Ride Quality: The Driver’s Role

In my series on streetcars, I’ve been groping toward constructing a coherent view about technology choice, a hugely expensive and political issue in transit development.  Since this is a blog rather than a book, I’m thinking out loud, engaging with comments, and revising without erasing.  The effect has probably been jerky and lumbering, with lots of small lateral motions that evoke the feel of riding a bus.

Speaking of ride quality, a reader asks:

Do you know if there are any cities that make a point of ensuring their bus drivers provide a smooth ride? In my experience, even with the same model bus on the same route, some bus drivers manage a vastly more pleasant and less jerky ride. So I’m just thinking that this aspect of the bus experience should be technically feasible to improve…

Good training covers this, but my own hunch is that drivers are good at ride quality based not on training but on how sensitive they are as people.  A sensitive driver will constantly make unconscious choices that produce a smoother ride for her, regardless of whether she’s just driving her own car or driving a bus.  A person who’s just not sensitive to quality of ride is unlikely to be made more sensitive by the kind of training that bus drivers get.
But I’d be interested in other perspectives, especially from bus drivers and people who know them.

32 Responses to Ride Quality: The Driver’s Role

  1. Chris Smith August 4, 2009 at 8:39 am #

    There’s one factor no driver can overcome. A bus pulling over to the side of a street is generally going to tilt because of the camber of the street (curb extension stops mitigate this).
    Streetcar tracks are engineered to be on a level surface, generally with the platform extending to the rails so the vehicle does not have to swerve to serve a stop.

  2. EngineerScotty August 4, 2009 at 9:38 am #

    One relevant detail for those of us in Portland, Orygun, is it rains a lot. Thus, the streets are generally designed with noticeable slopes to drain off the water; especially major thoroughfares. At intersections where such thoroughfares cross, even passenger cars get bounced around. (One notorious example where I live is the intersection between TV Highway and SW Murray).
    I don’t know if drier locales design roads differently.
    Obviously, a dedicated bus lane can provide for its own drainage, and present a more level surface for the bus. OTOH, if you put in a dedicated bus lane, then a bulk of the cost savings of busses vs streetcars disappears.

  3. EngineerScotty August 4, 2009 at 9:39 am #

    For some reason, the bus at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is coming to mind… :)

  4. Michael August 4, 2009 at 10:13 am #

    That’s certainly a fair point, but there are factors that good driving can overcome. And since few streetcar advocates are suggesting replacing all buses with streetcars, it is quite reasonable to focus on the user experience of buses as a mode as well.
    [I am the “reader” from the post.]

  5. EngineerScotty August 4, 2009 at 10:45 am #

    Now being more serious… one wonders if there is some way of objectively measuring ride quality (or measuring objective, observable parameters which correlate to ride quality). It’s one thing to tell a driver to not tromp on the gas, and to start pulling into a stop as early as possible; it’s another to be able to tell a driver exactly what they did wrong, and how to improve.
    Knowing the route well is probably one important point–a driver that knows where the potholes and the damaged pavement is may be better able to avoid them (and do so gently)–and depending on the locale, report problems to the local public works department (who generally will put it on the projects list and get to it sometime…)
    Institutional attitudes probably play a part as well. Some transit authorities have a better spirit of public service than do others. In places where labor and management do not have good relations, issues of ride quality (which, if mandated by management, become a “working conditions” issue) may be treated as a bargaining chip (one which is not valuble to either side). In transit systems whose mission is primarily social service (and whose customers consist mostly of the transit-dependent), one might encounter attitudes that passengers are lucky to HAVE a bus to ride, and shouldn’t be griping about issues such as ride quality. Conversely, when transit systems face competition (from other transit systems, or from the automobile), quality may be one parameter which is optimized.
    Finally, vehicle maintenance is also important (and largely outside the driver’s control).

  6. Jeffrey Bridgman August 4, 2009 at 11:37 am #

    It is common in Japan for bus drivers to gently announce when they are about to make a turn, or start, stop, etc.
    Just that little heads up from the driver really shows courtesy and give you just enough notification to brace yourself, because if you aren’t looking out the front windows, you don’t really know for sure what’s coming next.

  7. smably August 4, 2009 at 11:57 am #

    I suspect that part of the problem is schedules that are too tight, so drivers feel that they have brake and accelerate hard just so they don’t fall behind. That’s one easy thing transit agencies could change to improve ride quality. (Not too much, though, or riders will end up sitting at timing points, which might be just as bad as a poor ride.)

