Four Factors Driving the Bus Operator Shortage

Bus driver shortages are undermining transit agencies’ efforts to recover from the pandemic and become the front-line mobility option that American cities need — and those shortages won’t end until policymakers and transportation leaders confront the many structural reasons why so few Americans are climbing into the (bus) driver’s seat, a new analysis argues.

According to a report from Transit Center released today, more than nine in 10 public transit agencies “are having difficulty hiring new employees … and bus operator positions are the most difficult to fill.” Moreover, those shortfalls are forcing a staggering 71 percent of providers to either cut or delay service, while others, like Los Angeles, are postponing service upgrades that would increase shared mobility access in the Black and brown neighborhoods that need it most.

That foundational challenge, though, has been relatively under-discussed in the debate about how to help transit agencies recover the riders they lost during the pandemic, even as journalists wonder why sky-high gas prices aren’t tempting people onto shared modes. And that may be because the solutions auto the problem aren’t as simple as just giving public transportation the robust funding it deserves.

Here are four reasons why it’s so hard to hire and keep a bus driver on the payroll these days — and what to do about them.

1. Low starting pay, high retirement rates

Perhaps the most obvious factor driving the bus operator shortage is low pay — though Transit Center researchers emphasize that it wasn’t always that way.

Back when baby boomers were first entering the workforce, becoming a bus driver was actually one of the fastest routes to the middle class for poor Americans, until costs of living skyrocketed, pensions were gutted, and the time it took to jump to the next pay grade swelled to as much as five years on the job. Today, an MTA driver in New York City can expect to make $25.49 an hour on her first day on the job, or about 40 percent less than the living wage for a single parent of one child in that region.

Unsurprisingly, those lucky boomers are some of the only ones who can afford to stay behind the wheel today — and they won’t stay there for long. In 2021, the average transit worker was nearly 53 years old, more than 10 years older than the average American worker in other industries, and a staggering 72 percent of drivers who climbed behind the wheel just seven years ago are predicted to have either retired by the end of 2022, or switched to a better-paying job in another industry, like using their commercial driving license to operate a truck.

Graphic: Transit Center

While securing new funding for agencies to up driver’s pay and increase signing bonuses is an absolute must — particularly from federal agencies, which traditionally have offered mass transit little money for operations — the Transit Center team says it’s just as critical for agencies to cut the costs of getting onto the job into the first place. Depending on the state, acquiring a commercial driver’s license can cost thousands of dollars and take weeks or even months, and some agencies like the MTA in New York make their applicants wait six to 12 months just to be added to a hiring list.

Even if all those barriers are struck down, though, experts say many agencies still need to rethink how they communicate about the hiring process to applicants — and the benefits that await them when they jump through those hoops.

“Not everyone understands just how valuable it is to have a pension and affordable healthcare,” said Chris Van Eyken, program manager for Transit Center and the author of the report. “The bus operator has traditionally been a really good way for working class, Black and brown folks to get a middle class job and advance in life. And as it degrades, it’s making it harder and harder for people to find ways to take a step up.”

2. Workplace assault and constant indignity

Even the best compensation package in the world, though, may not be enough to recruit more bus drivers if they fear becoming the target on of violence on the job.

Graphic: The Source Metro LA

Federal Transit Administration data shows that between 2009 and 2020, physical assaults against operators increased fourfold per unlinked passenger trip — a stunning statistic that even transit agencies themselves have been slow to tackle, despite a new mandate from Congress to form safety planning committees in conjunction with operator unions.

“I knew it was bad, but the numbers [on a assault] were a lot more stark than I thought they would be,” said Van Eyken. “Part of it is that there’s increasing financial stress on a lot of folks right now, and a lot of folks are struggling to pay the fare. When they come up short, the only person they have to take that out on is the operator, when probably, that anger should directed to the government at large.”


Keeping operators safe without inviting potentially dangerous interactions between law enforcement and predominantly Black and brown passengers, though, will take serious investment.

Van Eyken points to the example of London, which physically separates drivers from passengers in transparent cockpits that still allow them to interact freely with their passengers — a model he says works particularly well in concert with improvements at stations to make bus stops comprehensively accessible to people with disabilities, without the driver needing to leave his seat to help them.

Other cities that have taken the potentially dangerous burden of fare collection off of operators by encouraging passengers to pay their share before they board; Seattle’s Sound Transit is even piloting an unarmed “fare ambassador” program to help deal with on-board issues as they arise, rather than relying on a person piloting an advanced multi-ton machine to double as a social worker even while they’re in motion.

And of course, no conversation about operator safety can afford to neglect the importance of protecting drivers from Covid-19, heat-related health conditions exacerbated by climate change, and other health hazards.

3. Punishing schedules

Being asked to perform the roles of a driver, social worker, ticket-taker, and guide to the city isn’t the only reason why bus operators are prone to burnout. That’s because too many agencies require them to work mandatory overtime and arduous split schedules to cover the morning and evening rush hours, leaving drivers little time to rest at home with their families in between.

“The way we build our schedules still assumes that the bus driver is male, and his wife is at home taking care of the kids and everything else around the house,” added Van Eyken. “But it’s a hard problem to solve, because at the end of the day, the schedule has to be fairly static and conform to what riders need.”

An analysis of Portland’s TriMet Bus driver schedules. Graphic: The Oregonian

Van Eyken says that the pandemic may already be helping solve the problem of split schedules, as transit commute patterns spread evenly throughout the day and agencies adjust their schedules to better serve all-day riders — something some advocates argue they should have done long ago.

When peak runs simply can’t be avoided, though, he says agencies should offer operators higher pay for nights, weekends, and even the awkward few hours they have to kill between rush hour shifts, along with subsidized childcare and other caregiving services to lessen the burden, and digital services to help them find other operators willing to swap an inconvenient shift.

