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Last week the Times reported on the Washington Department of Labor & Industries fining Metro $3,500 for unacceptable work conditions, specifically too much pressure to skip bathroom breaks to stay on schedule.

Transit operators and their union have long griped about inadequate bathroom breaks and the lack of access to toilets…  Some have resorted to adult diapers or urinating in a bottle… maintenance crews replace 60 driver seats per year that have been soaked by urine, according to Local 587 Vice President Neal Safrin…

Desmond said he’ll re-emphasize that the driver rule book allows restroom breaks even when buses are behind schedule.

But he also acknowledges there is self-imposed pressure among transit operators to skip restroom breaks so they avoid being late and upsetting passengers. Beyond that, many drivers feel loyalty to their regular customers and want to make sure they get to work on time.

Longtime readers will recall increased “scheduling efficiencies” as part of the 2009 audit results, which said “that the use of scheduling software could avoid deadhead runs, shorten layovers, and thus save between $12m and $19m a year.” Even at the time, our commenters worried about the effect on driver health.

This sorry episode illustrates that there are many ways to cut a budget. These cuts are often grouped together into “efficiencies,” which has the connotation of cutting waste. And everyone is for reducing waste! But the real effect on riders and other stakeholders varies widely.

There are genuine freebies, like negotiating a better price for buses or eliminating a program that everyone agrees isn’t working. There are false economies, like deferring capital expenditures that would save future operating costs (speed and reliability improvements) or maintenance costs (new buses). And then there are cuts that, while helping to keep buses on the road, also make the system a worse one in more subtle ways. In this particular case, Metro is putting its drivers in normatively awful working conditions, also making buses less reliable. Earlier in the financial crisis, King County cut back on shelter cleaning and customer information. Again, the degradation is hard to quantify but nonetheless real.

It is a genuinely difficult dilemma to trade off bus service hours against these other values. However, we shouldn’t allow standards in these areas to continually ratchet downwards as we accept dirty stops and mistreated drivers as the new normal.

50 Replies to “The Human Cost of Efficiency”

  1. Exactly! Those “subtle” cuts make for crankier and more cynical riders. Who take out their frustrations on drivers – or revert to driving and parking – and then it becomes a cycle leading to less trust in/support for public infrastructure and services. It is a subtle process but it is real.

  2. I was riding the 48 in the middle of the day several weeks ago. The driver stopped at the bus stop right in front of the Green Lake Library and announced that she had to use the restroom. Nobody complained. We just sat there and waited until she came back and we continued on our way.

    1. Conditions for stopping at Green Lake Library is very different than conditions for stopping, say, on Aurora Rapid Ride… Different clientele… I drove the trolley buses exclusively for years because there is a bathroom at most of their terminals. Either provide bathrooms within a few minutes walk at every bus terminal or schedule enough time for the drivers to walk to and from the bathroom. Better yet, if there are no bathrooms readily available, then change the terminal.

    2. Thar driver probably came from the north terminus at 85th and 32nd Ave. I heard that Metro drivers are not allowed to use the restroom facilities of the coffee shop there, the only place that is open.

      1. To defend the coffee shop, it’s not just anti-Metro prejudice on their part; there’s a sign on the restroom door saying it’s closed to everyone except customers. Hypothetically, I assume a bus driver could buy one of their $2 cookies and use the restroom too, though that would get expensive fast over a full day.

      2. Yeah, well, a Metro employee wears a Metro jacket, right? How hard is it to just waive the rule and let the guy (or gal) in? I mean, if a cop or fire fighter walks in and asks politely to use the bathroom, is the guy (or gal) behind the counter supposed to point at the sign stating “Customer’s Only”. That would be pretty harsh, in my book. Bend a little, as they say.

      3. Can’t Metro just offer to pay the coffee shop a nominal fee each month, in exchange for official permission to allow bus drivers to use their restrooms? It’s free money for the coffee shop, and the cost to Metro would be negligible compared to the cost of actually running the buses.