  8. EngineerScotty August 4, 2009 at 12:28 pm #

    One famous treatise in the field of psychology is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which arranges human needs in a hierarchy from basic survival needs (food, water) at the bottom, to more abstract sources of happiness (self-actualization and such) at the top. The paper was controversial when written, and is still controversial, but its influence cannot be disputed.
    A similar model can be applied, of course, to transit. I was going to make one up :), but then discovered this paper written by researchers at the University of Florida, after doing some research into the question by surveying transit users. (I have no comment, pro or con, on the soundness of this paper or its research methodology; mainly because I’m not sufficiently qualified in the subject matter to offer an informed opinion thereon).
    The “Maslow Hierarchy of Transit Needs” as documented in the paper, is a five-level pyramid, with the most basic needs at the bottom. The articulated needs (starting with the most basic) are as follows–all text is quoted from the paper.
    * Safety and security. Personal safety, safety for personal property, familiarity with route, mode, and destination.
    * Time>. Trip efficiency, in-vehicle time, waiting time, transfers, walk time, trip chaining.
    * Societal acceptance. Acceptance. Personal and peer/society attitudes toward modes (for or against).
    * Cost. Best value. Fixed (vehicle, assurance) and variable (gas, care, tolls, parking).
    * Comfort and convenience. Better travel experience. Comfort. More reliability. Easy access.
    I’ll post the hierarchy that I was about to pluck out of thin air for comparison in a follow-up post; but a few things stuck out.
    * What Jarrett calls “mobility” corresponds most directly to the “Time” level in the study–where can you go and how long will it take. Only “safety” is rated higher, and in the developed parts of the world, safety of transit systems are generally given (major accidents are rare; and the main safety concern that most US transit users seem to have is a fear of encountering hoodlums, not a fear that their bus or train is going to crash). In other parts of the world, safety frequently takes a back seat–not a month goes by, it seems, without a report of a train wreck with multiple casualties (often in the dozens) in a developing nation.
    * Comfort, which I and others have often claimed as an advantage of rail over bus, ranks lowest! Jarrett’s suspicion that it doesn’t matter much might be confirmed.
    * On the other hand, “societal acceptance”, which many of us like to ignore as irrelevant (or wrong-headed to consider), ranks in the middle, ahead of more “objective” factors such as cost and comfort. This survey focused on transit users; though it would be interesting to poll developers and lenders to see what they think. This result might lend credence to the theory that transit-oriented development might be better served with rail (assuming that this is the transit authority’s goal).
    Jarrett–if I may be a bit presumptuous :), feel free to turn this into a main page posting, if you think it’s relevant. I think that actual research into what transit users want, as opposed to what planners, politicians, and amateur kibbitzers such as myself might think they want, is highly important.

  9. Beige August 4, 2009 at 12:29 pm #

    When I drive my car, priority one is avoiding collision. Priority two is minimum fuel consumption, which in large part is the same method as priority one: Look way ahead, plan ahead, pay attention, be smooth and gentle. That also takes care of passenger comfort.
    Most of the bus operators drive as though they hate the management and want to run as much diesel through the engine as possible and wear out the brakes as fast as possible. If the passengers get motion sickness, so much the better. I’m sitting in the back of the bus and I can see that stop sign, why are you alternating between max power and hard braking on the way to the stop?
    But mostly that’s how people drive cars. Don’t bother looking out the big window in front, don’t plan ahead, rush headlong into whatever happens to be ahead and mash the brake at the last second if needed.
    Maybe some bus operators can comment? Do people just take up driving the bus the same way as they drove their cars all along? Are the smooth operators people who always drove their cars carefully? Do drivers (a very few of them) suddenly start taking driving seriously once they become professional bus drivers, and start paying attention and planing ahead?
    It’s not at all clear to me that driving like a madman actually gets you ahead in city traffic. (After all, I literally (measured by GPS) average the same speed on a bicycle as buses do. Spend enough time stopped along the way and you could go the speed of light the rest of the time and still have a slow average speed.) But the bus is always running late, right? Hurry hurry hurry and maybe we can catch up. Not in traffic you can’t, but I suppose it feels faster.