4. No respect (and no place to pee)

Perhaps the most important factor driving the bus driver shortage, though, is also hardest to tackle: the denigration of transit operators in American culture, including at transit agencies themselves. Though, again, the Transit Center team emphasizes that it wasn’t always that way.

“If you go to the typical transit agency today, the older members of the leadership teams tend to be folks that started as operators and worked their way up,” said Van Eyken. “The younger members, though, typically don’t have that field experience; they went to college and have a master’s degree. They just don’t understand what it’s like to drive a bus.”

That stratification is no more apparent than in transit workers’ access to the most basic workplace facilities. A stunning 80 percent of transit workers say that not enough time is built into their schedules for them to simply use the bathroom — if they can even find one, given the dearth of public restrooms in most US cities, particularly during the pandemic — and 67 percent report that they’ve experienced health problems as a consequence.

“If a white collar worker at the MTA didn’t have a place to go to the bathroom, the reaction would be, ‘oh my god, that’s horrible! We need to fix that!’” Van Eyken adds. “But that same thinking doesn’t apply to operators.”


Van Eyken emphasizes that agencies must take systemic approaches to making drivers feel valued and heard, starting with strong pay, strong safety protections, and schedules that they and their families can sustain. (Mandated bathroom breaks and clean, guaranteed on-route facilities couldn’t hurt, either.) And just as critically, they need to establish ongoing forums for agency officials to hear operator concerns, craft strategies to make their jobs better, and give them a path to rise through the ranks if they wish to.

“The end of COVID-19 will not bring the end of operator shortfalls; they will persist unless agencies address core issues with the job,” Van Eyken wrote.  To begin ending operator shortfalls, the transit industry as a whole must recognize the vital role that operators play and work to increase the attractiveness of the position. Transit operators are the backbone of the transit industry.”

KOMANOFF: High Gas Prices Are Reducing Driving!

Charles Komanoff. Photo: David Clark

Pricing has power. Changes in the prices of goods and services affect demand for those items. For some products by a lot, in other cases not so much. And most impacts from price changes take time to unfold fully. But price-elasticities are never zero.

(Price-elasticity: The percentage change in consumption of something, relative to the percentage change in its price.)

That’s my take — and a touchstone of my work for carbon taxing and congestion pricing. Nevertheless, stories appear from time to time, claiming that sky-high gasoline prices aren’t affecting gasoline consumption. Streetsblog ran two such posts in just the past week: Why Americans Don’t Drive Less When Gas Prices Soar, last Tuesday; and, a few days later, New Yorkers Are Still Driving Like Crazy. (The latter was given more context in Monday’s headlines post.)

To be sure, those stories addressed the supposed stickiness in the amount of driving, which isn’t quite identical to stickiness in consumption of gasoline. Still, the messaging was clear: driving is so baked in to Americans’ psyches and living conditions that costlier gas can never make much of a dent.

Except that it is — at least in New York State. Following the lead of Streetsblog’s Still Driving Like Crazy post, I took a look at monthly statewide “motor fuel” tax receipts — levies on gasoline and diesel fuel burned in cars and trucks (boats also consume a small fraction) — from this May back to the start of 2019, the last pre-pandemic year. Since the per-gallon tax rate was unchanged over this period, changes in fuel use should be perfectly reflected in changes in tax collections.

First, the chart:

Graphic: Charles Komanoff

From January through May 2019, the state took in $214 million in motor fuel taxes. Over the same five months this year, the take was $179 million — a $35-million, or 16-percent, drop.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sold on the precise figures. For one thing, this year’s February tax receipts figure of $48 million is crazy high — the biggest monthly take in five years. Though the anomaly is in the wrong direction (it pushes the 2022 total up rather than down), it doesn’t inspire confidence. Even more stark is the 40-percent drop comparing April 2022 vs. April 2019. 

Moreover, the bottom-line result of a one-sixth fall in sales of gasoline and diesel this year compared to last is a lot higher than I would expect, based on my sense of gasoline’s short-term price elasticity. It’s also true that changes in the last several years in the economy and the very structure of society could muddy the impact of price changes. The increased penetration of electric vehicles might have knocked a percent or two off of gasoline sales.

Clearly, more analysis is needed, including from the other 49 states. Extrapolating from my figures for New York should be done cautiously, as the beginning, not the end, of a conversation on demand responsiveness to expensive gasoline. Still, in my view, the data here put the onus on price-elasticity skeptics to make a convincing case, if they can, that gasoline use in the U.S. is impervious to changes in its price.

[Editor’s note: Our coverage of driving in the pages of Streetsblog focuses on the simple fact that Americans do far too much of it, the result of bad planning that promotes car dependency.]

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Public comment: Why alders should vote no on the ordinance to allow 9 mph speeding

Here are Streetsblog co-editor John Greenfield’s prepared remarks for the public comment period of today’s City Council meeting in advance of the vote on Ald. Anthony Beale’s (9th) ordinance to raise the speed camera ticketing threshold from 6 mph to 10 mph. 

Hi, I’m John Greenfield from Streetsblog Chicago. I’d like to discuss Alderman Beale’s ordinance to essentially legalize 9 mph speeding near parks and schools.

We know that Chicago speed cameras have been effective at preventing traffic injuries and deaths. A January 2022 University of Illinois at Chicago study found that from 2015-17 the cameras prevented a total of 204 injury and fatality crashes.

We also know that Black Chicagoans are killed in crashes at more than twice the rate of white residents. 

In addition, we know that speed camera placement is reasonably fair. According to the study the cameras aren’t Chicago concentrated in African-American or Latino neighborhoods. And, contrary to what other news outlets have implied, a Streetsblog analysis found the cameras are distributed fairly in terms of road width.

