Thursday, June 18, 2015

Who's getting out of the way of the buses?

The Transit Workers' Union Local 100 has been campaigning against New York's recently enacted Right of Way law, which gives the police and courts more power to punish drivers who injure or kill people in the crosswalk. Essentially, it established the rule of law where previously the right of a person to pass, to take up public space, and to threaten and even kill others was granted based on the size and power of that person's vehicle, or the extent to which a police officer sympathized with that person. Or the extent to which that person was dead.

The TWU bus drivers see this as a problem because the previous state of anarchy favored them. They're union members piloting some of the largest vehicles on the road. There are many times when I've been crossing the street and had to wait because a driver swung his bus out in front of me. I had to get out of the way. Most people did. Some of them didn't, and some died. Too many.

But there have also been times when I've benefited from that anarchy. I've seen sedans, SUVs and sports cars come to a halt at a green light, as my bus driver takes a left right in front of them. If the driver had followed the rules, we might have sat for a while waiting to make that left turn.

Yesterday, a Local 100 spokesperson tweeted a picture of a bus waiting to turn off of 181st Street while an "oblivious pedestrian" crossed Wadsworth Avenue with the light. Several times in recent months the TWU has threatened to take extreme care to avoid violating the right-of-way of pedestrians, to which pedestrian advocates have replied, "No, please don't fling me in that briar patch!"

When pedestrian advocate Robert Wright observed that the pedestrian crossing Wadsworth had the right of way, a Local 100 spokesperson tweeted, "The point is that there should be a turn signal so that peds can be safe when buses have to turn." And yes, this is one way that the problem could be solved, but having lots of turn phases can cause more problems.

Even before that tweet, the picture had gotten me thinking: what if we wanted to give bus drivers the priority they used to have, but enshrine it into law? We give police cars, fire trucks and ambulances the right to take street space; if we think buses should have more priority, why not give a similar right to them? What if all in-service buses were allowed to turn whenever they wanted, and all other traffic had to yield?

Then it got me thinking that if they had this priority, we would need some kind of signal to tell pedestrians and other drivers to get out of the way. Police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, they all have sirens and flashing lights. Sirens on every bus would be overkill. Flashing lights?

Hey wait a minute! Didn't there used to be lights on some of the buses? Yes, when the first Select Bus line debuted on Fordham Road it had flashing blue lights on the front. The idea was partly to distinguish Select Buses from the local buses operating on the same route, but also to notify drivers that the bus had priority.

You may also remember what happened to the flashing lights. After four successful years of Select Bus Service, when it was rolled out on the S79, Staten Island politicians complained that the lights were "distracting to drivers," and pressured the MTA to shut them off.

Where was the Transit Workers' Union in this? I haven't found any mention of them. If they tweeted or sent out a press release, it wasn't picked up. But they did endorse State Senator Bill Perkins for re-election, after he repeatedly opposed plans to extend the M60 select bus lanes to West 125th Street.

Local 100's choice of 181st Street for this action is telling. 181st is a critical bus corridor connecting the A and #1 subway lines with transit-poor neighborhoods in the western Bronx. The buses are constantly getting stuck behind double-parked cars. The Department of Transportation tried hard to speed them up, but local politicians watered the plan down to nothing. Where was the TWU?

These issues - stiffer penalties for hurting pedestrians with the right of way, dedicated lanes for buses, and lights to reinforce the priority of buses in those lanes - are all issues about who's getting out of the way. In that sense, they're like the bus bays in Tenafly, or pedestrian overpasses: an indication of the priorities of the government. The right-of-way law says that pedestrians are as important as bus drivers and riders, and the TWU has fought that tooth and nail. The dedicated lanes and flashing blue lights said that private motorists were less important than bus riders, and the TWU didn't lift a finger for it.


Unknown said...

Issue tickets from bus cameras to any car obstructing a bus's path with any kind of illegal maneuver or illegal standing. If the state makes this impossible, direct cops to drive up and down major bus routes and aggressively ticket cars. Call it a crackdown on loitering. Push to make such a huge deal out of this that the bus drivers are forced to pick a side or embarrass themselves further.

Matthew Kime said...

while we've all been annoyed with oblivious pedestrians, i'd like to see some hard numbers on how much they're slowing down buses.

Andy said...

It's not even comparable. Imagine removing all the pedestrians from NYC, or absolute crosswalk enforcement, vs. removing all the private vehicles from NYC. Which would have a bigger effect on bus speed?

Anonymous said...

Of course, TWU's fundamental objection to the new law isn't that it slows down buses. Their complaint is that it holds drivers slightly more responsible for operating safely. Like many drivers, professional or amateur, the idea that your are responsible for keeping control of your vehicle and that you could be held responsible for negligent behavior is anathema for many.

Anonymous said...

The blue lights were devised to distinguish Select buses from regular local buses. As a pedestrian, I don't need a special signal to tell me that the giant bus-shaped vehicle I'm looking at is, in fact, a bus.