        As a precedent for this idea, I’ve seen instances in other cities where the restroom in question is a gas station where customers normally need to ask the attendant to borrow a key. In this case, the bus driver was actually given a spare key, allowing him to walk right into the bathroom without entering the store first.

      4. There is an official comfort station at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church on 24th that doubles as a comfort station for the 18X terminal. This is a reasonable accommodation though it requires the operator to inconvenience any remaining passengers and securing the coach more than once.

        Interestingly enough, it’s the big bad Corporate Coffee Gorilla, Starbucks, that universally (?) allows us to use their bathrooms without any pressure to purchase something. (They obviously know full well we will throughout the day.) Smaller shops like the one we’re chatting about here (which also has a shop near the 55 and 128 terminals in West Seattle) would be wise to work with Metro on the issue.

  3. While we’re using urine-soaked driver seats to illustrate of the dangers of mis-applied efficiency efforts, perhaps we can remind ourselves of some other obvious causes of the same misery:
    – Onboard cash payment
    – Standing passengers who don’t go all the way back until reminded several times
    – Retaining horribly unrealiable routing because of squeaky-wheel activism
    – Freeloaders sneaking on the bus
    – Deferred reliability improvements such as signal priority and lane reconfiguration
    My point is NOT to deny the need for attention to working conditions, rather to point out that the causes are many. From the Book of Pogo, “I have met the enemy, and they is us.”

    1. While I am sure that the various problems listed here have some
      validity–at least some of them in the minds of most; and some others
      in the minds of a few. But with respect, I think Pogo’s quote is
      misplaced–the spirit of the post would suggest “We have met the
      enemy and he is most of us, but not me.”

      :) ;)

      1. Fair enough – quoting Pogo is dangerous indeed. But what inspired my response is the time I sat on the 71 in the bus tunnel while the driver radioed to ask for permission for a potty break after the next leg – and also while folks were fumbling for cash and NOT stepping all the way to the back, despite the driver’s pleas and a visible queue on the platform. It took several extra minutes to get out of the tunnel that day. I hope the driver got his break.

  4. And then there are efficiencies that help everyone, but someone in power fails to realize that is the case.

    Such efficiencies include:

    (1) Cash surcharges / ORCA discounts. Yeah, it’ll cost someone a little extra once or twice, but then he’ll get the hint, get an ORCA card, and start saving himself some time, and start saving the other riders’ time. Same with the elimination of paper transfers.

    (2) Getting rid of the $5 ORCA card fee. I swear. Run the math. Metro/ST are losing money hand over fist by incentiving riders not to get the card, and have already ruined the day pass experiment. NO OTHER BUS SMART CARD IN THE US COSTS ANYWHERE CLOSE TO $5. MOST ARE FREE. THE REASONS WHY SHOULD BE OBVIOUS. METRO/ST SHOULD WANT RIDERS TO GET AND USE THE CARD. And now that the monorail is considering wasting money on its own electronic payment system separate from ORCA and debit/credit cards, This may be yet another expensive capital work-around caused completely by the fact an ORCA card costs $5. Do the monorail a favor. Drop the fee now! Let ORCA be the electronic payment system the monorail decides to install.

    (3) Moving stops at transfer centers and park & rides out onto streets, instead of doing loop-de-loops through a parking lot. This doesn’t just save the time of the through riders. The boarding riders also invest their time better by spending a minute walking out to the stop, instead of having a minute tacked onto their ride. I’m talking about the South Kirkland P&R, South Renton P&R, TIBS, Kent Station, Auburn Station, Tukwila Sounder Station, Federal Way TC, and others I haven’t been to. Sure, let terminating buses pull in, drop off, and lay over. But loop-de-loops save nobody’s time, and only cost ridership.

    Pick all this very-long-hanging fruit before snugging bathroom breaks and lunch breaks out of the schedule. Pretty please.

    1. I agree with you totally on 1 & 2. Until one has had a cash-dependent system like Skagit Transit to depend on, you will never truly appreciate how the good ole days weren’t so good for transit users.