However, the report found there were major racial discrepancies in who was recorded speeding, plus disparities in how fines and late fees impacted people of different income levels. Four months after the study came out, the city launched the Clear Path program, which offers ticket debt forgiveness, and halves the cost of traffic fines for residents who make less than $41,000 a year, so a ticket for speeding by 6-10 mph is only $17.50. That’s only a couple dollars more than the current Chicago minimum wage, generally $15.40.

Strangely, almost none of the media outlets who have covered this issue mentioned that 50 percent discount, which goes a long way to address legitimate equity concerns.

We know that Chicago’s 6 mph speed camera threshold has been effective in reducing speeding by 6-9 mph. After an initial ticketing spike when the rule kicked in, the number of tickets issued has fallen steadily.

Click to enlarge. This graph of the total number of Chicago speed cam tickets issued per day shows the period between March 1, 2021 (the month COIVD-19 hit Chicago) and June 29, 2022 (the most recent date for which data is available.) The red line is March 1, 2021, when the 6 mph ticketing threshold kicked in. After reaching a peak on May 7, 2022, the number of tickets issue has generally declined, minus some seasonal variations, as motorists learned to drive slower in camera locations. This indicates that the new rule has encouraged more people to drive at safer speeds in these locations. Image: Steven Vance, Streetsblog Chicago

Federal studies found that people struck by motorists driving 30 mph, Chicago’s default speed limit, usually survive. However those struck at 39 mph, which would be allowed in 30 zones under Alderman Beale’s ordinance, almost always die.

Image: People for Bikes

Voting to allow deadly speeds would be particularly wrongheaded during the current nationwide spike in traffic fatalities, which has been exacerbated in Chicago by factors like the car theft epidemic. This issue really hit home for me earlier this month when Hannah Hayes, a writer, teacher, and activist who campaigned for Harold Washington, whose husband is a relative of mine, was killed in Bronzeville by the driver of a stolen car, who fled the scene.

And it would be downright irresponsible for alderpersons to send a message to motorists that breaking the speed limit by 9 mph is no big deal, in light of the fact speeding and negligent drivers struck and killed four Chicago children last month.

June 2022 Chicago traffic violence victims Rafi Cardenas, 2; Lily Shambrook, 3; Ja’Lon James, 11; and Joshua Avina-Luna, 15.

City Council members, I ask you to do the right thing and vote no on the ordinance to allow deadly speeds near schools and parks. Thanks for your consideration.

Postal Service Backtracks on Gas-Powered Trucks

Signed, sealed and (almost) delivered.

The United States Postal Service — under fire from environmental groups — is no longer moving ahead with a plan to almost entirely replace its aging delivery fleet with gas-fueled trucks.

According to a posting on the USPS website quietly uploaded today, the agency will raise the target percentage of new electric vehicles in the fleet from just 10 percent to 50 percent. And instead of rush purchasing 165,000 new “Next Generation Delivery Vehicles” — 90 percent of them gas-powered — the Postal Service will reduce its order to 50,000.

Taken together, with new vehicles already purchased and those to be made, 40 percent of the 84,500 new vehicles will be electric.

Environmentalists — or at least environmental groups that see electric cars and trucks as a victory for the environment — hailed the change in tack.

“The U.S. Postal Service finally got the message that cleaner vehicles are a win all around,” said Britt Carmon, federal clean vehicles senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which strongly backs electric vehicles. “Investing in more electric vehicles will deliver cost savings for the postal service, cleaner air for communities across the nation, and lower emissions for all of us.”

Carmon pointed out, of course, that the decision to slowly electrify the fleet is “not nearly enough.”

“To save money and protect our health, the Postal Service should go much further and electrify most of its fleet,” he added. “As time goes on and the costs of these vehicles continue to fall, we fully expect that USPS will eventually increase the number of electric vehicles it buys.”

Press images of the “next generation” trucks didn’t mention the worst feature: the tailpipe. Photo: USPS

The saga began in January, when the Postal Service quietly announced in the federal register that it would purchase an almost entirely gas-powered fleet to replace its aging delivery trucks. At the time, the Postal Service defended its fossil-fueled fleet as necessary because of financial considerations.

“While we can understand why some who are not responsible for the financial sustainability of the Postal Service might prefer that we acquire more electric vehicles, the law requires us to be self-sufficient,” Kim Frum, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service, told the New York Times. “For that reason, given our current financial condition, the total cost of ownership of our delivery vehicle fleet must be a part of our analysis.”

NRDC was among the groups that objected, saying that the Postal Service plan was based on undisclosed and unsupported assumptions about the environmental impacts of gas-powered vehicles and the cost of buying and operating electric vehicles. NRDC and the United Auto Workers sued to force the USPS to use accurate information which then justified the purchase of tens of thousands more electric vehicles — and to get the purchase of EVs up to nearly 100 percent. (Sixteen states, 14 of which have Democratic governors, also sued.) The Environmental Protection Agency estimated the climate damages that would be caused by the gas-powered fleet at $900 million the Times reported.

“[Postmaster General] Louis DeJoy’s gas-guzzling fleet guarantees decades of pollution with every postcard and package,” Scott Hochberg, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, yet another group that sued, told NPR at the time. DeJoy is a holdover from the Trump Administration.

In its statement on Wednesday, the Postal Service subtly acknowledged that it was wrong about the financing.

“The Postal Service reiterates its commitment to the fiscally responsible roll-out of electric-powered vehicles for America’s largest and oldest federal fleet,” the agency said. “New Next Generation Delivery Vehicles are expected to start servicing postal routes in late 2023.” The current fleet is about 230,000 vehicles.

After initial publication of this story, the Postal Service responded and referred Streetsblog to a line in the federal register posting that says the Postal Service now expects to be able to buy electric vehicles, yet stay in the budget, because of “the expected increased availability of BEV options in the future.”