  10. EngineerScotty August 4, 2009 at 12:56 pm #

    Here’s my pulled-out-of-my-nose taken on a Maslow Hierarchy for Transit, simply for comparison. Again running from most basic (important) to least.
    * Access. Does the mode serve my current location and my destination, at all? Right now, I can’t take Tri-Met to get to Mount Hood (you could in the past); so Tri-Met is useless to me for that trip.
    * Safety and security. My definition of this is pretty much the same as that presented in the paper. Am I likely to get mugged, killed, or have my stuff stolen while making the trip?
    * Reliability. Can I depend on the service making its commitments? If the Greyhound bus coming to my town is frequently two hours later (or one our earlier) than its scheduled time, the service is not very useful to me. A Greyhound bus that arrives within ten minutes of its scheduled time is more useful; even if it only runs once per day. (Note that minor deviations from published time and/or frequency don’t count here–I can live with the bus being five minutes late. Five hours late, though, and the service is unusable).
    * Time and convenience. What Jarrett calls “mobility”; what the paper calls “time”. How far do I have to walk, how long do I have to wait, hos long do I have to ride, and do I have to transfer? Is fare payment easy and convenient, or do I need exact change everywhere I go? Is there sufficient information available, presented in a useful form, for me to make informed trip-planning decisions (including routing around delays or service disruptions, if necessary?)
    * Comfort. This refers to basic issues like ride quality, seating vs standing, are the seats too hard or too cramped, climate control. Can something useful be done while I’m riding the bus or train (reading, working on computer)? Likewise, are the stations/platforms/stops comfortable–
    * Cost. Cost to the user, obviously. (Externalized costs are another issue, of course; but many people are more than happy to externalize their costs). Pretty much the same as in the study. It is useful to distinguish three types of cost–incremental costs (what do I pay for an additional trip) vs access costs (what must I pay to have this mode available to me) vs system costs (what must I pay, as a member of society, to have this mode available to society?) For personal autos, frequently the biggest cost is the access cost (the price of the car, and fees and taxes levied thereon); this is especially true in the US, where fuel prices are relatively low. If you own a vehicle, and don’t have to pay to park when you get to your job; using transit frequently makes no sense, absent some other motivating factor (such as concern for the environment).
    * Amenities. Niceties which don’t provide a direct mobility or comfort benefit, but which may make the trip more pleasant or productive–does the vehicle/platform/station have WiFi? Restrooms? Food and beverage service (whether it be a dining car, or a vending machine)? Nice art hanging on the walls?
    * Societal acceptance. Being a nerd, my (uninformed) gut instinct is to put this on the bottom; but some users simply won’t use certain modes/routes/etc. due to various cultural prejudices. Dislike for busses among upper classes in much of North America is well-documented. Many transit services (chiefly long-distance services in the US) sell first-class tickets where, for a premium price, one can have nicer amenities, a comfier seat, and segregation from the riffraff–and don’t think for a minute that the last isn’t important. And bus segregation was an important concern for the US civil rights movement.
    Obviously, my list is a bit more fine-grained than the one in the paper. The top of my list (the bottom of my pyramid) is an item (access) that appears to be considered a “given” in the paper. The big difference, as noted above, is the inversion of social issues and “comfort”; but as a nerdy computer guy, I’m perhaps less sensitive to certain cultural attitudes and cues than are most people–or so I like to think.

  11. Michael August 4, 2009 at 2:55 pm #

    “I think that actual research into what transit users want, as opposed to what planners, politicians, and amateur kibbitzers such as myself might think they want, is highly important.”
    This, definitely. But there is currently little research like this, and so any conclusions now are questionable. For instance, it’s unlikely that the “hierarchy” aspect of the hierarchy really applies in transit. Even the linked paper has this: “It also demonstrated that a lower motivator need not be substantially satisfied before one can move onto higher motivators.”
    Basically I’d suggest looking at hard data from such research, but taking the theories themselves with a large grain of salt. In fact, I’d even suggest that the folk psychology of introspective and observant transit advocates may be currently of more use.

  12. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 4, 2009 at 5:22 pm #

    Thanks, Scotty. I will definitely pick up the Maslow hierarchy as the subject for a main post.
    I think my notion of “mobility” — or rather “mobility and access which in this case are the same thing” encompasses what this taxonomy calls Access, Reliability, and “Time and Convenience.” But re the word convenience, see here:

  13. EngineerScotty August 4, 2009 at 6:00 pm #

    Gotcha regarding “convenient”–it’s just that the word “convenient” is so convenient to use.
    You mention four possible synonyms in the above post (access distance, service span, frequency, reliability), all having to do with mobility. And of course, these were intended as examples of more precise terms to describe transit parameters than “convenient”; and wasn’t intended as an exhaustive list.
    The things I had in mind by “convenient” have to do with issues such as fare payment/collection, being able to figure out the trip/route, being able to get to the platform without having to run across six lanes of highway traffic, etc–all of which you’ve covered extensively in the blog. Hong Kong, with its Octopus card system, is by far the best system for fare collection that I’ve encountered. (Tri-Met, and MAX specifically, is fine for those who have a pass; but buying a single-ride ticket for MAX is a minor pain in the ass).
    On the other hand, I remember train rides from downtown Hong Kong to my (now-deceased) mother-in-law’s apartment in the New Territories requiring three transfers (two MTR lines, the KCR west rail, and the NT light rail); the bus, although a bit slower, was more–uh-oh–convenient.

