No way to contact management in the event of driver medical or psychiatric emergency
My wife had a meeting in New York City over the weekend, as is sometimes the case, and decided to take a bus back to Boston on Sunday evening. Over our many years together, we have found that buses are generally the best—and certainly most economical—way to get between the two cities. We are aware of the prejudices that many people have against this mode of transportation, but we agree that they are wrong. Yes, buses can be cramped. Yes, you can’t really walk around on a bus once it’s on the road. Yes, there are no snacks or other amenities on board—beyond bathrooms that it’s usually best to avoid using for some obvious reasons.
But buses get you from A to B with a minimum of fuss. And in the case of the Boston-NYC route, they usually get you there in four to four and a half hours—depending on traffic. Roughly the same time (when all factors are considered) as taking the train or flying. At a fraction of the price.
Which is not to say we have not had many adventures and inconveniences traveling in this fashion. And those inconveniences virtually all happen upon trying to get from NYC to Boston on a Sunday evening. When masses of students return to the Hub after a weekend in the Big Apple. Huge lines at Port Authority are the order of those days, and bus companies press any vehicle that rolls into service to meet the demand. Your ticket may say your bus is leaving at a particular time. But the staff in charge of boarding buses and the dispatchers in charge of getting them out of the labyrinthine structure that is Port Authority play fast and loose with rules and schedules.
These days it’s no longer necessary to choose a bus company that stops at NYC’s main bus terminal at all. There are other lower cost options like MegaBus and BoltBus. And the “Chinatown buses” which wink in and out of existence—based as they are on exploiting immigrant labor… with maintenance records so poor that some of their buses have had major issues like literally catching fire while in motion over the years. But my wife and I avoid the cheaper buses on labor grounds and concerns about cost-cutting measures that could affect safety. Although MegaBus and the Greyhound-owned BoltBus apparently do have unionized drivers in the northeast.
So most of the time, we stick with ailing bus giant Greyhound. It’s been through multiple bankruptcies and various owners over the decades we’ve used it. But it’s still the most heavily unionized bus line—and union drivers and mechanics are typically far more likely to run a decent service then most nonunion shops. And we feel it’s worth paying an extra $10-20 each way to arrive safely at our destination. While departing from and arriving at (more or less) climate-controlled bus stations. Rather than having to wait outside in whatever weather for buses in NYC as with the cheaper bus lines. Even if we occasionally have a Sunday night trip that lasts hours longer than it should normally take—as it just did last week to my partner Chris Faraone. And even if I once had to help a driver that got lost on a foggy night years before GPS became ubiquitous—guiding him out of downtown Worcester to Boston’s South Station Bus Terminal several hours after we left NYC.
Wonky as that latter predicament was, I have only rarely felt unsafe on a Greyhound bus—and usually only for a brief moment or two due to traffic or road conditions outside my driver’s control.
But this Sunday, something happened to my wife on a Greyhound bus that severely shook our confidence in the company and left us worried about a problem we had never considered before. One which I think is worth sharing with the general public, Greyhound management, other bus company management, transportation union leadership, and government regulators—weak though they often are in this era of ever-diminishing government oversight of corporations.
My wife’s bus left Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City early at 5:50 pm on a scheduled 6:30 pm departure bound for Boston. We were in touch by text throughout what transpired next.
She had told me that passengers were instructed to board about 20 minutes prior to that early departure time then had to wait for Greyhound to find a driver. A young woman driver was found, and the bus left just after that staffer boarded.
As the bus exited Port Authority, the driver announced that passengers should be patient with her because she was from New Orleans and had never driven from NYC to Boston before. The bus proceeded uptown as is generally the case when going to Boston—although Greyhound buses take any of several routes out of the city depending on traffic.
However, my wife stated that the driver started getting confused about where to go fairly quickly. And the bus ended up circling around Harlem and the Upper West Side without proceeding east to bridges that would take it to highways going north. Instead driving west past the City University of New York’s main campus and onto Riverside Drive at one point, and then as far south as 80th and Broadway. At which time the driver started talking to someone on a phone.
The bus had been on the road about an hour and a half at that point. The driver made no attempt to communicate with the passengers and let them know what was going on. Or to ask passengers—many of whom, like my wife, know Manhattan and any of various routes to Boston well—for help navigating. Which is much more difficult to do these days anyway because Greyhound drivers now have a door between them and passengers. The easy communication between drivers and passengers of the pre-9/11 and -weekly mass shooting days is now gone. And that’s likely why no passengers—including my wife—tried to engage the driver as things went from bad to worse.
So my wife, and other passengers, became concerned early into the journey. And then scared, as the driver ran at least two red lights, drove into two blind alleys and had to back the bus out, and almost hit a van. Punctuated by stopping the bus a few times on busy streets in evident attempts to figure out where to go on her own.
Finally, the person on the phone gave the driver correct directions to the Madison Ave Bridge and thence to Routes 87, 278, and 95. After which the trip proceeded as normal, and arrived about an hour late.
While the incident was going on, I posted a note about my concern with the threat to the safety of my wife, passengers, other vehicles and pedestrians to my personal Twitter account—and then shared it to my newspaper’s account—notifying both the @GreyhoundBus and @GHoundBusHelp accounts in the process. Help desk people on both accounts ultimately just told me to have my wife call Greyhound’s regular customer service lines.
Fortunately, my wife and her fellow passengers got home safely. It seems like her inexperienced driver started driving erratically after getting lost in uptown Manhattan, and then got some kind of assistance from another driver or a dispatcher. She apparently had GPS, as one would expect in this day and age. But it either wasn’t working properly or she was in no state to make proper use of it to get her bus out of the city and on the road to Boston.
All of which leads me to my main reason for writing this column: While Greyhound has taken steps to protect drivers from attacks by dangerous passengers by placing doors next to the driver’s seat on its buses, what can passengers do if a driver has a medical or psychiatric emergency that puts them in danger?
All communication channels that passengers like my wife could avail themselves of during Sunday evening’s incident seem to lead to Greyhound’s main customer service phone lines. And upon contacting said lines, my wife and other passengers’ concerns for their safety were not addressed in any way by Greyhound customer service representatives. They were simply told to call back in 24 hours and maybe get a credit or a refund or nothing at all, one supposes. Although the reps did confirm that their drivers have GPS and that the company had a tracker on each bus—and, critically, that they couldn’t talk to my wife’s bus’s driver while the bus was en route.
It was a situation that wasn’t quite bad enough to call the police to interdict the bus, but could have become one after it was too late to affect the outcome. A situation when a call from company management to tell the driver to stop the bus where she was and let the passengers off while they sent another bus and driver to relieve her of duty could have stopped things from escalating to a tragic conclusion where people on or off the bus could end up being hurt or killed.
I asked Greyhound media relations spokesperson Crystal Booker to comment on the record on these matters in time for my deadline, and she told me that Greyhound management might not be able to complete an investigation of the incident involving my wife in time for publication this week. So I will plan to write a second installment with the company’s response as soon as I receive it.
But for now, I must say that Greyhound, other bus companies, drivers unions (where they exist), and government regulators need to address this problem. In another transportation industry, so-called ridesharing, both Uber and Lyft—under pressure—have introduced “panic buttons” to their apps that connect passengers who feel in danger for any reason, including a driver’s actions, to local 911 services with a single touch.
It seems like it’s past time for Greyhound and other bus companies to do something similar. Maybe some kind of panic button app that gives passengers a choice to either get in touch with a corporate office prepared to bring a problem driver to heel or contact local 911 depending on the severity of the situation.
Readers with opinions on this matter, or Greyhound or other bus company employees with information germaine to this discussion, should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Because this seems like a problem that needs all hands on deck until a workable solution is found. And my wife and her fellow passengers are hardly the first people to experience this problem. As a quick internet search of bus driver arrests for DUIs and the like—or avoidable accidents causing injuries and deaths—will inform even a casual researcher.
Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
If brilliant Boston and the supposedly clever state surrounding it can’t get their climate remediation and preparedness acts together, how are less wealthy parts of the country supposed to manage the job?
Transportation is a subject I address frequently in my columns. But, as is often the case in journalism, it’s usually necessary to write about it piecemeal given various editorial constraints. So I might cover flooding subways one week and a gonzo proposal for sky gondolas over the Seaport the next. But rarely do I have the luxury of looking at such a major policy area in its entirety. Which is nonideal because a good journalist is always interested to spark discussion and debate—and it’s difficult to have a proper conversation with readers if they aren’t aware of my general views on the topic at hand.
I didn’t mind the hazing, of course. But it was vexing to watch Bird fans that clearly hadn’t even bothered to read the article in question—let alone my broad and deep back catalog—attack me as some kind of car-loving anti-environmental reactionary in the service of flogging their hipster transportation fetish du jour. Be they paid marketers or merely geeks with an idée fixe.