The announcement by the Postal Service still ignores the potential of electric cargo bicycle and tricycle delivery, which studies show can slash emissions by roughly one-third compared to electric cargo vans, particularly in dense cities where mail routes are short.

Many citizens of Germany, Australia, and the Netherlands already receive their post by e-bike, and North American advocates have long argued that they’re an under-utilized tool in the country’s fight to clean up the transportation sector —  particularly in cities that are already building the protected infrastructure necessary to support safe bike delivery.

As of January, just 49 of the 231,579 delivery routes USPS runs are currently completed by bicycle, all of which are limited pilots in Florida and Arizona.

MBTA Board Updates: FTA Safety Directives, Hiring Challenges, and More Buses

The MBTA’s governing board met Tuesday morning, reuniting the T’s top leaders to discuss in greater detail the agency’s multifaceted struggles to maintain service and safety standards a day after its top executive and the CEO of MassDOT appeared for an oversight hearing in front of the legislature’s transportation committee.

MBTA Responds to FTA Safety Directives

By tomorrow, the MBTA will have submitted “corrective action plans” for each of the four special directives to address urgent safety deficiencies that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) issued in June, according Chief Safety Officer Ron Ester.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, several senior staff at the MBTA addressed some of the details in those corrective actions.

For instance, federal inspectors specifically called out a curved section of the Orange Line south of Tufts Medical Center where they found “evidence of excessive wear and defects,” and asked the T to submit a corrective action plan that identifies specific actions the agency will take to repair tracks, remove speed restrictions, and improve track access for work crews.

“We were successful on July 10th having a one-day shutdown on that Sunday that performed work on one of those curves (on the Orange Line), and we have three more diversions in our calendar to address the three other curves this fall,” Chief Engineer Erik Stoothoff told board members.

On Sunday we diverted Orange Line riders for #BuildingABetterT. From Back Bay south to Mass Ave, crews replaced 500ft of curved rail to lift a speed restriction from 10mph to 25mph, saving riders 1min/trip. Once area work is done, trains will run 40mph.

— MBTA (@MBTA) July 12, 2022

Additionally, the T has assembled a working group that will “analyze the time we have during non-revenue hours, between 1 and 5 a.m., to identify how we can increase the tool time or working time on the tracks during that period,” according to Stoothoff.

Staff shortages might limit subway service into 2023

Another FTA safety directive cited understaffing and overworked employees at the T’s operations control center, where dispatchers control traffic on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines.

Last month, the T dramatically reduced subway service on those three lines because of “staffing challenges among the ranks of subway dispatchers.”

“As soon as sufficient dispatch capacity exists, the MBTA will revert to its previous level of service,” according to an MBTA press statement at the time.

MBTA Assistant General Manager Aisheea Isidor told board members that so far, five new hires have started the 10-week training program for new dispatchers, and one more recruit is expected to start training before the end of the month. Four more recruits are in “pre-employment,” and three former dispatchers have returned from other positions to help out.

But Isidor also added that “we’re trying to get up to 32” people to fully staff the operations control center.

Board member Travis McCready said that “when I do the math… with a pipeline of 6 rolling admits, and a 10-week minimum training time, that puts us well into 2023 to get to our intended (staffing level).”

Isidor and other MBTA officials did not dispute McCready’s estimate.

Safety inspection’s price tag: $300 million

Next, the board heard from David Panagore, the T’s Chief Administrative Officer, who offered his estimates on the financial impact of the FTA’s safety directives.

“Overall the total cost estimate right now is hovering around $300 million, for all the directives. Those are just estimates for now,” said Panagore. “A good amount of the cost is in equipment, the second cost is in staffing.”

Secretary Tesler added that “the Commonwealth General Appropriation Act (the state budget bill) was passed yesterday by the legislature, and there is a reserve account that has, I believe, $266 million that is associated with some of the responses to the FTA, that’s currently under review.”

During the General Manager’s update later in the meeting, though, MBTA staff made it clear that many of the T’s staffing challenges have been years in the making, and a considerable number of vacant positions have already been paid for in the agency’s existing budget.

In late 2019, another independent safety review of the MBTA warned that the agency’s staff were stretched thin after years of cuts to the agency’s operating budgets, and that the T needed to bulk up its safety program workforce, particularly in its inspections and maintenance departments.

The MBTA’s leadership and the former governing board responded by adding hundreds of new positions to the agency’s annual operating budget. The T’s budgeted headcount for its operating department grew from 5,955 workers in fiscal year 2020, which began before the safety review panel’s report, to 6,279 workers in fiscal year 2021 and to 6,349 workers in fiscal year 2022, which began in July 2021:

Courtesy of the MBTA.

But the actual number of employees hired hasn’t been able to keep up with the budgeted increase in staffing. Even though the agency’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget added 324 new positions to the T’s operating departments, the agency as a whole in fact saw a net loss in the size of its workforce that year, according to charts in General Manager Steve Poftak’s July board briefing.

Since the summer of 2020, when the T began advertising for new safety-related positions, 917 new hires have joined the agency, but 908 employees have quit or retired. Since fiscal year 2015, the T has seen a net loss of 416 workers:

MBTA hiring, promotion, and attrition since fiscal year 2015. Courtesy of the MBTA.

“Right now we have 599 safety positions vacant, 754 total vacancies as of June 30, plus 330 new positions being added to the budget this year,” Panagore told the board.

Still, Panagore expressed optimism that the T could begin adding more new hires to catch up: he said that in the past year, the agency had streamlined its hiring processes and doubled its human resources recruiting staff.

“If we were not doing the work we’d done in the past year we would not be prepared for this challenge,” said Panagore. “But we have a very solid team in place, a very good HR team, who bring in additional resources to the table to the rest of the organization.”

Expansions for Southampton bus garage, Codman Yard approved

In spite of the FTA’s inspection and associated service cuts, the board also approved two large expenditures to prepare the T for a future with more bus and subway service.