    2. I also agree. We should be steering as many riders as possible to Orca. It reduces fare evasion, speeds boarding, reduces bus stop crime because people won’t have money out, and on an on.

  5. Go into any bus garage in American and there are two things you will consistently hear: “Management doesn’t listen” and “We don’t have enough time”.

    One has to be very careful about making blanket statements regarding layover/recovery and let the data speak for itself.

    Make no bones about it, KCM had excessive layover and recovery on many routes prior to the audit. Were there routes where the fix went to far and there were negative impacts. Absolutely.

    Finding the balance here is key. KCM has the ability to do run time analyses and figure out where that balance needs to be.

    1. KCM would have this ability with adequate scheduling staff. Alas, we are now used to buses stopping for a couple minutes at timepoints in the middle of a route to let the schedule catch up to the driver. This is mostly off-peak, but it takes adequate scheduling staff to convert these wasted minutes into a more accurate schedule and a couple more minutes for a break.

      FWIW, I support following the schedule, as people’s lives are affected when they are at the bus stop at the stated time to catch their ride to work, and the bus left the stop a couple minutes early.

      1. More staff is not the answer, Brent.

        Metro still has a very robust scheduling department. It is slightly smaller than it was before the cuts hit, but not by much.

        In the meantime, by management edict to strictly follow the measures of the consultants report, these schedulers are now, effectively, cutting the runs based exclusively on the outputs of HASTUS, the current scheduling software.

        The old school adjustments and manual run cuts to form the runs based on driver preferences, known traffic conditions (well, the computer SAYS you can deadhead from A to B during rush hour in X time, but everyone knows that will be risky so lets change this trip pairing) have entirely been removed from the system.

        The schedulers, one of the highest paid positions in all of KCM, are now monitoring computer outputs. That’s it. And you’re saying we need more of them?

        What we need is a total change of thinking in the management at Metro.

        They are viewing decisions as happening in a static world, with no reflection of cause and effect. Many of the schedule changes that happened as a result of the consultant reports were successful, and have reduced costs while still allowing reasonable layovers and reliabilities.

        On the other hand, some of these have been disastrous (the 70, for instance, has been horrific since it went through the process about four years ago, with no changes or adjustments since). Metro sees these decisions as static as in – our budget has to be cut by X, and the consultant said to do it by this way, so we did this method, and now our budget cut matches our goal.

        There is no one going back and saying, well, this didn’t work here, we need to add a little cost back in and look for cuts elsewhere (dirty secret, there are many routes that never had this process occur).

        Why not?

        We have the staff for it? Where is the continuous improvement? Where is the desire or care to do so? Why is the Desmond leadership team incapable of directing continuous improvement in the face of budget cuts?

    2. What’s an excessive layover?

      On the surface the 31 spends too much time laying over in Magnolia Village. However, having ridden the thing I know that it can get caught in bridge opening tangles at both the Ballard and Fremont bridges (no, it doesn’t cross the Ballard Bridge, but watch where the bus gets stuck when the bridge opens sometime).

      Anything that goes over a drawbridge is going to need significant but seldom used layover time.

  6. I’ve always questioned the use of consultants. There is a place for “disinterested”- meaning, in the Founding Fathers’ time, impartial, not bored- observation and advice.
    But in my working life, especially around transit, I wonder of main intent isn’t to let decision-makers disavow responsibility for their own preconceived choices.

    It would be good if, in court, for instance, for a consultant to have to answer under oath if their employment depended upon reaching a certain conclusion. The very question I’d like to ask the companies who determined that fare-box use in the Tunnel would not degrade service.

    Or the ones who, I’m told, in a recent Tunnel-closing exercise- not this last one, but the one before- that 15 seconds was a workable average dwell time at rush hour. Somebody with direct knowledge, please tell me if above allegations are wrong.

