The phrase security theater refers to the elaborate selling of airport security to the public through humiliating spectacle, like making people take off their shoes, with no safety value whatsoever. By the same token, prudence theater is the same kind of ritual of humiliating people, often workers, in the name of not wasting money. Managers who engage in prudence theater will refuse pay hikes and lose the best employees in the process, institute hiring freezes at understaffed departments and wonder why things aren’t working, and refuse long-term investments that look big even if they have limited risk and high returns. This approach is endemic to authoritarian managers who do not understand the business they are running – such as a number of do-nothing political leaders who make decisions regarding public transit.
I’ve talked a bunch about this issue in the context of capital investment, for example Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker, California’s Gavin Newsom, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, and New York‘s Andrew Cuomo, using phrases such as “Chainsaw Al” and “do-nothing.” But here I want to talk specifically about operations, because there is an insidious kind of prudence theater there: the hiring freeze. The MBTA and MTA both have hiring freezes, though thankfully New York is a little more flexible about it.
Both New York and Boston have very high operating costs, for both subways and buses. They have extensive overstaffing in general, but that does not extend to overstaffing at every department. On the contrary, some departments are understaffed. Adam Rahbee told me a year and a half ago that subway operations planning in New York was short on workers, in contrast to the overstaffed department he saw in London. Of course London on average has much lower costs than New York, but individual departments can still be short on manpower even in otherwise-overstaffed cities. If anything, leaving one department understaffed can cause inefficiencies at adjacent departments, making them in effect overstaffed relative to the amount of service they can offer.
Buses require active supervision by a centralized control center that helps drivers stay on schedule. New York currently has 20 dispatchers but is planning an increase to 59, in tandem with using new technology. Boston has 5 at any given time, and needs to staff up to 15, which involves increasing hiring to about 40 full-time workers and doing minor rearrangement of office space to give them a place to work. With too few dispatchers, drivers end up going off-schedule, leading to familiar bunching, wasting hundreds of bus drivers’ work in order to save money on a few tens of supervisors.
I went over the issue of bus bunching in a post from last summer, but for the benefit of non-technical readers, here is a diagram that explains in essence what the problem of chaos is:
The marble on top of the curve is unlikely to stay where it is for a long time, because any small disturbance will send it sliding down one side or the other. Moreover, it’s impossible to predict in advance which direction the marble will land in, because a disturbance too small to see will compound to a big one over time.
Chaotic systems like this are ubiquitous: weather is a chaotic system, which is why it’s not possible to predict it for more than about two weeks in advance – small changes compound in unexpected directions. Unfortunately, bus service is a chaotic system too. For the bus to be on schedule is an unstable equilibrium. If the bus runs just a little behind, then it will have to pick up more passengers on its way, as passengers who would have just missed the bus will instead just make it. Those extra passengers will take some extra time to board, putting the bus even further behind, until the bus behind it finally catches it and the two buses leapfrog each other in a platoon.
There are ways to mitigate this problem, including dedicated bus lanes and off-board fare collection. But they do not eliminate it – they merely slow it down, increasing the time it takes for a bus to bunch.
The connection between dispatching and chaotic bus schedules may not be apparent, but it is real. The transportation engineering academic community has had to deal with the question of how to keep buses on schedule; here, here, and here are three recent examples. The only real way to keep buses on schedule is through active control – that is, dispatching. A dispatcher can tell a driver that the bus is too far ahead and needs to slow down, or that it is behind and the driver should attempt to speed up. If the traffic light system is designed for it, the dispatcher can also make sure a delayed bus will get more green lights to get back on track, a technology called conditional signal priority, or CSP. This contrasts with unconditional transit signal priority, or TSP, which speeds up buses but does not preferentially keep them evenly spaced to prevent bunching.
Moreover, some of the people who have done academic work on this topic have gone on to work in the transit industry, whether for the MBTA (such as David Maltzan and Joshua Fabian) or for thinktanks or private companies (such as Chris Pangilinan). Specific strategies to keep the buses on track include CSP giving delayed buses more green lights, holding buses at the terminal so that they leave evenly spaced, and in some cases even holding at mid-route control points. Left to their own devices, buses will bunch, requiring constant correction by a competent dispatching department with all the tools of better data for detection of where bunching may occur as well as control over the city’s streetlights.
Managers’ point view vs. passengers’ point of view
When I talk to transit riders about their experiences, I universally hear complaints. The question is just a matter of what they complain about. In suburban Paris people complain plenty about the RER, talking about crowding and about how the system isn’t as frequent or reliable as the Metro. These are real issues and indicate what Ile-de-France Mobilités should be focusing its attention on.
Americans in cities with public transit talk about bunching. In New York I’ve routinely sighted platoons of two buses even on very short routes, where such problems should never occur, like the 3 kilometer long M86. A regular rail user who talked to me a few months ago mentioned three-bus platoons in Brooklyn on a route that has a nominal frequency of about 10 minutes.
From the perspective of the transit operator or the taxpayer, if buses are scheduled to arrive every ten minutes, that’s an expenditure of six buses per hour. From that of the rider, if the buses in fact come in platoons of two due to bunching, then the effective frequency is 20 minutes, and most likely the bus they ride on will be the more crowded one as well. What looks like a service improvement to managers who never take the system they’re running may offer no relief to the customers on the ground.
I wish my mockery of transit managers who don’t use their own system were facetious, but it’s not. In New York, some of the more senior managers look at NYCT chief Andy Byford askance for not owning a car and instead using the subway to get to places. Planner job postings at North American transit agencies routinely require a driver’s license and say that driving around the city is part of the job. Ignorant of both the science of chaos and the situation on the ground, the managers and politicians miss low-hanging fruits while waxing poetic about the need to save money.
Is anything being done?
In New York there are some positive signs, such as the increase in the number of dispatchers. The warm reception Eric Goldwyn and I got from some specific people at the MTA is a good sign as well. The problem remains political obstruction by a governor and mayor who don’t know or care to know about good practices. Cuomo’s constant sidelining of Byford has turned into a spectacle among New York transit journalists.
In Boston, the answer is entirely negative. Last week’s draft of the Focus40 plan, released by the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board (FMCB), unfortunately entirely omits dispatching and operational supervision from its scope. It includes a variety of investments for the future, some of which are welcome, such as the Red-Blue Connector. But it reduces the issue of bus timetable keeping to a brief note in the customer experience section that mentions “Computer Aided Dispatch / Automatic Vehicle Location technology.” Good data is not a bad thing, but it is not everything. Warm bodies are required to act on this data.
Thus prudence theater continues. Massachusetts will talk about reform before revenue and about spending money wisely, but it is run by people with little knowledge of public transportation and no interest in acquiring said knowledge. Its approach to very real issues of high costs is to cut, even when there are parts of the system that are underfunded and undermanned. Staffing up to 15 dispatchers at a time, raising the headcount to about 40 full-time workers, would have the same effect on ridership as literally hundreds of bus drivers through better control. Will the administration listen? As usual, I hope for the best but have learned to expect the worst.