The board approved a $15.4 million acquisition of 2 acres of land at 202 Southampton St. in Boston, next door to the existing Southampton bus garage, to make room for a larger fleet of 60′ articulated buses, like the ones that run on the Silver Line and high-ridership routes like Route 39 (see the image at the top of this post).

The board also endorsed a $86 million construction contract for a project that will upgrade and expand Codman Yard, where Red Line trains are stored at the end of the Ashmont branch of the Red Line. The project will add six new storage tracks to accommodate an expanded fleet of new Red Line cars. Construction should start later this year.

STREETFILMS: Regardez Ces Pistes Cyclables Impressionnants Parisiennes!

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Clarence Eckerson of our sister site, Streetfilms, went to Paris … and all you got was a stunning three-minute video that reminds you how shitty New York City bike lanes compared to the City of Light.

In Paris, for example, the city dramatically expanded its bike lanes during the Covid pandemic — and then widened them as demand increased. Compare that to New York City, where Eckerson has continually documented how protected bike lanes on Second Avenue, First Avenue and Kent Avenue have become dangerously overcrowded, which will either discourage cycling or force cyclists to pick different routes (Third Avenue, anyone?) that will put them in even graver danger.

But in Paris? Sacre bleu, the mayor responded to the Covid crisis and subsequent bike boom by flipping the age-old script on road allocation. Instead of giving car drivers 75 percent of the space on the Rue de Rivoli, Mayor Anne Hidalgo squeezed the drivers into one lane and gave cyclists the rest.

“You feel there’s a buffer of safety when [bike lanes] are that wide,” Eckerson says in the film.

You can see exactly what Paris did in this one frame grab. See how the original two-way bike path on the Rue de Rivoli (right) was doubled in width, even though there were cement pedestrian islands (just as there are on First and Second avenues in New York). There’s no reason why the cement needs to be moved:

The original bike lane is where the woman on the scooter is. The added bike lane is on the left. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

“Unlike Paris, we’re not building for the future in New York,” Eckerson concludes. “Let’s get to work. Let’s start widening [our] lanes.”

Here’s the stunning film:

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Why Pedestrian-Unfriendly Cities Have Fewer Car Crashes Per Mile

Notoriously dangerous and car-dominated Phoenix actually experiences fewer car crashes and near-misses per mile than Vision Zero leaders like San Francisco and New York, according to data collected by artificial intelligence-equipped cars — but the real takeaway is that city leaders could use that next-gen safety data to make human-scaled streets safer for everyone, not just drivers.

In a new study from AI computer vision company Nexar, researchers analyzed more than 278 million miles worth of anonymized footage from tens of thousands of its ultra-cheap smart dashboard cameras, which the company sells to both private motorists and professional drivers, particularly in the app-taxi and autonomous vehicle industries.

Across the 11 large U.S. cities in their sample, the researchers recorded 4,584 collisions and 42,724 near-collisions, as well as the complex road conditions at the moment those crashes occurred — a dataset that included the kind of mild fender-benders not always reported to law enforcement or insurance companies, as well as the daily brushes with death and injury that, by their nature, don’t show up on crash reports at all.

Earlier research from smart (but stationary) traffic cameras has shown that serious crashes are more likely to happen at intersections with a lot of near-misses, and that cities can save lives by redesigning those dangerous road segments. Nexar’s data, though, spans anywhere a driver with a $95-$200 dash cam might go — a sample size that the company says already offers a meaningful snapshot of many cities’ daily road conditions.

Want to Stop Car Crashes? Study the Near-Misses

Nexar execs also pointed out that the new study could have huge implications for the autonomous vehicle industry, which has struggled to draw a complete picture of how safe robocars are relative to human drivers. The company says its tech can not only turn any car into a real-time crash recorder, but “can be used to produce digital reconstructions of accidents [sic] and train self-driving cars to handle the most challenging driving situations.”

“Having a true understanding of how and where collisions and near-collisions happen is vitally important to prevent them in the future, and to understand the safety profile in cities in which AV use is already happening or planned,” said Eran Shir, co-founder and CEO of Nexar. “However, there was no accurate source of this data, and that’s another reason why crowd-sourced data from dash cams is important for the future of safe driving.”

Indeed, Nexar’s rankings yielded some fascinating results that contrast with dominant narratives about traffic safety in the largest U.S. cities — though some entries on the list deserve a serious asterisk. Let’s look at collisions first.

Most car crashes per 100,000 miles driven

San Francisco
New York
Los Angeles
San Diego
Las Vegas

Notably, sprawling Phoenix reported the fewest crashes per mile, which probably has more to do with the proliferation of highway-style roads in the Southwestern metropolis than how “safe” it actually is for road users on the whole. The Valley of the Sun is nationally known for having one of the largest and fastest-growing networks of freeways in America, a type of road design that at least looks safer on paper, because motorists can often travel many miles without ever encountering any cross traffic – even though crashes are highly fatal when they do happen, because motorists are traveling at deadly speeds when they collide.

That paradox is even more apparent when it comes to crashes involving road users outside an automobile. In addition to topping Nexar’s list of the “safest” cities for all road users, Phoenix was also recently ranked as the 22nd most dangerous metro in America for pedestrians, making it the deadliest community for walkers in the entire study.

Populous and transit-rich Philadelphia, meanwhile, had the most per-mile collisions — more than four times as many as the Arizona capital — despite being among the safest metros for pedestrians on Nexar’s list. Per capita, though, Phoenix experienced 12.4 car crash deaths in 2020 for every 100,000 residents, while Philly experienced just 9.8 — or about 26 percent less.

Nexar’s near-miss list deserves some additional analysis, too.

