Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fear and Loathing of the City Bus

MBTA Bus in the Night
As a cyclist, I doubt that I am alone in my strong dislike of city buses. They are enormous. They make frequent stops and wide turns. They have sizable blind spots. And their operators - overwhelmed with countless stimuli and the stress of keeping to a schedule - don't always notice cyclists in their path. All in all, it seems reasonable to be wary of these vehicles, and prudent to keep away from them whenever possible.

But as most fears, mine is not based on such rational ideas. What frightens me are things like the "heavy breathing." I will be riding along, when suddenly there is the sound of a most horrific heaving inches behind me, and I realise that a bus is dreadfully, unacceptably near. What exactly is responsible for the sound that buses make when they are braking I do not know, but it sends shivers through my body and makes me want to jump up on the curb in panic. A couple of times the bus stopped and "heaved" so closely behind me, that I could feel the heat of its terrifying dragon breath against my left calf.

My fear of buses can border on paranoia, and sometimes I am convinced that the driver is playing "chicken" with me. I can tell that they see me - they will sometimes look straight at me - yet they seem to intentionally try to squeeze me out in order to make their stop, or make the green light, or make a high-speed left turn as I am attempting to cycle straight through an intersection - figuring I'll stop out of sheer terror. I've been assured by bike messengers that the driver will yield if I don't give into them. But I lack the courage to play that game, and allow them to win every time.

Over the past two years I've overcome most of my fears about cycling in city traffic. Taxi cabs, large trucks - I am more or less okay with them. But the city bus continues to terrify me. Oh enormous, heaving metal beast... Some day, I will learn how to deal with you and my fears will be conquered.

41 comments:

  1. Perhaps Texas has a different breed of bus driver, as I've never had a problem with any transit or school bus. Come to think of it, our taxi drivers seem pretty docile as well. Lawn guys with brush sticking out the side of their trailers seem to be the most hazardous, though they aren't usually on the road at the same time as me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Please please, call the MBTA if you're hazed by a bus. They're starting a new training program on all new drivers, and will pull an experienced driver back for remedial training if they get complaints on them. There's a bus # on the back of every bus, and you can just note the date, time and location if you don't get the #.

    I do believe that the MBTA is serious about this, but they can't retrain people if they don't get feedback.

    One of the major changes that drivers are taught is never to pass a bike more than once- eliminating the "leapfrog" that can happen along a busy route. I've seen that policy in person- and I do believe that it's better than it was 2-3 years ago, but they definitely still have a ways to go. But they only retrain on a 3 year schedule unless there are complaints, so definitely complain if you think a driver is not sharing the road safely.
    @ Steve A, there are a LOT more busses here, and dollars to donuts the roads that we have to share with them are a LOT narrower than they are in Dallas

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ugh, that gives me flashbacks from those horrible shared bike/bus lanes in England. Of the two vehicles that should never share a lane in any circumstance, bicycles and buses are it!

    Fortunately, our Minnesota bus drivers are pretty easygoing. I don't know if it has to do with the numbers of bikes on the road (approximately 10,000 people commute via bike here every day) or if they have training or something, but they always yield to bikes. Also, even though I think the bus is going to pull in front of me when it is trying to pull away from its stop, it always seems to wait until I pass first, which means that the drivers are using the mirrors. I appreciate that!

    ReplyDelete
  4. In Columbus, OH the COTA buses are my #1 fear in town.
    I travel a main bus route to and from work 5 days a week and the morning bus drivers are the worse.
    I actually ride a road straight into downtown, but because so many people come to town in the morning via the highway, its fairly empty at 7am (actually my ride home... I work midnights and live downtown).

    Yet the bus drivers drive like they are straight out of "Mad Max".
    I've seriously wondered at times how you can have a license to drive folks around as haphazard as they do.

    And, they actually seem to enjoy being aggressive with bikers.
    I've seen my self and another bike rider dangerously tailgated by two different buses at the same time. Been squeezed between a bus and the curb a ton, and get buzzed by them frequently, only to have them stop short in front of me.

    After buses, its probably smart phones, pedestrians, cars, and smart phones that round out my top 5.
    Buses are definitely a strong #1, though.

    ReplyDelete
  5. cycler/Steve - I think an additional problem in the Boston area is that the buses use many of the same roads that are popular cycling routes.

    cycler, I've considered complaining and even entered the plate number of a bus once during a particularly disconcerting encounter a year ago. Good to know that this makes a difference.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for the post! I was terrified by a bus seeming to play an ever increasingly dangerous game of leapfrog with me the other day (in Melbourne, Australia). It's sad to hear is a common thing, but also good to read other people's experiences of dealing with it.

    Here - Melbourne, Australia - trams are the biggest public transport danger for cyclists. Getting 'tram tracked' involves your wheel getting caught in the tracks (tram tracks are on regular public roads) not being able to get out, and so eventually, inevitably falling over. This is super dangerous with oncoming car traffic and trams. People seem to get used to it, but I haven't yet.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I had a bus J hook me and then stop in my lane of travel a few days ago, forcing me to either swerve into traffic, or field test my new styrofoam beanie. I menatally noted the bus number, and meant to call when I got home, but got distracted. Thanks for the reminder.

    ReplyDelete
  8. SJP - That is a familiar scenario!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I second the suggestion to report any and all bad bus drivers! You may not see any immediate change, but it goes get collected as data and can establish a pattern if you keep at it. I report drivers if they honk too much because I dislike noise pollution!

    I also do a lot of non-standard road behaviours like waving to drivers (they can see me from the mirrors) to communicate that I am passing them when they're stopped so they're aware of someone like me.

    And most importantly, I just avoid routes frequented by buses if possible.

    ReplyDelete
  10. In over ten years of commuting along roads shared with buses I've had three incidents with buses, two of those serious. It's funny (not really...) what made them serious to me was the unapologetic disdain when I firmly, not rudely, told the drivers what they'd done. An apology is gold in my world.

    I know it's not cool but: get a mirror people! Ok, do whatever you want. Since I got over it and fitted a Mirrycle mirror on my bike, stress levels have plummeted. Could you imagine driving any other vehicle without knowing what's going on behind and to the sides?

    In our city (Toronto, Ont.) the drivers have been taking a lot of abuse lately, mostly for things beyond their control. Service cuts, choking traffic density, overloaded, late buses...what I'm getting at is I try and give them a break. If I'm going to pass them, I'll only do it if I know I'll be staying ahead of them for a good while. If a bus is signaling to enter traffic, I can wait a few seconds. The drivers are doing a job I just could not do, and I respect them for it. Just within the last couple of weeks, a driver got pepper sprayed because a rider didn't like that the bus was behind schedule...I mean really!

    ReplyDelete
  11. City buses do not scare me nearly as much as drivers reading or typing on their PDA's. I was shocked to hear a commenter on this blog report that he was doing it while driving. Hopefully he was kidding.

    I don't find buses to be particularly intimidating, but I do think they sometimes apply their are brakes to startle cyclists.

    That said, a co-worker recently told me his elderly aunt was run over on her scooter by a bus that backed over her. This happened in Malaysia where there are many scooters I traffic. I hate walking here because cars do NOT stop or slow for pedestrians. A taxi driver told me that people hold up their hand to signal the cars to stop. Amazingly, it worked. Perhaps try that
    On left turning buses.

    Buses will always pull over to make their stops. I know where they stop on my regular routes and either yield or go around them on the left.

    ReplyDelete
  12. We have some streets that are super narrow and buses are the only motor vehicle allowed. I avoid these like the plague because the bus will sit on your shoulder the whole time or I will stop on the sidewalk and wait for it to pass.

    My husband on the other hand just happily bikes next to it. It's all normal he says. Barf. Silly Dutch people.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I do not love the city bus, but ours here cannot generally move that quickly. The same reason I never take a bus (too slow) helps me when I am on my bike. In other places, I think I'd be downright terrified of the bus. The ones that do go quickly -- like private buses -- I do find really scary, but mercifully there are fewer of those.

