If Your Bus is Late, Should the Agency Pay?

An engineering professor in Montréal got his transit agency to pay for his taxi fare because his bus didn’t show up.  Unfortunately, it took many days of his time in small-claims litigation, so his trophy, a $40 check from the agency, should probably be framed rather than cashed.

Now and then a transit agency tries some kind of “on time or we pay” guarantee.  In the Montréal suburb of Laval, for example, the buses are equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.  The deal is that if your bus is more than five minutes late (a fact that the agency can verify via GPS), you can demand a free bus ticket, which is nice but not much of an incentive for the agency.  It seems to me the same GPS-driven approach could be used to implement a policy if “when we’re more than x minutes late, we stop collecting fares.”  That would actually help a late bus get back on time, because fare transactions are so time consuming.

There are excellent reasons not to do this, of course, or to do something more subtle.  For one thing, lateness has so many causes beyond the agency’s control that it could cause substantial unavoidable payouts that would ultimately come at the cost of service.

For very frequent urban routes, a better GPS-driven scheme would be based on actual headway (time between consecutive trips, i.e. maximum wait time) rather than timetable, for reasons I discussed here.  You could stop collecting fares on any bus that is more than x minutes behind the one ahead of it.  I’d suggest x be something like 3 times the published headway or ten minutes, whichever is less.

Still, we’d have to remember that the lost revenue, if substantial, would come out of service, sooner or later.

I’m curious if any readers have encountered an effective one.  By effective, I mean one that actually helps motivate good system performance, rather than just shifting scarce funds from service into claims.

(From Montréal Gazette via Montréalités Urbaines)

32 Responses to If Your Bus is Late, Should the Agency Pay?

  1. EngineerScotty January 28, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    Don’t the trains in Japan issue certificates of tardiness to commuters when running late, which said commuters can present to the boss as an excuse?
    At any rate, I can think of one sneaky reason for doing that: Once you tie a transit agencies revenues to performance, you now have a better reason to upgrade your infrastructure, so that tardiness is reduced.
    At any rate, how would this work for persons with passes?

  2. Daniel January 28, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    Here in Melbourne we saw an isolated case of the train operator paying a passenger the taxi fare she incurred due to an extended service disruption.

  3. Jeffrey Bridgman January 28, 2010 at 5:53 pm #

    I can confirm what EngineerScotty said. They (not sure to what extent, but the company I used did this) issue certificates of tardiness to commuters when running late. If fact, that was the only was to get an excused tardy in the morning from my school.

  4. rhywun January 28, 2010 at 6:26 pm #

    I’ve never heard of such a thing as “on time or we pay”. And frankly, I don’t think it’s a very good idea, either. The first time a bus driver gets in a wreck because he was pressured to be “on time or else” will be the last time you’ll hear an agency make such a promise.

  5. Andrew January 28, 2010 at 6:34 pm #

    Transport for London has such a policy (15 minutes on Underground, 30 minutes on Overground):

  6. Christopher Parker January 28, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

    Metra’s studies show what their riders value above all else was reliability. I imagine that is true most everywhere.
    It is very possible that if not collecting fare can get the buses back on time there may be more revenue value in that than in the missed fares(over the long term, from higher ridership). Of course an on-board proof of payment system would eliminate the time spent collecting in the first place . . .
    In the old days of privately operated transit systems, bus drivers had a variety of tricks for staying on time, or slowing down if they were running early. Going though all the yellows. Or not. Stopping for passengers running after the bus. Or not. Stopping the bus next to the younger energetic riders, who (in rush hour) will leap on board or next to the elderly ones (off peak) because then the youngsters will politely let them on first anyway. Etc.

  7. Pantheon January 28, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    I agree with rhywun. There was a case where a pizza delivery driver killed someone, and the grieving family sued the pizza company, claiming that the “X minutes or it’s free” guarantee made the company culpable. They won.
    Also if an agency finds they are losing too much revenue they will just make the timetables less stringent, which makes the system less efficient.

  8. Wesley Zhao January 28, 2010 at 8:53 pm #

    Great post. One of the better articles I’ve seen. I especially love the idea of on-time or it’s free and how it helps the bus get back on schedule.

  9. SpyOne January 28, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    One big problem with the “if your bus was late to pick you up, you don’t pay the fare” issue is it addresses only one kind of late: if the bus takes longer than it should to get me to my destination, I am just as late but I already paid my fare.
    And amen to Pantheon: the typical reaction to any penalty for late transit will be the agency’s putting unreasonable slack into the system to prevent late arrivals.
    Like if you punish the airlines for flights that arrive late, they could just add an hour to the predicted length of all their flights and they’d almost always be early.
    Stupid may not be limitless, but it runs pretty deep.

  10. EngineerScotty January 28, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    Actually, the airlines already did this a while back.

  11. Alon Levy January 28, 2010 at 10:49 pm #

    Actually, putting extra slack in timetables is precisely how agencies stick to schedule. It improves reliability at the expense of average speed.

  12. numbat January 29, 2010 at 4:39 am #

    My express limited-stops bus has only one intermediate stop between where I catch it and the city terminus. It takes 5-6 minutes in peak hour to do the 3.5km trip. Yet according to the timetable, it should take 12 minutes……… while the all stops bus following the same route takes around 12 minutes, and should take 20. Did someone mention something about extra slack in the timetables?

  13. Alurin January 29, 2010 at 7:21 am #

    As people have noted, the airlines responded to pressure to be on time by adding slack to their schedules, so they end up “on time” no matter how sloppy they are getting out of the gate. Also, they refuse to compensate you if their delays are due to “weather”, and “weather” tends to cover a variety of sins. Since many factors making transit vehicles late are outside of the transit agencies’ control, it would be a bad idea to implement such a policy without an exception for bad weather, unforseeable traffic situations, etc… which would in turn leave sufficient leeway for the agency to cover it’s ass in most cases, making the policy ineffective and the customers cynical about the agency.
    Boston’s MBTA has a policy where if they are more than 30 minutes late, your fare is free. But 30 minutes is more than generous to the agency. Even when the bus driver doesn’t bother to show up for his shift and the buses only run every 20 minutes, I would still be only 20 minutes late.

  14. Louis Haywood January 29, 2010 at 8:58 am #

    I agree with SpyOne, and would add that riders at the beginning of the route would rarely get on free, as buses generally leave their starting points on time, if there is any slack at all in the schedule for recovery.
    I don’t think equity is all that important though, and so I agree with Jarrett that not collecting fares is more important, because if the bus becomes free, then the riders who boarded earlier may get back on time, which I think they would appreciate. But do you then begin collecting fares again once you are <10 minutes late? Would this not put you back over the threshold, thus making the bus fare-free again?
    Fare collection would simply oscillate on/off/on/off, as the bus became marginally on time and marginally late.

  15. Ethan Tucker January 29, 2010 at 10:22 am #

    When I visited a friend in Geneva in the late ’90s I was told that the city’s hyper-efficient bus system was in part due to a policy of fining bus drivers if they were more than 90 seconds late at key stops. But perhaps that was just an urban myth!

  16. EngineerScotty January 29, 2010 at 10:27 am #

    Well, it’s been often said that Mussolini made the trains run on time…

  17. Alon Levy January 29, 2010 at 2:16 pm #

    He didn’t. It’s just a myth.

  18. EngineerScotty January 29, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    Well, if a fascist dictator like Benito couldn’t keep transit on schedule… 🙂

  19. Richard Masoner January 29, 2010 at 4:00 pm #

    Santa Clara, CA VTA 522 “Rapid” service doesn’t have scheduled times along its route, just the times it starts service at either end of its route. If it’s ahead of schedule, the bus keeps going. These buses also have traffic signal prioritization for several intersections along its route.
    Caltrain has something like 96% on time performance, which is actually down significantly from prior years because of the high number of “track incidents” (suicides and cars on at-grade crossings) last year.

  20. Nathan Williams January 29, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    I’d suggest x be something like 3 times the published headway or ten minutes, whichever is less.
    You’re a funny man, you know that? I believe the absolute-most-frequent routes on the MBTA have a published 6-minute headway (key routes like the #39, during rush hour), so the idea that 3*headway is ever less than ten is pretty hilarious.

  21. dejv January 29, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

    For very frequent urban routes, a better GPS-driven scheme would be based on actual headway (time between consecutive trips, i.e. maximum wait time) rather than timetable
    With GPS, one the agency log actual performance of the bus, make long-term statistics of delays and waitings for departure with respect to time of day and week and use tese stats to make schedules more efficient (adding slack only in times of day when it is needed).
    And if the whole system overgrows some critical size, it makes sense to couple GPS with data network and send real-time information to dispatching centre so the agency can quickly respond to any irregularity.

  22. Alon Levy January 30, 2010 at 12:57 am #

    Caltrain has something like 96% on time performance

    Only if you define being 5 minutes late as being on time.

  23. J January 30, 2010 at 1:22 am #

    5 minutes seems quite generous. As others have mentioned, the MBTA does 30 minutes. Ive personally asked for and received my money back two times, once on the commuter rail ($7.75 and once on a bus $1.50). The downside is it took 2-3 months for the ticket to arrive in the mail (not cash, but stored value)
    Now, you mention letting people on for free instead. I’ve seen bus drivers do this often, most recently on Wednesday in Vegas on the deuce. The bus pulled up to a stop, there were 20 or so people, and the driver let them in for free. Considering they were all tourists….probably a good idea.
    The problem for the transit agency making this standard practice is
    1) It screws over people who got on earlier and payed a fare AND annoys those with passes.
    2) They lose more money. Letting everyone in for free, you get zero revenue. Making people ask for a rebate means most people won’t go through the process….maybe 2 out of 50 riders will go through the online process.

  24. Stuart Donovan January 30, 2010 at 3:50 am #

    I think the idea of “performance incentives” is worth pursing. In my experience transit agencies and service providers (whether public or private) have a fairly bad attitude to customer service.
    This may reflect how transit systems tend to be natural monopolies, in which the consumer has only limited choice especially in the short-term, i.e. once you are their waiting at the stop it is often difficult to change your plans.
    They could also use these “offers” as a point of difference, as with the quality and/or price guarantees shops provide with goods/services. And it is similar to airline practices of offering compensation …
    I think you would want a couple:
    1. Late service – Ride free. Sure the people onboard have already paid, but they subsequently get the benefit of the faster trip, quid pro quo.
    2. No service – guaranteed taxi ride home. This would require 24/7 helpline, GPS tagged services, and excellent comms with every service.
    Where drivers continue straight past passengers may be the most challenging “service failing” to address with direct customer guarantees.
    An effective complaints resolution system coupled with more generous time-tables (as others have noted) may be a better option in this situation?

  25. Louis Haywood January 30, 2010 at 8:37 am #

    1. Late service – Ride free. Sure the people onboard have already paid, but they subsequently get the benefit of the faster trip, quid pro quo.
    Again, the problem is that the bus would make up time when the riders got on for free. So the next passenger may board on-time (barely within the 10-minute threshold, say 9.5 minutes late). If she pays with cash, the next customers may get picked up 10 minutes late. So these customer would board for free. The bus makes up 30 seconds maybe, so the next customer would pay, and so on and so forth.

  26. Lauri Kangas January 30, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    At least Stockholm, Oslo and the Skåne region in Sweden offer travel guarantees. The conditions are not identical, but generally they will pay for alternative transportation up to a certain limit of the real if expected delay is over 20 minutes. Stockholm probably has the most favourable conditions and even provides them in English: http://www.sl.se/templates/Page.aspx?id=4664
    I’m not sure that diverting funds from actual service is necessarily a problem. If unreliable service has a price, it is an incentive to be realiable. That said you can only offer these guarantees if you are already running an efficient system. It is not realistic to assume an underfunded and/or underperforming system can be improved just by adding sanctions.

  27. EngineerScotty January 30, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    Didn’t the Bush Administration consider a program called NPLB (No Passenger Left Behind), which was designed to help underfunded transit agencies improve their peformance by subjecting them for penalties for failing to keep to schedules?

  28. Alon Levy January 31, 2010 at 2:41 am #

    Again, the problem is that the bus would make up time when the riders got on for free. So the next passenger may board on-time (barely within the 10-minute threshold, say 9.5 minutes late).

    You’re assuming two questionable things:
    1. If the bus gets just under 10 minutes late again, it gets to charge customers.
    2. Payment is at boarding.
    Problem #2 is a general one and needs to fixed as soon as possible everywhere.
    Problem #1 would be fixed by saying that once a bus is really late, it doesn’t get to charge people again until it’s exactly on time, say under 1 minute late. Then if it falls behind schedule again it gets to charge until it hits 10 minutes, and so on.

  29. Louis Haywood January 31, 2010 at 6:30 am #

    Alon, great points. I agree waiting to charge until 1 minute late is good enough.
    Payment should be made by touchcard as a goal, combined with proof-of-payment for all-doors boarding. This is widely done in Europe, e.g. the Parisian RATP bus network, but also in small-town Italy POP is done with tickets. But we digress into system change and capital-driven wishes, whereas we’re talking operational/policy changes.
    NextBus technology (cellphones, smartphones and/or kiosks) would allow for customer information, and thus a larger margin for error before reparations are demanded.
    Finally, how to prove that someone would have taken the bus if it had been on time? If I know a certain bus is running 30 minutes late, and I was planning on taking a taxi anyway, then couldn’t I just write to the transit company and have them pay, even though I’m not really a customer at all?

  30. Pantheon January 31, 2010 at 2:05 pm #

    I have great respect for your input, but your solution to problem #1 is insane. How do you explain to your customers why yesterday when their bus was 5 minutes late they didn’t have to pay, yet today it is 5 minutes late and they do. “Because”, the driver says, “yesterday I was making up time from being really late, and today I’m not”. And how does the customer verify the honesty of the driver? It sounds like a recipe for confusion, chaos, and angry customers. The very opposite of what this policy intended.

  31. Alon Levy January 31, 2010 at 4:47 pm #

    The verification doesn’t have to be done at the customer level; there has to be some manager input in either case. (What if the driver just charged people anyway?)
    The purpose of the policy is to avoid charging for rides when the bus is 10 minutes late or more. The bit about not charging at 5 minutes when recovering from 10 minutes’ lateness is an extra bonus for customers as well as a way of discouraging straddling the 10-minute boundary.

  32. Rhywun January 31, 2010 at 8:58 pm #

    The only way I would support these crazy ideas is in a system that is completely separate from traffic. Which pretty much eliminates buses. As for subways, sure, *in theory* any lateness is their fault, but then again… there are so many reasons trains are late and most of them are completely outside the control of the operators. Also, the main reason airlines are so accommodating to reparations is that they are in competition with one another. They want to retain your business. Not so with nearly every public transit operator in the world. If the NYC MTA makes me 5 or 25 minutes late to work, it’s not like I’m gonna take the taxi from now on.