Most near-collisions per 100,000 miles driven

San Francisco
New York
Los Angeles
Las Vegas
San Diego

Once again, car-dependent San Diego ranked as the “safest” for local road users, while the literal home of the Vision Zero Network, San Francisco, logged more than 10 times as many near-misses as its southern California counterpart.

It’s worth noting, though, that San Francisco is routinely ranked as the single best city to live without a car in the United States, and its dense, vibrant street life likely gives motorists ample opportunity to nearly — but not always fatally — come into contact with other road users, at least when compared to the wide-open stroads running through much of San Diego. And, once again, Nexar’s data did not control for population; the per-capita crash fatality rate in SF was just 3.4 in 2020, while it was 12.7 in SD — nearly four times higher.

An intersection in San Diego, Calif. that’s experienced a cluster of fatal car crashes per the city’s Vision Zero portal. Photo via Google Maps
Valencia Street. in San Francisco during a recent Open Streets event. Photo: Streetsblog SF

That’s absolutely not to say that Nexar’s data is without value — especially if city leaders ditched the rankings and took a hard look at their municipality’s data itself.

As AI-equipped vehicles proliferate across U.S. communities, the company says cameras like theirs can create “a dynamic digital twin of America’s roads that includes changing road elements like construction zones, speed limits, potholes, traffic conditions and more,” giving municipalities the ability to quickly flag areas that are experiencing high rates of even minor crashes and near-collisions, and fix the dangerous road conditions that are causing them before a more serious incident occurs.

The tech can also specifically tease out which segments of the roadway are most dangerous specifically for vulnerable road users, and even flag common yet hard-to-catch hazards, like when street lights are burnt out or potholes are forcing motorists to make dangerous sudden swerves, giving transportation engineers a powerful and highly granular tool to tackle complex safety problems.

Unfortunately, many transportation engineers do relatively little with the data they already have about their communities’ dangerous roads – including the simple but sobering stat that 70 percent of U.S. walking deaths happen on high-volume arterials that represent just 15 percent of the road network. And until built environment professionals expand their notion of “safety” to include the vulnerable road users who are dying at increasing rates in places like Phoenix, even the best data in the world won’t help them save those lives.

De Young Says JFK Drive Closure Harms Attendance. Its Neighbors Don’t Have This Problem

This article first appeared in the Frisc and is reprinted with permission.

The closure of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park seemed decided with a landmark vote in April. But it’s still up in the air, thanks to a measure that will go before San Francisco voters this fall, bankrolled by the de Young Museum’s longtime former chair.

The museum’s main argument for reopening JFK Drive got fact-checked at a public hearing Thursday. A supervisors’ committee called for an economic update from the city’s cultural institutions, and a top de Young official called the closure a major impediment to recovery.

“The closure of JFK and the loss of 270 free parking spaces is impacting attendance,” said Thomas Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which governs the de Young and the Legion of Honor.

The number of de Young visitors for the 2021–22 fiscal year was 45 percent of pre-COVID levels, Campbell reported, and the de Young and Legion have suffered more than $20 million in losses over the pandemic.

But the de Young’s neighboring institutions told a different story. The California Academy of Sciences and Japanese Tea Garden, both steps away from the de Young’s front door, reported that attendance is almost back to pre-COVID levels. The SF Botanical Garden has seen record-breaking visitor levels the last two years.

With people seeking outdoor space during the pandemic, the gardens’ attendance isn’t surprising. But the Academy of Sciences is mainly indoors and recovering nicely too.

Supervisors at the hearing took note. “The closure of JFK to cars has not been the greatest negative for the [de Young],” Sup. Myrna Melgar said to Campbell. “The Academy and others are doing things that have proven successful.”

For instance, during the COVID shutdown, the Academy pivoted to online programming and exhibits to keep the public engaged.

Melgar, who voted in April with six other supervisors to ban cars from the 1.5-mile eastern stretch of JFK Drive, said the city supports the museum and its recovery. The de Young gets a quarter of its funding from city coffers.

The hearing came three days after campaigners said they had enough signatures to qualify a ballot measure, “Access for All,” which pledges to return cars not only to JFK but also other car-free Golden Gate Park roads, as well as the Great Highway, currently closed on weekends. As of June 30, FAMSF chair emerita Diane “Dede” Wilsey was the only Access for All contributor, with a $200,000 donation.

But Mayor London Breed is pushing for a ballot measure that would act as a counterweight to the reopen-JFK movement and potentially make the 800-spot garage beneath the de Young cheaper to use.

As The Frisc has reported, the garage rates are set by a secretive nonprofit staffed by people affiliated with the Academy of Sciences and de Young, and its main purpose is to pay off the garage’s construction debt. The city cannot change the rates or subsidize them. Breed’s proposal would shift authority over the garage to the parks department. The initiative is awaiting committee hearings.

Meanwhile, the garage has plenty of room for those who can pay, its elevators go directly to the museums, and pickups and drop-offs are free.

Keeping track of visitors

Even with the garage right below them, de Young officials have blamed the closure of JFK for their attendance woes. They even hired consultants to craft a fake grassroots lobbying campaign, which failed to persuade city planners and officials, while Campbell pointed to bike and pedestrian advocates as the “powerful lobbying groups.”

In yesterday’s hearing, the de Young only offered a broad look at current attendance — 45 percent of 2019 visitor levels. Representatives did not respond to a request for more specific information.

Through previous public record requests, The Frisc has asked the museum for attendance numbers that could support the claim of harm from the JFK closure, but officials have responded that they do not keep daily figures.

Such data are important because JFK Drive has been closed on Sundays for five decades, and on occasional Saturdays for two decades. It would be good to know if the museum’s attendance on those days pre-COVID suffered the same fate.

Other cultural institutions in town, including the SF Botanical Garden, the Asian Art Museum, and the Museum of the African Diaspora, confirmed to The Frisc that they keep daily records. (SFBG director of communications Brendan Lange said that too many variables make it “inherently imperfect” to try and attribute the closure of JFK to the garden’s attendance patterns.)

