Are Unitrans buses more aggressive than they used to be?

On a winter Tuesday morning in mid-January in severe (blustery and rainy) weather conditions I was riding my bicycle on the UCD campus in a chain of other bicycles westbound on Hutchison Dr just east of the Main Library bus stop. A stopped bus on the H line put on their left turn signal, started up, and began and continued to pull into the westbound traffic lane, forcing me and another adjacent cyclist into the oncoming, very traffic-filled eastbound lane. For several seconds (5-8) we were directly beside the bus, probably 2/3 of the way to the front, and the bus slowly but insistently essentially forced us out of the lane. The driver seemed to think that all they needed to do was signal their intentions and that it was our obligation to stop and/or get out of the way. Afterwards I looked behind me and observed that the bus could have waited 3-5 more seconds and had a clear lane to pull into.

This is a specific example of a more general attitude of bus driver entitlement, impatience and accompanying cyclist hostility that I have noticed develop in many Unitrans buses over the last year or two. Another case in point is the restriction in Hutchinson Rd. on campus just east of the library where I frequently observe buses signal, begin to play chicken and occupy both lanes, in spite of the fact that a cyclist has arrived first on the opposite side of the restriction and has the right of way.  I believe the law says that they need to stop, let previously arrived traffic clear, and then proceed, expecting cyclists that arrive after they have the right of way to pause. It used to be that the Unitrans drivers shared the road and waited until there was room to make their maneuvers. This no longer seems to be the case and I can only attribute it to a lack of appropriate training.  I am afraid there is a serious injury coming.

How are the drivers instructed to proceed and what are their “rules of engagement”. Is it expected that they comply with the law as they are supposed to everywhere in California? Or are they taught “might makes right” and to take the right of way even when it clearly doesn’t belong to them? Does anyone else get this feeling?

- Mont Hubbard, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

7 Responses to “Are Unitrans buses more aggressive than they used to be?”


  • I have seen the identical occurrences many times myself, including bus stops on Anderson and other city streets. It seems to be standard operating procedure for the buses to just barge their way into traffic using the rule the the right-of-way goes to the bigger vehicle. Legally, it does not. Also, where the road makes in S turn near the library, many buses cross over the centerline more than necessary and without regard to the right-of-way of oncoming bicycle traffic. I haven’t had an actually dangerous experience yet, but it has force me to apply my brakes and it’s very intimidating. It’s also demonstrative of a dangerous mindset.

    I have also had some very hair-raising experiences with Unitrans buses traveling extremely close to the bike lane on Anderson–unnecessarily so. The drivers should be informed that they are taking a very big risk doing this. Perhaps they think that they should intimidate bike riders to stay in the center of their lane. What they perhaps don’t realize is that where bike lanes are next to parked cars, the right half of that lane is really not available. It’s not simply a matter of choosing between the risk of getting doored or getting run over outright; if you get doored, you very possibly could get bounced into the traffic lane. Being another foot over to the left could save them the anguish and tragedy of running over a doored cyclist too.

    I fear that the psychology of this is that some of the bus drivers are not bike riders and don’t have a mindset that includes bicyclists or their needs. With so many bicycles in Davis, some very specific training about sharing the road with bicyclists is in order. Buses don’t own the road and they are potentially lethal when operated with little awareness of bicycles.

  • Dear Mont, Mike, and Others,

    Thank you for bringing these safety questions to Unitrans. As you probably know, I am an official at Unitrans (Assistant General Manager for Administration) as well as a member of Davis Bicycles! and on the Handlebar list serve. I should also mention that both our General Manager (Geoff Straw) and Assistant GM for Operations (Scott Weintraub) are everyday cyclists to the campus and around town, as are many of our drivers. So, please note that bicycle safety is something that we all take very seriously. Note also that we are working toward the same goals — providing safe and convenient alternatives to driving — and our efforts should be complementary not adversarial.

    That being said, your emails point out some errors and questionable judgments made by our drivers and suggest that these indicate deficiencies in our training. Unfortunately, with any large number of students — whether in a typical class or learning to be good bus drivers — there is a bell curve of abilities. There are those that are at the high end of the curve (the “A” students) who have learned to make good judgments and are very considerate of cyclists, pedestrians, and other traffic. There are also those at the lower end who never catch on to driving a large vehicle, who we try very hard to weed out early in the training program before they are ever on the road. Then there is that large group in the middle, who generally do a good job but sometimes make mistakes or do something dumb when they should know better, such as getting unnecessarily close to the bike lane. In general, they learn from their mistakes as they gain more experience and become better drivers. However, sometimes we need to point out their mistakes to make them aware of them. We always appreciate hearing about examples where they have done something wrong, so we can try to correct them more quickly or, if it is a recurring pattern, to get them off the road (and that would certainly include anyone who is using their bus to intimidate anyone or who thinks that “might makes right”).