    Private garbage trucks are what terrify me. When Giuliani closed the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island as a thank you for that borough's part in electing him, all of NYC's garbage went from being transported by barges to being driven out of the city by private garbage contractors who race between three transfer stations. They are so thunderously loud that there is a dedicated section on the nyc.gov website where you can report a problem with the noise they make. The drivers are wild, and, unlike city sanitation workers, are beholden only to their small private companies [mob controlled, in some cases] and bound by market conditions to drive as quickly as possible, and, unfortunately wildly. They kill more people than any other vehicle on the road in NYC. There is virtually no enforcement of traffic violations in NYC and it is always an "accident" if a driver kills someone. So I steer well away from these trucks because the NYPD is on their side not mine!

    ReplyDelete
  14. @ Alcyon: +1 on the mirror. I will not ride in traffic without one. I just finished building a Surly LHT, and my desire to continue using a Mirrycle on the end of my left drop (where I'm used to having it) factored into my decision to go with downtube shifters vs. barends. OK, I like DT shifters, but also, the Mirrycle is *that* important to me...

    ReplyDelete
  15. V., Always position yourself so that you can see the bus's (huge) rearview mirror(s). In that way, the driver can see you. In fact, there is a sign on the back of every bus advising us to do that. I don't know whether you are award that the MBTA has hired MassBike to train their drivers in sharing the road with bikes.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I don't have as much trouble with transit buses (public transportation? in the suburbs?) but I've had a couple of near misses with school buses. Big vehicles with limited visibility are somewhat terrifying to be around, I agree.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Whoa! Completely different experience up here. All the Saskatoon buses I have interacted with give me better space then the cars do. I have had them offer me free rides in the rain, since they have those bike racks ont he front. They pace behind me on short roads, giving me lots of space and keeping other cars from buzzing me.

    I have never been leapfroged and hadn't ever thought about it until cycler posted that.

    Locally, buses are some of the most polite drivers on the road.

    I guess that it might have something to do with the madly grinning and waving toddler on the back of my bike who LOVES buses.... but they are polite even when behind me and they can't see her.

    Very different sustainible transport culture up here, I guess. I have the "we're all in this together" feeling when interacting with buses.

    ReplyDelete
  18. In Chicago the buses just pull out into the lane after their stop. It doesn't matter if I'm in my car, on my bike, or in my big work van. At least they're predictable.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Katherine,

    If you aren't comfortable bunny-hopping tramway tracks, you need wider tires. I have experimented with the 41 mm-wide tires of my "Urban Bike" and Seattle's new tramway tracks, and they won't fall into the gap, no matter how close to parallel you traverse the tracks. If your bike has 700C wheels, then a 650B conversion may give you the room you need. The cost is less than an emergency room visit.

    Velouria, complaining about buses has helped tremendously in Seattle. For every of my three complaints in the last decade, I got a friendly letter from Metro saying that they had talked to the driver, and that they were including bicycle safety into their driver training. The results have been noticeable.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Our local bus service provider doesn't listen to complaints so there's no feedback loop. Drivers are highly variable and the whole system is chaos.
    The thing that works for me then is to talk to the driver. Starting with being fair but forceful. Often times they'll get it and back off. If they don't...then the dialogue escalates. Pens and phones come out, though they don't do any good. Taking a picture of the driver always puts them on the back foot.
    Really, it's all left on the road so later I can have a life.

    ReplyDelete
  21. @ Alcyon

    I'm a Toronto cyclist as well, and I'm in a similar frame of mind. I can be frustrated when they screw up and don't seem to acknowledge it... but I also respect them for when they're doing their job well.

    On the subject of this post (fear of buses due to their big, intimidating presence), I find that it helps to remind myself that it would be worse without them. That is to say, if all those transit commuters were in many cars instead of one bus, it would be an even more unpleasant traffic situation.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I am FAR more fearful of taxis than I am of MBTA buses. For the most part, bus drivers are courteous, careful and trained. That is almost never the case with taxi drivers, and most of my near-misses have involved taxis-- far more than any other type of vehicle I've had to share the road with. And for some reason, taxi drivers seem to share a collective deficiency somewhere in their brains that regulates looking into the right-hand mirror when pulling over for a fare, or they lack the gene for doing so, or something. Oh, and for using turn signals, too.

    I have trained myself to automatically switch modes and enter full-fledged defensive mode whenever I spot a taxi anywhere near me. Buses, not as much. The way I see it is this: if a taxi driver makes an egregious error, the worst that happens is they are ticketed. You can't lodge a complaint about a taxi driver and expect any consequence. If a bus driver makes a similar mistake and a complaint is filed, they can be suspended, or even lose their job. They do take safety more seriously. Still, I an see how buses can be intimidating.

    ReplyDelete
  23. There are days when I am convinced that the bus driver has control over that air-release (or whatever it is) and that they deliberately let it out when they are right next to me... it always makes me jump, as well.

    I have had a few run-ins with MBTA buses and their drivers over the last several years of riding in and around Boston; but considering the shear number of buses I pass or get passed by in a given week, the ratio of actual "incidents" is thankfully very low.

    The one time that comes to mind most readily, is a time I was commuting to work and a bus ahead of me pulled into a bus-stop, so I began passing on the left (since it was out of the lane)... as I was about 1/2 way finished, I noticed the driver check his mirror, lock eyes with me, and then pull out abruptly, pushing me into the oncoming lane. The bus was still coming up to speed and I was traveling a bit faster, so I edged up to the front and extended my arm to indicate I wanted to get right, fully expecting that the driver would notice this and yield. He did not, and accelerated (!!) and proceeded to yell something at me (I could not hear what). He then sped by. Thankfully the oncoming lane was empty this whole time... now, mind you, when I began to pass the bus had it's right directional on and I passed to the left. I was understandably upset.

    Come to find out later in the day a friend of mine was on this very bus, saw the whole incident, and reported the driver.

    Ride safe!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Oh yeah, taxis. Once I was enjoying a refreshing beverage whilst riding. It was quite good and I was at the bottom. You know, the slushy part. I was on the sharrow doing and ok speed. A taxi, with driver, came up right behind me (no other traffic but us) and laid on his horn, moved around and tried to side swipe me.
    Then he pulled over to let his fare out. Ok, I guess he wanted to fight or something.
    Suffice it to say he got the rest of my delish drink in his lap.
    It's ok, I was done with it anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Taxi drivers can be pretty bad, but for some reason their behaviour is intuitively understandable to me. Maybe it's just because I anticipate the most aggressive move from them and simply act pre-emptively, I don't know - but I find them almost soothingly predictable. Also, taxis are small, so it is easier to maneuver around them, as well as to stay out of their blind spot. A bus will do weird things, like sneak up on me from behind and cut me off, or not yield when coming straight at me on a left turn, even though I am already half way across an intersection. If a taxi does that, at least I can maneuver around them, but a bus is huge.

    Apropos Anne Welsh's comment - I am very careful to position myself so that the bus driver can always see me, but my problem is never with blind spot incidents - it's with incidents when the driver is almost certainly aware of me, but chooses to execute a dangerous move anyway because they are in a hurry. Also, things like riding very-very closely behind me when I take the lane instead of going around me - which I suspect is designed to intimidate me into pulling over so that they can pass without changing lanes.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I agree with Anonymous at 11:16 - I do appreciate the fact that buses reduce the number of cars on the road. But, they do scare me.

    One of the main roads that I use is practically an expressway. This means that buses pass me at 50mph. Terrifying. Also there is something about the air brakes engaging that sets off my startle reflect.

    I suspect that statistically, there are fewer conflicts with buses than with cars, but we've had some terrifying incidents in Portland in which pedestrians and cyclists have been killed.