    My point is that the consultant would have had no complaint if such a recommendation was not accepted. Either the King County Council ordered these breaks gone- or management so interpreted an order and the Council did nothing about it.

    Maybe someone in authority was fully expecting Labor and Industries to save them from justified blame for their own decision. I which case the fine should have been multiplied by ten and taken out of somebody’s personal salary.

    But underneath it all, I’ve always felt that transit has a permanent source of day to day information and knowledge from its own workforce. Our advisory group on the Downtown Seattle Transit Project was an excellent example.

    In spite of my own advice to accept the Breda fleet so we could start operations quicker. Fair settlement would be to make me drive Apocalypse Z ’til the new trolleys arrive.

    I think it’s time for an audit to see how much outside consulting expense could be saved by transit’s consulting on a permanent basis with its own workers. Who can certainly compete on hourly wage. But hurry up before they get their bathroom breaks back!

    Mark Dublin

    1. I am a consultant, and although I pride myself on telling the client the truth I know for sure that there are “experts” who sell themselves on writing a report supporting any position the client wants. Why else would an organization who is entirely capable of examining issues pay an outsider?

      I well remember a consulting colleague who happily congratulated himself for writing a report helping to get a facility closed for being too expensive to operate. When I pointed out the evidence did not support that conclusion, he said “yes, but it was what the client wanted”, as if that made it OK.

      1. I registered for the draft in East Africa where my father was working on a consulting contract to help three new countries work out the accounting system for their credit unions. For consul’s convenience, my dad also swore me in for the draft.

        My youngest brother is a management consultant. My take is that his frequent workday consists of a huge- and invariably successful- effort to save his clients from the personal disasters they’re demanding at the top of their lungs.

        I’ve done some consulting myself, of which the most shameful thing was not being forced into it by misfortune, Ripple, or drugs. Honestly, I really do think that in Seattle, at least, the character lapse behind the misuse of consultants is that decision-making is viewed as tyranny.

        “Lack of Leadership” is a cliche. You can’t buy a bottle of it at Bartell’s. Like democratic government itself, leading is something that people have to acquire the right skills and do. It’s not a crown. It’s a wrench.

        But like any working people, consultants have a proven tool to put an end to abuse: strike! Trust me, Ed: this won’t go to Arbitration. And you’ll finally get bathroom breaks!


      2. There is a somewhat more sinister type as well. One of the “consultants” that was “working for” the Oregon governor’s office as part of the Columbia River Crossing project was also on the payroll of one of the construction companies that would have significantly benefited from its construction. It’s one of the reasons why the thing got to be so expensive: the “consultant” being used on the Oregon side of things was really more of a lobbyist being paid to both tell the state government what it wanted to hear as well as add expense to the project to benefit the builders.

        I think the big problem we have in the USA is that so few people actually use transit that the actual practical day to day operations and field application is completely missed by far too many.

      1. And also have to sign in or punch a time clock. One purpose of signing in is, or is supposed to be, so that the supervisor at the window can look you over and see if you’re in shape to drive.

        Which would also very likely result in both greater management understanding of drivers. and also raise their own morale by knowing they’ve been evaluated “squared away” for their day’s duty.


      2. The KC Council dictates transits ‘marching orders’, no? Perhaps they are the ones that need to experience the drivers working conditions; that could result in a positive outcome of ‘Schedule Efficiencies’ application mandating that terminals must have bathroom locations. PS – many managers probably do commute by transit – but do Council members?

  7. Is there a process by which the scheduling department reviews the schedules with the drivers that operate them on a daily basis? I hope that there is.

    1. I think most Metro drivers are honorable people and care about the riders. If there was a problem, Metro should have been well aware of it. Is there some sort of management decision-making dysfunction going on here? Is it that Metro’s management style treats drivers as mere soldiers rather than intelligent people who witness scheduling and bus stop location issues on a daily basis?

      1. Most operators care deeply about their customers and being on time. The problem with using operators only to make scheduling decisions is that they have a huge incentive to be untruthful. Real run time data must be looked at to confirm operator perceptions.