  14. Pedestrianist August 4, 2009 at 9:24 pm #

    I’m curious about how agencies can minimize jerkiness operationally. How many agencies stick drivers to a particular route every day (or maybe a couple different routes)? How many keep drivers assigned to one specific model of bus?
    I was just thinking of this for the umpteenth time while riding home on the 10-Townsend in SF. For some reason, that bus seems to attract the jerkiest drivers. I’ve wondered if it might be drivers more accustomed to larger buses that handle differently than the undersized coaches Muni runs on the 10. Of if that particular model has bad braking/accelerating.
    I’m not talking about garden variety sloshing of passengers back and forth; a rider standing on the ten is likely to have a pole jerked out of his or her hand by the jerking :-/

  15. Michael August 4, 2009 at 9:57 pm #

    “I’m curious about how agencies can minimize jerkiness operationally.”
    Hm. Maybe you could attack the problem by making the pedals take more effort to press…. I’ve found my own stop and go jerkier in cars that have pedals which translate a light touch into heavy action. Extrapolating to buses, something like that could be a simple and cheap mechanical solution that shifts default driver behavior.

  16. Michael August 4, 2009 at 10:00 pm #

    (I guess that’s “ride quality: the bus’s role”, but it makes it easier for the driver to do the right thing.)

  17. Alon Levy August 4, 2009 at 10:07 pm #

    I don’t remember having major bounces near curbs in Singapore. In fact, as best as I remember, Singaporean roads are flat, with grate openings at the ends of the street providing drainage.

  18. SpyOne August 4, 2009 at 10:15 pm #

    Jarrett is, I think, right when he attributes a main cause to sensitivity, but I don’t think it is sensitivity to ride quality issues, but rather sensitivity to others. Simply put, I believe the drivers who deliver a better ride quality are the ones who care, or care more greatly, about the comfort of the people in their care.
    As Scotty points out, institutional attitude is a contributing factor, but I think even in services that only serve customers with no other choice you will find drivers who care for their passengers as people, and even in the most luxurious service on earth you will find drivers who are just punching the time clock to get a check, and who regard their customers as an unavoidable annoyance.
    Scotty wonders if there is a way to objectively measure ride quality. I can think of a few.
    One is an accelerometer. Aside from emergencies, such as getting cut off in traffic, there is no reason why a bus should ever experience jackrabbit starts or heavy braking. I will bet that 90% of the times that a bus exceeds 1/10G (changing speed by more than 3.2ft/sec^2 or roughly 1m/sec^2) it is because the driver is behind schedule, or afraid of falling behind schedule, and is trying to gain a few precious seconds. This is the driver who approaches red lights by gently slowing (since there is no point in getting to the light faster just to wait longer), but barrels down on stops and then jams on the brakes (since the amount of time stopped it what’s fixed there). Or perhaps he is gunning the gas in an effort to make it through the intersection before the light changes. An accelerometer linked to a recorder will give a report on how often, and by how much, extreme braking or acceleration occur, and that could be used at the driver’s Performance Review. Ideally, it should be combined (and cross-referenced) with a dashboard cam, to show that an incident of heavy braking was caused by a car suddenly pulling into his lane, or a passenger suddenly appearing at a stop.
    A vertical accelerometer would also be good: it would measure the perceived “bump” to the passenger by detecting the sudden up-and-down motion of the bus when hitting a pothole or crossing a street or running over a dime or whatever. This should be cross-referenced to GPS data, to detect where the bumps are happening as well as how severe they are.
    A third accelerometer will detect the lateral Gs felt by the passengers as the bus takes corners, which can indicate a driver taking a turn at too high a speed.
    The records from all three accelerometers could them be compared to other drivers operating the same route, to produce an “average” and highlight actions that differ significantly from the norm. This would allow management to detect drivers who routinely subject their passenger to worse rides due to their driving behavior, and also to highlight locations where the road itself was responsible for poor ride quality, and perhaps the route should be redirected or the city should be asked to improve the road.
    It’s not a fully-fledged idea, but it seems like a good one.