    In order to feel safe, I need to trust that the drivers of these enormous vehicles are watching out for me. I'm confident that most are. But not all. Last year, a bus driver wrote a post on his personal blog entitled "Kill this bicyclist," in which he vented his homicidal rage toward a cyclist he encountered on his route. Scary. Similarly, while being shuttled back to my carpool ride from a charity bike ride, I encountered a driver who rolled down her window repeatedly to yell at cyclists who were violating one rule or another. She seemed oblivious to the fact that her own bus was filled with cyclists. These incidents don't do much for my feelings of trust.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I just want to add, I do believe that bus drivers do an important, difficult, and stressful job. I have mostly had positive encounters with drivers. A few times, while walking, I've had drivers stop and offer me a ride "up the hill." I've always been within a 100 yards of home (it's always "up the hill" to get home from every direction), but I've appreciated the gesture.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Re appreciating buses - I completely agree, and these feelings are not mutually exclusive. I appreciate buses as an essential transportation option and I respect bus drivers for their difficult job. But as a cyclist I've also come to be wary of buses after numerous close calls. As CJ points out, the stress of the job itself can cause bus operators to behave dangerously toward cyclists, and while I understand the situation from their POV, I still must consider my own safety.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Velouria said...
    "Over the past two years I have conquered most of my fears about cycling in city traffic. Taxi cabs, large trucks - I am more or less okay with them. But the city bus continues to terrify me. Oh enormous, heaving metal beast... Some day, I will learn how to deal with you and my fears will be conquered."

    Deal with your fears is fine. Loosing your fear not so much.

    Fear is what keep us vigilant to our surroundings. Where apathy and complacency can kill us. So stay afraid of that bus and live until tomorrow.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Well, the way I see it is that vigilance and awareness result in successful evasive maneuvers, while downright fear can result in panic and can end badly. For that reason I think that actual fear is not useful, and that the desirable emotion to cultivate is a calm mistrust. That is more or less how I feel about taxis, and it has been very helpful.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I'm sure there's a lot a variation across communities. Seattle bus drivers are awesome. More than once I've had bus drivers wave me through when they could have asserted their right of way. They tend to be very attentive to what's going on around them. Certainly not perfect. Bad things happen from time to time. But I do believe they're sincerely trying. One of our local bike related blogs is written by a bus driver (http://velobusdriver.wordpress.com/). Check it out for a friendly view from the other side.

    Taxis in Seattle are annoying. They drive erratically, make sudden changes in speed, turn without signaling, and think nothing of blocking the bike lane. I'm sure some of this is due to the need to pick people up from random locations. So I cut them some slack, but they still worry me.

    The other scary group are drivers of big pickups and SUVs. I don't mean to stereotype these drivers. Most are good and considerate, but we've lost two Seattle area cyclists in the last week. One to a big pickup and one to a hit and run SUV, which is still at large. If you're in the Seattle area and see a brown SUV with a chrome roof rack, tinted windows, and signs of a recent collision, please note the license number and inform the police.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Rich, for some reason here in NJ I find SUVs that are either all-black or all-white to stereotypically be the most aggressive/inattentive. I don't know what it is about the people who buy them, but almost every time I've almost been hit, it's been by one of those (including one guy who actually doubled back and TRIED to hit me after a verbal exchange).

    ReplyDelete
  33. I can explain the noise you're hearing when the bus is braking. Bus brakes (and virtually all heavy truck brakes) are activated by compressed air. Since the bus can not compress enough air to activate all of the brakes on demand, there are several tanks of air onboard to provide for that demand. The "breathing" sound you're hearing is the air rushing from the tanks to chambers on the brakes.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Busses have air brakes. The sound of air releasing means that the driver is applying the brakes and slowing down (possibly for you).

    ReplyDelete
  35. Listen,

    I know I am pretty late in that conversation but there is nothing paranoid in your fears. It's actually good ole' survival instinct.

    Now, I don't know about Boston, but in Montreal, city buses do kill cyclists. ALL THE TIME. And they don't care... Bus drivers mostly do not give a f*ck if they hit cyclists because we are in their way. And they are not ashamed of saying it plain, writing it to newspapers!

    That's actually very funny as it was one of my earliest posts.
    http://montrealize-montrealize.blogspot.com/2011/07/sleeping-with-ennemy.html

    I personally think public transportation vehicles are the most dangerous ones on the roads for cyclists because we do not expect them to be the a$$holes they (very often) can be. Most cyclists are passionate fans of public transport so we romanticise our relationship with it.

    Anyways, that's my theory, but be careful... In here, many a cyclist ended up under the wheels of a city bus to the point that DNA had to be used to identify the person...

    ReplyDelete
  36. Buses are actually my favorite sharers of the road. Maybe it's because the drivers have to go through additional training, but I find that they are more likely than other drivers to be aware of whether bicycles are around, especially since they have to constantly cross over the bike lane to get to their stops. If more drivers in L.A. drove like bus drivers it would be a safer place.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Instead, of feeling fearful of buses, I feel they are on 'my side'. In fact, this has been my experience. Several times, the buses here (in Atlanta), have seen me and paused a little longer, and even held up the traffic behind them, waved me on even, in order to allow me to cross a street. Our buses perhaps feel more compassion to bicycle riders? Perhaps they understand that we are both 'alternative' forms of transportation, and thus in a group that is fighting for our rights. Our buses are all equipped with a front bicycle rack. The first and only day that I took a bus due to a flat tire, the driver got out (without me asking) to help me load the bike. Very nice and accomodating. It was only I that was anxious as I felt like I was holding the whole bus up along with the traffic behind it. Because of all this, I have warm feelings toward buses! Of course, I respect their strength and would avoid their blind spots at all costs, but I feel they are my protectors.
    Susurrus

    ReplyDelete
  38. oops, I was also going to mention, since there was not a way to do it on the 'voting' post, that I would like to see you keep the old header, perhaps on some pages, and have a new one on other pages. OR perhaps rotate them. It is a very beautiful photo, looking so restful and content. Susurrus

    ReplyDelete
  39. Ugg. I cannot tell you the run-ins with buses I've had in Mpls. All as a pedestrian or car driver. They run red lights like no-ones business. I used to walk to work in the winter (since changed jobs) and could report two buses or more on my way to work with a clear red before they were entering the intersection. I think they got tired of me reporting drivers. :(

    ReplyDelete
  40. The buses on Market Street, here in San Francisco, are also terrifying. They'll fly around you at top speed only to cut you off and slam on the brakes at the bus stop less than 100 feet ahead of you. Of course I always immediately pass them and they catch up and do it again (repeat several times for the next 2 miles). I definitely feel safer riding in the commute pack when the bus is looming- the bus drivers seem less prone to those shenanigans when there's a swarm of cyclists travelling together.

    ReplyDelete
  41. Wow -
    Los Angeles is way ahead of Boston on Metro buses.

    Theses things are huge here - like 90 feet long and they're all over the place. I call them giant caterpillars, because of the fold in the middle - which lets them turn corners.

    Exceptionally calm people drive them. In LA cars cut in front of them just as often as they cut in front of cyclists.

    For the bus drivers a cyclist is a small, small dot 100 feet away. So I never sneak up on a bus - I give them 5 feet. And I only pass when they are stopped. I can follow a slow bus until it's safe to pass.

    These extremely well behaved buses even give way to salmon cyclists here. And they all have racks on the front for two bikes. Handy if you ride too far...

    The only real complaint is that they create a huge wake - so when a bus passes you at speed, you can be blown over. in the bike lane. Buses generally pass with the three foot clearance. All the drivers have listened to my one man crusade to point this out. And it seems to be working - most now move halfway into the next lane to pass.

    Have no fear - if you work at talking to the drivers, tell them your issues and listen to their perspective, things will work out.

    ReplyDelete