        A classic is to take an occurrence that goes bollocks once a month and report it as daily reality. More than a decade ago, operators on a local route repeatedly said they could not make schedule, when I had the data that showed they were consistently leaving 5 minutes late. My office was at the end of line, so I could field verify as well.

        That said, the eyes, ears, and heart of the system, the operators, should be engaged regarding running time. There are always real problems that need to be resolved. Before a fine comes along.

      2. An add-on, as I can’t edit what I wrote. In my example, buses were leaving the first timepoint 5 minutes late.

      3. It seems like with the GPS equipment on the buses, if they collected the data and reviewed it later, planners should have a lot of data on run times without depending upon drivers to report it.

  8. Again, this is a problem that just doesn’t exist on a rationalized network built around core routes with relatively high frequencies moving between anchors in actual places (with bathrooms!)

    A network structured around 10-minute heavy-lifting routes with many drivers, plus perpendicular feeders shorter and more frequent than our labyrinthine legacy long-hauls, eliminates the false choice of 42-minute thumb-twiddlers after each and every run versus 12-minute recovery scramblers with no chance to pee.

    I’ll echo Brent’s critique above: this isn’t about auditors or about management vs. operators or even about good vs. questionable driving skills. This is a network structural problem. And yet another reason to mercilessly eradicate our inertial impulse.

  9. Always remember: The people making decisions to cut schedule time are people who don’t ride the bus. They don’t depend on transit to get anywhere and have no first-hand appreciation of the consequences of their decisions.

  10. “The problem with using operators only to make scheduling decisions is that they have a huge incentive to be untruthful.”

    Is exactly as fair as saying that managers have a giant incentive to lie to their own superiors, as well as far less fear of being caught. And that, for example, King County Council members have even bigger incentive and less fear. And at the Top of the Chain, …well, at least nobody in ATU Local 587, Metro Management, or King County government can lie the country into a war and keep their job. Or more than one war.

    2Tall, it would be much more fair, and accurate, to say that precisely as a attempt to give an honest answer, a driver will report his or her own experience with a schedule. The worst transit obstacle, traffic, can change by the minute, let alone day or week. As well as rate of boarding, giving information, collecting- hopefully not much longer-fares collection. Drivers also have different degrees of skill, or more often, experience.

    Main justice behind tenure and promotion by seniority.

    Main problem: as with just about every present problem in working America, judgments requiring human skill, knowledge, and experience are tuned over to tools and systems that know only as much as the least accurate information some human-or committee- told them.

    Causing delays and disasters magnitudes more expense than the wages to prevent them would have cost.

    Winning bumper sticker: “This country will work when its people get work!” Too bad even a poster can’t have a heroic worker triumphantly waving a Medal of Honor winning computer mouse and not make everybody laugh.


  11. Curtains and a few empty Mickey Big Mouth Malt Liquor bottles can work…in a pinch and a careful shake…

    1. The major issue with that is that peeing in a bottle is kinda also against the rules. Plus many of the buses now have working cameras, and having someone possibly watching you pee into that liquor bottle is probably not the image you want to give your boss before you go back to see them. Then again, maybe it is your thing.

      1. Worst thing about the two suggestions above is that some Metro or county official, driven criminally insane by impossible revenue and schedule demands, enact them on the Pierce County Transit ride to Western State:

        1. Mandate that drivers stay on schedule by only using above bathroom arrangements, which make it unnecessary to get off the bus.

        2. Use the taxpayers’ video capital to observe them in the act- as current laws increasingly mandate.

        3. But- very important- issue bottles from a single specific brewing company. This way, since beer molecules will be exactly the same for every bottle, a precise base-line beer will be factored into the results.

        4. Then, computers, which have been proven useless for scheduling, can match bottle contents with individual driver’s work performance, and physical exam results.

        There will be precise evidence that microbrews not only taste better than mass-produced beer, but are especially beneficial for transit. As has been known for ages in countries like Germany where both beer and transit have always been way ahead of ours.

