then voice their concerns. The man in the blue shirt opines “I think that for these buses, which were useful in the schools in the United States, the seats on the left weren’t made for three adults.” In the middle of his soundbite, you can hear my friend Luis (more about him here) calling passengers for his “Calle Cincuenta” bus. After the tale of another commuter who gets stuck in traffic, the lady in the striped shirt complains, “[The diablo rojo drivers] go racing, they throw the buses on top of the others. To them, nothing and nobody matters. I think that the government has to see what it can do right now with transport.” The following man states, “The majority have mechanical problems – almost all of them.” A diablo rojo driver then explains, “I have been stuck 18 or 19 years driving a diablo rojo, racing, because they go, not for the benefit of the passengers, but to be able to be the first one at the stop and make more money.”

At the 2:00 mark, the documentary switches gears, and a smooth voice-over assures viewers, “Now it’s the peoples’ turn to have a transit system that is safe, comfortable, and reliable. The transformation of Panama City’s transportation system is already underway. Panamanians deserve a safe, comfortable, and reliable system – Metro Bus.” The smooth voice-over goes on to promise that by 2010, thousands of people will be benefiting from the service.

Unfortunately, the system has faced major implementation delays, primarily due to the lack of qualified drivers. This article, published in January, goes into greater detail. The editor of Panama Guide summarizes,

For the most part, those people who have experience driving the old “Red Devil” buses are buses are being rejected, probably because they have terrible driving records, many accidents, outstanding tickets, and bad habits, and bad attitudes. Before the individual bus owners had to take practically anyone who would sling their bus around the city to make a dime. Now, this company and the government of Panama have to be more stringent and demanding in their hiring practices. So, it’s not that there’s a shortage of experienced bus drivers – there’s a shortage of good bus drivers who won’t go out and pull the same crap they’ve been doing for years on the old buses. This labor shortage is going to delay the implementation of the system, no doubt.

New Buses for Managua

I had the opportunity to view some of the bid documents and specifications for this bus acquisition in my meeting at IRTRAMMA. They were quite technical (e.g. finite element analysis of different bus components), and it seems like the government is satisfied that DINA, a Mexican manufacturer, will meet their requirements. Translated from “Buses nuevos vendrán en cinco meses,” published February 3rd on El 19 Digital, an online news source for President Ortega’s government:

By the middle of this year the first lot of buses coming from Mexico will enter the country, and by next October it is expected that all of the 350 units will be circulating in the capital to benefit some 350,000 Nicaraguans. The announcement was made by the director of Managua’s Municipal Transport Regulator (IRTRAMMA), comrade Francisco Alvarado, after signing the manufacturing contract with Mr. Martín Meléndez, representative of the Mexican company DINA Trucks Ltd.

These buses will have a capacity for 70 people (40 seated) and will be acquired by different urban transport cooperatives of the capital, whose representatives seemed satisfied with the entire bidding process, which concluded this Thursday with the signing of a contract equivalent to approximately $24 million, money financed by the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (BCIE) and managed by the government of President Daniel Ortega Saavedra.

“For DINA Trucks and for Mexico as a whole it is a pride to participate in this purchase of buses for the people of Nicaragua,” said Meléndez, the representative of the Mexican company.

He said that these new buses will be fabricated with the climactic and topographic conditions of Nicaragua in mind and “that all the citizens of Managua and Nicaragua should have the confidence that they can count on buses of the first world, of extraordinary quality, and that they will benefit.” Ten percent of all of the buses will be manufactured with a system of special lifts for people who use wheelchairs.

“By the end of this year Managua will totally transform its fleet and with that its model of municipal transit,” assured Alvarado.

Luis Jiménez, a bus owner, said that improving and transforming the system of buses in Managua could only happen under the direction of a Sandinista Government.

“The strength which the revolutionary government has used in these negotiations is excellent. We have ordered a bus that will have excellent technical features and at the right price, and that will benefit the people foremost,” said Jiménez.

The political overtones of this article make more sense when one considers that Nicaragua’s next presidential elections are scheduled for November. With an election looming, I am confident that most or all of the buses will actually be operating by October. This means the demand for US school buses in Nicaragua will have declined significantly by then. It also means that IRTRAMMA should consider changing its logo, which currently features a yellow school bus complete with a stop sign:



High Speed Rail Doubts

TGV at Gare de Lyon

TGV at Gare de Lyon

I have a nearly perfect record of staying out of Daily Gazette and Phoenix comment wars, but I couldn’t pass up a recent opinion piece on high speed rail in the Phoenix. Things got a bit out of hand when someone cited this misleading article in the Washington Post.

Fortunately, I’ve realized that the answer for all of our high speed rail doubts is shown in this video:

Obama Replaces Costly High-Speed Rail Plan With High-Speed Bus Plan