Museum attendance isn’t the only reason some people want to reopen JFK to cars. Access for seniors and the disabled is another point — one that the city’s parks and transit agencies have been working to address.

For example, there’s a new parking lot with 20 blue-zone disabled spots behind the park’s bandshell, which brings visitors closer to the museums than parking on JFK would do. There are also new taxi stands in front of the museums and an improved shuttle that runs up and down JFK Drive.

Shuttle vans will soon have low-floor vehicles for easier access, and their schedule will be integrated into map and transit apps, Park and Recreation officials said Thursday.

Officials from other institutions made it clear that the JFK closure has had some negative impact. But Sup. Melgar pointed out that other institutions have started to adapt. The Cal Academy, for example, offers vacation time or cash to employees who bike, walk, carpool, or take public transit to work at least 10 days a month. When Melgar asked FAMSF director Campbell if the de Young had looked into such programs, he offered that they could, but “most employees don’t live on a transit line.”

“We do have a regional transit system,” Melgar countered. “I’m wondering why this is different for the Academy employees.”

Frisc staff writer Max Harrison-Caldwell contributed to this report.

BLU, Better Streets fight ordinance to allow 9 mph speeding near schools, parks

Email your alder to ask them to vote against allowing 9 mph speeding near parks and schools.

At Wednesday’s 10 a.m. Chicago City Council meeting, alderpersons will likely take a final vote on Ald. Anthony Beale’s proposed ordinance that would essentially legalize speeding by 9 mph in speed camera zones near schools and parks. Streetsblog Chicago has covered this topic in depth, but here’s the issue in a nutshell:

Chicago’s speed cameras have been proven effective at reducing injury and fatality crashes. A January 2022 University of Illinois study found that from 2015-17 the cameras reduced severe and fatal injury crashes by 15 percent, and prevented a total of 204 injury/fatality crashes.
Black Chicagoans are killed in traffic crashes at more than twice the rate of white residents.
The UIC study found that the cameras aren’t concentrated in Black or Latino communities.
However, the UIC study found there were major racial and economic disparities in who was being recorded speeding, and how the fines and fees impacted people of different income levels.
In response to these findings, in April 2022 the city launched the Clear Path ticket equity program, which halves the fines for residents making less than $41K (more for people in larger households) and offers a ticket debt forgiveness program, which goes a long way to address equity concerns. That means residents meeting the income requirement only need to pay $17.50 for 6-10 mph speeding tickets, less than a few gallons of gas.
Chicago’s 6 mph ticketing threshold, launched in March 2021, has been very effective in reducing speeding by 6-9 mph. After an initial spike when the rule kicked in, the number of tickets issued has fallen steadily (aside from seasonal variations – people drive less in winter and school speed cameras don’t operate during breaks) as many drivers learned not to speed by more than 5 mph in speed camera zones near schools and parks.

Click to enlarge. This graph of the total number of Chicago speed cam tickets issued per day shows the period between March 1, 2021 (the month COIVD-19 hit Chicago) and June 29, 2022 (the most recent date for which data is available.) The red line is March 1, 2021, when the 6 mph ticketing threshold kicked in. After reaching a peak on May 7, 2022, the number of tickets issue has generally declined, minus some seasonal variations, as motorists learned to drive slower in camera locations. This indicates that the new rule has encouraged more people to drive at safer speeds in these locations. Image: Steven Vance, Streetsblog Chicago

We know the 6 mph rule has increased safety, because federal studies found people struck at 30 mph (Chicago’s default speed limit) usually survive, which those struck at 39 mph (which would be allowed in 30 zones under Beale’s ordinance) almost always die.
Therefore, if the ordinance to raise the speed camera ticketing threshold to 10 mph passes, more Chicagoans will be seriously injured and killed in crashes.
Voting to allow deadly speeds in school and park zones would be particularly unconscionable after speeding/negligent drivers killed four Chicago children last month:  Rafi Cardenas, 2; Lily Shambrook, 3; Ja’Lon James, 11; and Joshua Avina-Luna, 15.

The Active Transportation Alliance launched a letter-writing campaign against raising the speed camera threshold. Fellow Chicago-based sustainable transportation advocacy organizations Bike Lane Uprising and Better Streets Chicago have been doing some great advocacy work on this issue as well. Let’s take a look at some of BLU and BSC’s recent talking points.

Bike Lane Uprising

BLU, which documents bikeway obstructions in Chicago and many other cities, and helps organize demonstrations at fatal bike crash sites and ghost bike memorial installations, recently posted a helpful update and map of where Chicago’s 50 alderpersons currently stand on the speed camera issue.

“An all-time record high of cyclists and pedestrians have been killed in Chicago the past few years,” Bike Lane Uprising noted. “Raising the speed threshold will likely raise the death toll.” They pointed out that Beale’s ordinance needs 26 votes to pass the 50-member Council. (If it passes with fewer than 33 votes, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has indicated that she will veto the legislation.)

According to Bike Lane Uprising, according to the last month’s City Council Committee on Finance vote and public statements, 18 alderpersons have indicated that they will vote on Wednesday to allow 9 mph speeding, while another 23 are likely opposed. That leaves these nine remaining undecided alders.

Stephanie Coleman (16th) (Coleman has indicated she supports allowing 9 mph speeding, but BLU has her down as “unknown.”)
Jeanette Taylor (20th)
Monique Scott (24th)
Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th)
Roberto Maldonado (26th)
Rossana Rodriguez (33rd)
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th)
Gilbert Villegas (36th)
Samantha Nugent (39th)

Serious question: What equity issues do you see with the status quote, in which people making <$41K only need to pay half the fine, and there’s a debt forgiveness program? Hopefully the “compromise” won’t involve tolerating higher, more deadly speeding.