  19. CroMagnon August 4, 2009 at 10:28 pm #

    Reliability and time/speed are really the same thing.
    I’ve concluded that all aspects of transit break down to 4 categories:
    safety, time, comfort, access
    Reliability and on-time performance are often regarded differently than speed, but poor reliability and poor on-time performance is time lost. The bus comes early, you have to wait for the next one. So you plan to arrive extra early: personal time loss. These issues aren’t distinct from the argument for grade-separated rail versus mixed traffic rail or bus. The former, in addition to operating faster in speed, is more reliable. I’ve spent time in an advocacy organization that said we should focus on simple issues like on-time performance instead of the politically sensitive issue of capital system planning. But we had a transit system with long bus routes that were doomed to forever have poor on-time performance. There’s only so much you can fight chaos and entropy.

  20. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 5, 2009 at 3:18 am #

    Thanks, Michael. My policy is never to identify people who contact me by email rather than blog comment, unless the email makes clear I can. Many of the people who email are transit professionals who need their anonymity.

  21. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 5, 2009 at 3:21 am #

    One of the great pleasures of this blog is reconnecting with the “folk psychology of introspective and observant transit advocates.” I would love to read a serious anthropologist on the subject.
    Why does introspection make one smarter about ride quality?
    And why don’t we have the word extrospective as the opposite of introspective, as we do with extrovert and introvert?

  22. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 5, 2009 at 3:25 am #

    One reason that we have lots of different systems of categorization for transit values is that there are several important perspectives. You’re right of course that if the bus is unreliable the result is the same as if it were reliably slow. But from the transit agency perspective speed and reliability are different things, requiring different kinds of action. So it depends on for whom you’re categorizing.

  23. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 5, 2009 at 3:27 am #

    In the case of the 10-Townsend, might it have a lot to do with the pavement quality of the various streets? I recall a lot of really poor pavement on the Potrero Flats …

  24. EngineerScotty August 5, 2009 at 7:49 am #

    Would would an extrospective individual do, anyway? Would that be one who “thinks outside the box”, or one who prefers to let others do his thinking for him?

  25. Michael August 5, 2009 at 8:48 am #

    Observation is generally of the outside world — which is why you need the term introspection to describe looking inside. Extrospection would probably just mean regular observation.
    Introspection can help one figure out how and to what extent ride quality matters. But the true test is how well any hypotheses explain and predict the behavior and explanations of others.

  26. Beige August 5, 2009 at 1:43 pm #

    Or just measure fuel burn. That won’t tell you where the road is bad or what exactly the drivers are doing wrong, but it’s something you care about and my experience in the Prius is that it’s a pretty good indication of paying attention to driving.
    I think there is a product out that has video cameras (looking out and looking at the driver) and accelerometers that saves a little video around each incident of high g-load. Again, not saving lots of data for the whole route but providing a chance to see who is having lots of near-misses and what they are/aren’t doing.

  27. SpyOne August 5, 2009 at 2:48 pm #

    Dictionary.com to the rescue:
      /ˌɛkstrəˈspɛkʃən/ [ek-struh-spek-shuhn]
    the consideration and observation of things external to the self; examination and study of externals.

  28. EngineerScotty August 5, 2009 at 3:51 pm #

    Ah, thanks.
    I was hoping we’d find a new word to describe George Bush, but it appears that in this case I’ll be disappointed.

  29. Brent August 5, 2009 at 8:17 pm #

    I am probably in the minority, but the biggest issue I have with ride quality in Toronto is not jackrabbit starts or fast braking. (The TTC’s new Orion 7 buses are incapable of jackrabbit starts. I wish!! Maybe turtle starts.) It’s drivers that will hit the gas, then back off, then hit the gas again, then back off, etc. when cruising at speed. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the Orion 7s and they are ultrasensitive to this type of driving (you can probably tell I am not a fan of Orion 7s) or if it’s the drivers themselves, but it is enough to make me toss my cookies.

  30. Portcanaveral Transportation August 11, 2009 at 1:35 am #

    Truely!!! Reliability and on-time performance are the two most important factors for drivers selection. A sensitive driver will constantly make unconscious choices that produce a smoother ride, regardless of whether you are just driving. A person who’s just not sensitive to quality of ride is unlikely to be make more sensitive by the kind of training that bus drivers get.

  31. Pete (UK) April 30, 2010 at 9:25 am #

    In the UK bus companies are increasingly fitting driver monitoring systems that measure harsh acceleration/braking, and turning manouvre g-force. These provide data for driver appraisal, but also provide drivers with instant reminders through the use of dashboard warning lights. A review of one UK bus manufacturer’s offering can be read at:
    The vehicle manufacturer’s website is at:

  32. Pete March 2, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    Short video of typical UK urban bus journey in latest generation of bus. Relatively quiet in operation:
    The model is the Optare Solo SR, the operator is municipally owned Nottingham City Transport:
    Nice interior: