Risk perception: what location of bus stops tell us and some policy implications

Sometimes, we need to take a number of different perspectives to look at how different societies perceive risks. We often think of risk in some catastrophic sense, as during the hurricane season in the Caribbean basin, and the likelihood that a hurricane will make landfall or come close and the damage that may cause. We want to assess risks, generally, to be better prepared. Often, we cannot stop events occurring, but we would like to be either well forewarned, or well protected against the event. That protection can come in many forms, and isn’t my interest, today.

One different perspective I have been looking from, recently, has to do with public road safety. My general observation is that risks are perceived very differently, and unless policy addresses those differences, their likelihood of success must be less.

I’ve thought before about drivers’ behaviour, and drawn on my observations from living and working in several countries.

I noticed something else, recently, to do with roads that may give insights into why certain measures tried in some countries may not work well in others.

To keep things simpler, let us look at how three quite different societies treat risks as demonstrated by placement of public bus stops. We will look at the USA, the UK, and Jamaica; I know these three countries reasonably well.

Now, it may not seem so immediately obvious, then the placement of public bus stops tell us something about people’s risk perception.

Spacing of bus stops is a part of transport planning that should not be random, as in many countries, that spacing has to do with fare (stage) structures. Borrowing from a readable Wikipedia entry, some of the essentials are well laid out:

‘…the way that transit stops are spaced will depend on the goals of the provider and the type of service. A service that seeks to serve all people along a line with few coverage gaps will locate stops closely together. This results in duplicate coverage, which means that multiple stops are in walking distance for many destinations along the line. Duplicate coverage results in slower average vehicle speeds because of frequent stops. On the other hand, for a service that demands higher speeds, like a Bus Rapid Transit service, stops should be spaced further apart. This means that fewer people and destinations will be in walking distance from each stop, but it results in less duplicate coverage and higher average speeds. Additionally, the more frequent and fast the service is, the greater distance people may be willing to walk to get to bus stops. In the United States, local bus stops are often located about 1/4 mile apart or less, with rapid stops 1/2 to 1 mile apart...

When on-street, bus stops may be located at a variety of points on a block. Each possible location has its benefits and drawbacks for different types of service.’

As regards, location of stops, it’s worth noting some basic principles:

  • Near-side Locationstops are located at the side of the block prior to crossing an intersection. The advantage of this location is that red-light dwell time can overlap with passenger boarding and alighting dwell time. However, it increases the risk of conflicts with vehicles making right turns.
  • Far-side Locationare advantageous because traffic signals create gaps in traffic flow for buses to re-enter traffic. This location works best with Transit Signal Priority. However, queuing buses may block intersections.
  • Mid-block Locationexperience less pedestrian congestion than the other two stop locations. They do, however, encourage mid-block crossing for pedestrians and increase walking distance for people crossing from intersections.

What struck me was both the spacing of stops and the location, in Jamaica, and how that seems to differ greatly compared to the USA and UK. However, the UK also differs much from the USA.

One simple reason for the differences is how each country has given priorities (both statutory and customary) to drivers versus pedestrians. In a nutshell:

  • USA gives pedestrians legal priorities in many instances when pedestrians and vehicles are likely to interact. Customs follow the laws, largely: drivers tend to take care in the presence of pedestrians, and pedestrians generally respect various rules of the road to avoid conflicts with vehicles, eg crossing at designated places, having harsh penalties for drivers not giving due care to the presence of pedestrians (eg, by overtaking parked buses).
  • UK gives pedestrians some legal priorities, but generally vehicles have greater rights of way. Customs tend to note the vulnerability of pedestrians and drivers will generally take great care if interactions are likely; pedestrians act with caution, but generally will be less bound by the laws of the road regarding interactions with vehicles, eg, crossing roads at undesignated places.
  • In Jamaica, pedestrians have few legal priorities on the road. Customarily, drivers don’t usually give much consideration to pedestrians. In turn, pedestrians are often casual in their interactions with vehicles, eg crossing at will, whether vehicles are present or not.
Bus stop, UK
Bus stop, Washington DC
Bus stop, State-owned public service, Jamaica
Bus stopping, private minibus, Jamaica

On a scale, the USA in closer to the end of high risk-avoidance, UK is high, too, but lower than the USA; Jamaica is closer to the end of low risk-avoidance. (It’s worth noting that many western and northern European have much tighter road rules and society is much harsher in its attitudes to transgressions, either by drivers or pedestrians. By contrast, Jamaica is very lax in applying its laws on road use.) Our high rates of vehicular accidents, even not involving pedestrians, really tell the tale of ‘you get what you (are not prepared to) pay for’.

Another reason is the way that urban areas are structured. Many US cities have grid road systems, which create standardised shapes of blocks of buildings and distances between roads. UK cities are usually a maze of winding roads, with little or no standardisation on length and shapes of blocks. Jamaica tends to follow the British style, with its own topographical and geographical twists–space is limited and most roads are single lane each way.

The USA is also blessed with large amounts of space so has developed roads that are often more expansive than in many other countries, allowing two or more lanes in each direction in many urban situations. This is a rarity in the UK, and even less so in Jamaica.

Rules aside, behaviours developed and shaped how buses and people interact.

In London, for instance, buses used to have open decks, so it was possible for passengers to literally hop on, or off a bus somewhere other than at a designated stop, or without waiting for a bus to come to a halt. Such buses no longer operate as part of the regular public transport fleet.

In the USA, people are accustomed to buses being close to intersections and see no problems with stops placed just before traffic lights (‘near-side’), knowing that driver behaviour will usually show awareness of possible pedestrian movements. The UK tends to place bus stops mid-block, removing many risks that are perceived as likely to occur near traffic lights if large numbers of pedestrians are likely to arrive there in blocks, and when drivers generally have priorities.

In Jamaica, bus stops tend to be mid-block, and rarely near traffic lights. Space limitations also mean that bus stops are not always recessed, allowing traffic to pass when buses stop–this is in marked contrast to the USA and UK, where buses stopping normally have little effect on traffic flows.

Jamaica has a major public urban bus company that tends to adhere to good driver behaviour. However, some of the road limitations can make even good behaviour a creator of risk, eg a bus stopping at a point in the road that is marked ‘no overtaking’. However, these drivers also have bad habits, eg a bus this morning parked at the turning point of a T-junction, creating a risky manoeuvre for drivers coming from any of the three directions.

However, even with these buses, which operate on published schedules and routes, people are accustomed to hailing a bus and expecting it to stop, usually not far from the designated stop, but not necessarily. That makes a mockery of well-designated stop locations.

Jamaican pedestrians are accustomed to crossing at will, so see few problems in getting off a bus and immediately looking to cross, either in front or behind the bus. The general belief that drivers will stop shapes how people approach the riskiness of such behaviour.

Jamaica also has private minibuses in urban areas and travelling interurban and in rural areas. The behaviour of the drivers of these vehicles is often poor, including stopping at will, corralling passengers across busy roads, cutting in and out of traffic, speeding, etc. So, locations of bus stops are not an issue for them, but their cavalier attitudes become another element of high risk for other users of the road.

So, when framing policy to deal with road casualties, it’s not just a matter of putting laws on the books, but also a matter of dealing with how people will adhere to any laws, and the risks they see in breawking them. In a country like Jamaica, where people ignore the safe crossing offered by a footbridge in favour of trying to dodge oncoming vehicles, one can see how poor risk-assessments are.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)