— John Greenfield (@greenfieldjohn) July 19, 2022

Bike Lane Uprising notes that it’s crucial for constituents of undecided alderpersons to let their reps know they don’t want to allow 9 mph speeding. They encourage residents to email or call their alder (find yours here) to ask their position on the issue, and let BLU know by emailing hello[at]bikelaneuprising[dot]com. (Feel free to drop a line me a line at jgreenfield[at]streetsblogchicago[dot]org as well.)

Better Streets Chicago

Better Streets, a sustainable transportation advocacy organization (Streetsblog Chicago co-editor Courtney Cobbs is a cofounder) also has an insightful blog post about the speed camera issue. They’ve launched their own petition on the subject.

Better Streets points out much of the info stated at the top of the post. “It is disappointing that the City Council is considering this change as the City is experiencing a significant increase in traffic violence including the recent deaths of six residents walking or biking, including four Chicago youth ages 2 to 16 killed this summer.”

While BSC doesn’t want to see 9 mph speeding allowed, they go on to list a number of ways they think the speed camera program, and traffic safety in general, should be improved in Chicago, calling on alderpersons to make these things happen. Here are some of their ideas.

Establish a lower citywide speed limit.
Earmark all traffic camera revenue to traffic safety infrastructure and expanded transit service. (By state law, the revenue is currently reserved for various safety initiatives around schools and parks, also including policing near these facilities, the Safe Passage public school safety program, and after-school programs)<
Install speed cameras near all schools, parks, “and other defined areas of concern; establishing clear metrics to determine the success or failure of a camera in improving desired safety outcomes; outlining improvements communities can pursue that would result in cameras being removed.”
Make speed camera zones more conspicuous by adding more speed feedback signs, which would be a win-win for safety and motorists’ pocketbooks. The city is already planning to install 100 of these signs this year.
Follow the UIC report’s recommendations about evaluating camera locations to make sure they are optimizing safety, and relocate or decommission less effective cams.

“Speed cameras can and should play an important role in maintaining safe streets for all users, but this must be met with fundamental reforms and investments in redesigning our streets to prioritize people and safety first,” Better Streets concludes.

Email your alder to ask them to vote against allowing 9 mph speeding near parks and schools.

Lawmakers Slam MBTA’s Lack of Transparency: ‘Riders Will Never Come Back if They Can’t Trust the Information They’re Getting’

Lawmakers in the state’s Joint Committee on Transportation took nearly three hours to grill the state’s top two transit officials on Monday morning, honing in on the MBTA’s recent safety management inspection and the “culture of safety” (or lack thereof) in the MBTA’s workforce.

In April, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) cited patterns of “derailments, train collisions, grade crossing fatalities, and incidents that have endangered both MBTA employees and its passengers” and announced that they would conduct a special safety management inspection of the agency.

But the hottest topic at Monday’s hearing, which put MassDOT Secretary Jamey Tesler and MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak in the hot seat in front of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, was the state’s lack of candor and transparency in the public communications about those safety issues.

Several lawmakers at Monday’s hearing noted that they didn’t learn about the FTA’s intervention until Taylor Dolven of the Boston Globe wrote about it on May 9.

“I don’t want to belabor the point, but we had close to a month delay of an announcement regarding a safety issue related to the T,” said Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn, the Senate Chair of the Transportation Committee. “When the FTA comes in, it is very serious.”

Lawmakers also asked Poftak and Tesler tough questions about the state’s apparent efforts to obfuscate three derailments that occurred during a closure of the Blue Line tunnel under Boston Harbor.

Public records requests from the Boston Globe recently revealed that Governor Baker’s office had explicitly instructed MBTA officials to withhold information about those derailments in public statements to the press.

“Why would the Governor’s office want to withhold derailment information to the public, and what good does it do to keep the public in the dark?” asked Sen. Crighton. “Why was it the Governor’s call in the first place? Who’s calling the shots at the T?”

Poftak answered that “I’m in charge of the MBTA and I’m responsible for the actions at the MBTA. My focus was on getting the capital work done, and getting it done safely.”

Senator Crighton pushed back: “Riders will never come back if they can’t trust the information they’re getting,” he told Poftak. “If you are in charge, why do you need to seek permission for announcements? How often does the Governor have the ultimate say, if the buck stops with you?”

MassDOT Secretary Jamey Tesler asserted that “the coordination (with the Governor’s office) was vital because (the Blue Line closure) impacts the highway system, the bridges… It was implications on all our other assets.”

Later, after Sen. Eric Lesser asked why it took so long for the T to release the information about those derailments, Poftak answered that “our primary focus was that the work get done safely and get service back to customers as soon as possible,” and characterized how the Blue Line incidents were communicated as a “tertiary concern.”

Poftak and Tesler both admitted that the T could have handled the recent incidents with more transparency.

“We continue to learn and adjust our approach,” said Tesler.

As a result of the FTA’s inspection, the agency issued five special directives to the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, the state agency that’s responsible for safety oversight of the T’s rail operations, to address numerous immediate safety concerns.

In response, the T slashed subway service until it could fully staff up its dispatching center. The agency also closed part of the Orange Line earlier this month to repair some of the tracks that the FTA singled out, near the Back Bay station.

The T expects to receive even more directives when the FTA issues its final report later this summer.

The Joint Committee on Transportation expects to host two more hearings focused on the MBTA later this year. In opening remarks during this morning’s hearing, House Chair William Straus indicated that the second hearing is expected to be scheduled in August, after the FTA issues its final report, “with more frontline witnesses” who can testify about the T’s safety practices.

The Committee has also requested a number of documents from the MBTA and FTA, some of which have been posted to the Committee’s website. Rep. Straus added that the T will be expected to produce more requested documents to the Committee in the weeks to come.



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