Buses Bounce Back

In my research into weather risks to transport supply and demand, I come across the word ‘resilience’ fairly frequently. I cannot always assume a singular definition, though. Some of the literature uses resilience to refer to low levels of vulnerability to extreme weather conditions or other disturbances; some to the presence of redundancy in a network, such that an alternative means of access can be substituted for any closure; others to the speed of recovery from a time of disruption until systems return to normal. Yet it all comes back to a similar idea. That like a rubber ball, strong yet flexible, designed to bounce back, something is resilient if it is strong enough to withstand the impacts of incidents like severe weather, and/or flexible enough to offer more than one option/way/route to users, and/or bounces back quickly to reasonable levels of performance.

It should be possible to look at any transport network, in any geography, of any mode, and assess its resilience. Ideally, multiple modes and geographies would be analysed in concert, as transport should act as an integrated system. Yet most studies of resilience or lack thereof in the transport discipline focus on only the road or rail networks, and only the private vehicles or passenger trains that use them respectively. This leaves multiple gaps in our understanding of transport resilience to different weather conditions, and one of these gaps is the lack of discussion about the resilience of bus services.

I cannot yet claim to be able to fill that gap, but I have just completed the analysis, write-up, and submission of a brief case study that perhaps starts to bridge it. And this case study indicates that buses might be one of the most resilient modes of transport available.

Furthermore, whilst there is some research into how people behave during disruption, it seems there is less consideration of their awareness of risk and resilience in the networks and services they are using, and how resilient this might make their behaviour. My short case study, however, provides some insight into the behaviour of public transport users, suggesting they are indeed resilient.

If you want to read my case study article, you’ll have to wait for its publication, but the key point is that where buses and rail run in parallel, the bus services are less disrupted, can divert if need be and still deliver the service, and can make up lost time more quickly than rail. The buses also seem to create redundancy, not just for themselves, but for the adjacent rail services. Finally, the number of bus trips rose sharply to and from places where rail passengers were likely to know that buses would be more reliable during the disruption.

I mentioned this to a former colleague, who suggested my discoveries should really be common sense. He also pointed out that the most vulnerable portions of the bus network were the depots and fuelling stations, which could easily be targeted for flood protection measures, for example, compared to the mile upon mile of train tracks needing improvements to resist those floods and ensure the operation of even a limited rail service.

Yet I later heard evidence that buses can be resilient even when the bus depot is inaccessible for many hours. In a talk I attended, a bus company manager explained how he, his drivers, and other staff improvised on the spot to keep a limited service running following a police closure of their depot’s access road. This won them great appreciation from their customers, and a flexibility, a resilience on the part of the not only the bus company and their passengers, but also the entire local community.

So an early finding in my PhD research: buses bounce back better than most transport options, their passengers know it, and the resilience of both buses and their passengers is rather unappreciated in wider transport research and practice.

The Bus on the Wheels goes Round and Round

This isn’t a blog about transport. This is a blog about transport analogies which I am writing in an attempt to describe the year now ending.

Picture an iconic American school bus. Big, yellow, snub-nosed and boxy. Inside, symmetrical rows of brown vinyl bench seats, no ergonomics, no seatbelts (or at least not in my day), no comfort unless you scrunched yourself down into a sky-ward-facing foetal position, knees against the back of the seat in front of you, head well-below the sight-line of the driver’s mirror.

I am not saying that 2016 has made me feel like a teenager again, riding that school bus with frozen hair in the darkness of a winter morning.

Personally, this year gone by has been one of maturation, a year of economic security, family building and learning. Even though I have become a student again, I have not been transported back to a retro lifestyle. My family and I have been driving modern transport; smooth, efficient, even innovative. But the world around me in 2016 seems to be on a different road in a different vehicle.

That vehicle is not the American school bus I described. If it were, I’d be a bit less concerned about where we are heading. There are worse places to go at night than depots filled with seas of yellow nestled by highway exits, or to set out each day to serve the future generations of the United States in their receipt of universal education. The vehicle I am thinking of is what the American school bus becomes when and where it is regenerated for a second life:

Amidst the volcanos and violence of Central America, school buses past their sell-by date are sold and refitted with large truck engines. They are given incredibly colourful paint jobs, and christened with religious slogans and iconography. They become public transport vehicles for people of all ages and purposes, and travel, overloaded, up and down mountain roads at impressive speeds with an appalling safety record.

Years ago, as a tourist in Central America, I was told that the drivers of these works of art do not trust themselves to safely convey their vehicle and its passengers between destinations. Rather they believe that God, Jesus, or Mary is responsible for their journey. Thus the religious symbols and the prayers that accompany every trip. If the bus plummets into a ravine, it will be down to a lack of faith rather than a lack of driver training.

Which seems to suit the events of 2016 and the type of vehicle that half the British and American populations have chosen for the rest of the us. These people have chosen faith over fact, trusting to outdated, overloaded, repurposed vehicles of the 20th century rather than trying to design and modify the emerging models of 21st century transport that could much better serve their needs. Nobody is much bothered if busloads of immigrants, war refugees, climate refugees, even children go over the edge. After all, it is no one’s fault that they fell if they did not pray enough, were not born in the right place at the right time, of the right faith. As the well-loved lives of celebrities were also brushed off their seats on the roof this year, the response may have been mournful, but the bus carried on its ill-starred journey.

And as 2017 looms ahead, where will the bus take us, willing and unwilling passengers and drivers alike? My mind turns to a rather prescient song from the 1980’s children’s television show, Fraggle Rock: Catch a Tail by the Tiger. I encourage anyone to look up the lyrics and you’ll see what I mean. We seem to be headed for a topsy-turvy 2017 where our 2016 ex-American school bus might well be going round on its wheels rather than the wheels going round on the bus.