    At the same time, I should also point out that what we ask our bus drivers to do can be very difficult. We know that bus riders want to have service that they can rely on to get to class, to work, or to appointments. And, as much as we stress that safety always comes first, it is sometimes hard when there are 60 people relying on you to get them to where they are going on time. Also, even with all the mirrors being adjusted and used properly, there are still some blind spots where the driver cannot see well. Perhaps, we can come up with some ideas that jointly provide better insight for bus drivers and cyclists as to the others’ perspective. One possibility would be for some members of DB! (and/or David Takemoto-Weerts) to attend a meeting of our trainers on a recurring basis. It might also help for some cyclists to be offered some basic bus driver training to be better equipped to know where they are less visible to the driver and to avoid those areas. (I believe Portland Tri-Met has some videos that offer both perspectives.) Perhaps that could be a topic at a future DB! meeting.

    Finally, let me talk about the narrow S-curve on Hutchison east of the library. This is a very difficult problem and the campus has applied for funds to get it widened to eliminate the ongoing conflict. The bus really must use the whole lane to pass through that stretch. The drivers are taught to let traffic that has already entered the curve to pass through before they enter. However, it gets difficult to continue to wait as more traffic enters while you are waiting. Again, it is a case where some drivers may be overly aggressive to get through while others may have already waited quite some time and think it is their turn. This is another area where we may be able to collaborate and come up with procedures that work better for both bikes and buses, because I can assure you that none of our drivers enjoy going through there.

    Let’s talk about next steps to provide better overall training. In the meantime, if a bus does something unsafe, please provide us with the time and 4-digit bus number so we can work with the individual driver.

    Thanks again for taking the time to relate your observations and concerns,
    Anthony

    • Anthony –

      As a cyclist in Davis, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had nothing
      but good experiences with Unitrans drivers.

      That said, I have seen this kind of behavior in bus drivers in *other*
      cities (Boston seems to recruit its bus drivers from a halfway house for
      recovering homicidal maniacs). Like most complex skills, learning to
      drive a bus would probably benefit a lot from frequent feedback.

      A lot of trucks and buses have a “How’s my driving?” sticker with an 800
      number to call, which is a very 1980s kind of data solution. I’d guess
      that the overwhelming number of calls are complaints, and probably a
      good fraction of those are due to the caller’s own bad driving and/or
      misunderstanding of the law. And there probably aren’t many calls.

      So, how about a SMS equivalent? Something like :

      How’s my driving?
      Thumbs up? Text “GOOD” to 530530.
      Thumbs down? Text “BAD” to 530530.

      The text messages should come in at near real-time, so after a shift is
      over, it would be pretty easy to correlate the GPS data from the bus’s
      route with any text messages that came in. Plot them on a map, along
      with GPS track, and you’ve got a great tool for daily feedback.

      Unfortunately, for both professional and non-professional drivers, the
      only feedback one gets is negative. The only evidence most people have
      to rely on to support the idea that they’re doing something right is an
      absence of accidents — a lack of negative feedback. Because accidents
      are relatively rare, it’s very likely that they are actually NOT good
      drivers, but they’ve lucked out so far.

      Negative feedback — especially infrequent, severe negative feedback –
      doesn’t work very well when it comes to learning. Text messages would
      make it easier for people to give feedback, and so you should get more
      positive feedback in absolute terms.

      It should also be cheap to set up, I think. There are a lot of free and
      very cheap commercial SMS gateway services.

      Russell

  • This is an excellent and thoughtful response that opens the door to improving the situation for biking in Davis. Thank you!

  • Very indirectly related to the theme of this e-mail correspondence:
    Jonathan Wooley and I have been talking about having a LAB-certified-bicyclist course and bicyclist trainer course taught here in Davis. I would be interested in taking it. Many of you maybe already have trained, but might like a refresher course. Our idea was to get a group of LAB-certified cyclists who would then offer bicycling safety courses to others in Davis. My immediate focus was the schools, especially the junior high/middle school ages. If we got funding assistance for the course or courses, we might also have a requirement that those who get free training put in “x” volunteer hours in teaching others safe cycling skills – sort of how the Master Gardener’s training works. I’m not suggesting that anyone in this e-mail (except myself) needs such training, but that the benefit of having certified trainers to train others in Davis would be valuable.
    Christal

  • And to take that thought a little further: How about a program that provids traffic school classes for cyclists like this one in Portland:
    http://www.momentumplanet.com/learning-share-road

    Regards…

  • Chicago has produced a video that attempts to provide feedback to both bus drivers and cyclists http://vimeo.com/7949969

    We can start showing this in bus driver training. Let me know if you have any comments about the content.

    Thanks,
    Anthony

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