With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to run through my general views on transportation policy in this epistle. To clarify why I don’t think that any electric conveyance thrown at us by sociopathic West Coast frat boy CEOs is automatically the best way to save the planet while safely getting people around town with their groceries and pets. I will, however, leave long-distance intercity travel by land, sea, and air aside for now for the sake of space.
It’s not possible to hold forth on transportation without first addressing the absolute necessity that humanity stop burning carbon to meet our civilization’s power needs. If we fail to shift from getting power from oil, gas, and coal to clean renewable energy sources like wind, water, and solar, then we are well and truly doomed. Not in centuries, but mere decades from now. Among the largest sources for global warming inducing carbon emissions are cars, trucks, and motorcycles. And with carbon multinationals like ExxonMobil dominating American politics, it’s going to be extremely difficult to institute the major changes that will be required to replace those vehicles—and the “car culture” that has built up around them—with zero carbon alternatives that will be acceptable to a broad array of communities. Yet without such a transition, anything else we might do will merely be tacking colorful bunting onto our species’ collective coffin. That said, any decent transportation network will have to be based on electricity. Unless some of our cleverer scientists and engineers come up with sufficiently powerful and portable renewable power sources (tiny cold fusion reactors, harnessing evil spinning gnomes, etc.) that don’t require plugging vehicles into charging stations for periods of time every day or three.
We’re not going to be able to move millions of people to new green transportation alternatives without redesigning the places where they live and work. One appealing way of doing that over time is to build dense clusters of housing and offices around major multimodal transportation hubs that are connected to each other by mass transit. Which will, among other salutary effects, help solve the “last mile” problem of getting commuters from such hubs to their homes and workplaces in weather conditions that are only going to get more unpredictable and dangerous as climate change accelerates.
But while it’s become fashionable and profitable for developers to build such high-density enclaves for rich people, it is generally not being undertaken for everyone else. Until it is, it’s going to be extremely difficult to successfully introduce the transportation alternatives we need. Probably the toughest issue will be converting existing urban neighborhoods and suburban tracts based on square miles of individual atomized domiciles over to sort of more compact and connected urblets without upending people’s carefully constructed lifeways by government fiat. Though, ironically, the global warming-driven imperative of our moving entire cities like Boston away from flooding lowlands onto higher ground—and eventually northward to cooler climes—will provide us an opportunity to start development from scratch in many locales. Since given the choice between staying in aging housing stock with ever worsening service and transportation options, and moving to new clusters of high-rise and low-rise buildings hooked up to a robust grid, people will likely move of their own accord.
And what are the cheaper, ubiquitous, and more efficient transportation modalities that will get us to a carbon-free future? I think trains, trolleys, monorails, and similar mass transit options will still play a vital role in moving large numbers of people from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city. In fact, I believe we need to massively expand rail lines to reach far out into the exurbs. And figure out ways to use such lines for cargo containers as well. Buses—with dedicated lanes—will remain vital in many areas. Especially where it’s too expensive or impractical to build out rail lines. Boats can also be very useful for the same purpose in most weather conditions in areas adjacent to oceans, lakes, and rivers.
And cars? Well, that’s a big complicated discussion, but here’s my brief take. Carbon-burning cars need to be relegated to museums and antiquarian societies for collectors and hobbyists. But there’s no getting around fact that despite all their myriad problems, most people currently like being able to jump into a car and go where they want to go. So what can replace that? At first, shifting over to electric cars will be a big help. Then there will be a debate over robot cars. And that’s a tricky one because that technology won’t work well at first, and will displace many driving jobs if not introduced deliberately without corporate malice aforethought. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if you see me attacking “public-private” initiatives to shove such cars down people’s throats.
Nevertheless, society will gain much if we can make the new technology work. Because fleets of robot cars can likely replace the individually owned car entirely. Allowing people to get between areas well away from major transportation hubs at will—simply by using the future equivalent of a rideshare app to order a robot car for the trip. Robot trucks will be able to deal with moving cargo point to point. And simple electric golf carts—either robotic or not—will suffice for trips around neighborhoods.
We can then gradually reduce or eliminate motor vehicle traffic from many roads over time—allowing bicycles (on ubiquitous dedicated bike lanes) to really come into their own. As for electric scooters? In most locales it will probably be best if they remain an idiosyncratic vehicle choice for young individuals who like to stand out from the crowd, and not accepted as a serious transportation alternative. Because they’re not. Meanwhile, flying cars, jetpacks, and the like will have to be a topic for a future article.
Building out transportation alternatives needs to be seen as an opportunity for new job creation, not just an excuse for job destruction for the purpose of corporate profit extraction. Such jobs should be “good jobs” with living wages, shorter work weeks (something we’ll need worldwide to compensate for the rise of the robots), and generous benefits. People losing jobs in the existing transportation sector should be retrained at government expense and get priority placement in jobs in the new transportation sector. All of said jobs should be unionized.
As many of these transportation alternatives as possible should be public. Leaving our transit future to private companies like Uber, Lyft, Lime, Bird Rides, etc. is a prescription for disaster. Because all such corporations look out for their bottom lines first, and the public good second (if at all). And every entrant to that new sector has sought to end-run public planning processes and government regulators in a never-ending quest to make a fast buck—to the point of Uber purposely designing their payment algorithm so that their drivers would keep driving while making as little money as possible, according to Vanity Fair.
So if we’re going to ensure that commuters have a voice in a reasonably democratic and rational transportation planning process going forward, then we have to expand public transportation to control the commanding heights of its sector. And regardless, the role of privately owned vehicles must be minimized if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions enough to save ourselves from the worst depredations of human-induced global warming.
That’s my basic thinking on at least regional transportation. Happy to participate in civic dialogues on the subject any time.
Thanks to Suren Moodliar, co-author of the forthcoming A People’s Guide to Greater Boston [University of California Press], for ongoing ever-illuminating conversations on transportation, housing, and many other policy areas.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Evolving the way the world moves … beyond Uber (and Lyft)
July 7, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
The following column was written as commentary for the July 2017 episode of the Beyond Boston monthly video news digest — produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations. It’s aimed at suburbanites, but fun for the whole Boston area family.
Over the years, I’ve often written about how to improve public transportation in the Bay State. But this time out, rather than rehash my standing call for the legislature to raise taxes on the rich and corporations to properly fund such a necessary service, I’d like to take a different tack and discuss a topic germane to the future of both transportation in general and public transportation in particular. Specifically, the so-called ridesharing industry pioneered by corporations like Uber and Lyft.
Ridesharing is a transportation system in which riders and drivers interact via software on cell phones, rather than going through human dispatchers. The software allows riders to see which drivers are near them, and to have the closest one assigned to them. It provides price estimates for rides, features seamless automatic payments from rider to driver at the end of each trip — and it incentivizes simple but important things like drivers keeping their vehicles clean.
One would think this ridesharing system would be great for riders and drivers alike, but that’s not the case. The problem with ridesharing … is that it’s not really ridesharing. That is, Uber and Lyft and smaller companies like Fasten completely control their operations from top to bottom. Including the economic structure that determines how much riders will pay in fares — and what cut of those fares go to drivers. This system is non-transparent and largely unregulated.
An actual ridesharing system would be controlled by its riders and drivers. It could, and I would posit should, be publicly managed. In short, rather than allow ridesharing companies to assist in the dismantling of existing public transit systems like the MBTA by gradually privatizing them, those systems — or agencies set up by individual cities — could run municipal ridesharing services at cost.
Fares would be regulated in ways that would ensure riders the best fares — which poor and working class riders would be able to consistently afford. A small percentage of each fare would go to the municipal rideshare service to develop and maintain the necessary software and infrastructure. Then all the extra money that presently flows into the coffers of Uber and Lyft top brass and investors would be paid to drivers in the form of the best possible wages.
Such a service would be an excellent adjunct to public trains and buses, and would make it much easier for everyone to get from point A to point B. Plus it would be far more democratic because it could be organized to ensure that riders and drivers would play a large role in managing the service. It could even be run as a hybrid of a consumer and a worker cooperative. And democratically controlled from top to bottom. Restricting the growth of Uber and Lyft to something like their natural share of the private transportation market by its mere existence.
Going the public route — or at least a similar nonprofit route being experimented with by RideAustin in Austin, TX — would satisfy the needs of the loyal base of Uber and Lyft clients by providing comparable service at a better price point. And it would also satisfy the needs of a whole new layer of riders who will be able to afford access to new municipal ridesharing services on a regular basis — in addition to public buses, trolleys, and trains. All while paying living wages to drivers. Who are, after all, the backbone of the current corporate ridesharing system. But who are also the most exploited by it.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.