        Figures will swiftly eliminate the whole consulting budget. But exactly like decades of mass outsourcing, persistence of similar outrages does more damage to the Second Amendment than the Fourth and the Fifth- as the US Supreme Court has recently interpreted the Right to Keep and Bear.

        In the 1970’s huge numbers of factory workers in Detroit had deer rifles. Not M-16’s, maybe, but enough range and accuracy to keep those machines bolted in place while better labor arrangements were negotiated.

        And all the combined basements full of machine-guns across the land have been unable to prevent random observed drug testing- or the decades of economic policies that have replaced wages with expensive consumer and residential loans.

        Thomas Jefferson would have had his overseers run enforcers off of Monticello with the dogs he kept to catch slaves- which however hypocritical, would have left an excellent example of citizenship for all history since.


  12. Metro for years has ignored reality. Shake-up after shake-up “the schedule” remains the same even though anyone that waits for the bus knows the scheduled time on many (most) routes is impossible. They’ve had this data for years; it didn’t take GPS. But instead of changing the printed schedules to represent reality the fantasy remains. Why, because reality is inconvenient. It doesn’t match things like 8 hour shifts and union required breaks. The system is broken and more money won’t fix it. The budget axe that fell on Pierce County never seriously changed anything at Metro. And of course ST has money to burn. Not letting a good crises go to waste Metro now has an even larger tax base to draw on so… why change?

    1. Slowing down the printed schedule because traffic is often had has its own problems. Chiefly that on days when traffic isn’t bad, the bus has to stop and wait for several minutes at every time point. Basically, we have a choice. We can post schedules for the best possible traffic conditions and accept that buses will be late much of the time, or we can post buses for average traffic conditions and make everybody pay the cost of bad traffic, every day, whether traffic is actually bad that given day or not. In a world with OneBusAway, I would rather see an official schedule based on optimistic traffic conditions and use OneBusAway to avoid those 20-minute waits that result from arriving at a bus stop 10 minutes early for a bus that’s 10 minutes late.

  13. Department of Labor & Industries fining Metro $3,500

    Source for this was a Seattle Sometimes article. So I won’t place a bet that the decimal point is in the right place but a $3,500 fine for an agency that has an ~$700M budget? That’s like someone making $100k getting fined 50 cents! (seriously, do the math) How much was spent in legal fees; both sides being paid by tax dollars?

    1. More to the point, according to TFA, they saved 80,000 service hours a year at ~125 per hour that’s about $10M times 4 years. $3,500 to save 40 million: that’s better than a 100,000% return on investment. Oh that something ethical could be as profitable.

  14. Having recovery time is also good for operations, as it keeps the system running more-or-less on time even in the worst conditions. The trick is finding a good balance of having too much, vs, too little recovery time and even harder is finding good locations to have a layover. Space to park multiple coaches, restrooms, safety, and other amenities are often hard to come by.

    1. @MrZ +1 …. you don’t have to look at second order effects to see that this is bad for passengers.
      Unreliability of the schedule is a major reason many people don’t take transit seriously as a transportation option of choice. [Yes, you can make up for this somewhat with enough frequency, but we’re nowhere close to that].

      If there isn’t enough recovery time in place so that drivers can take a whiz every few runs, then there isn’t enough recovery time to run to schedule if you run into traffic, or a belligerent change fumbler, or a run where you have to raise and lower the ramp at every stop, or…. That said, I don’t think that recovery time is the real problem here anyway, rather it’s the lack of reliably available (ideally clean) bathrooms at the ends of runs. It doesn’t seem beyond the wit of man to design schedules and acquire bathroom rights (if necessary with porta-potties, although that’s very much an option of last resort) so that ever single run of over 2 hours in duration has hourly recovery time somewhere where a bathroom is readily available.

  15. Not enough break time? Yeah right. Drivers start when they want. If they decide to blow off the route so be it. Metro keeps putting out schedules that are all lies. If they were honest they would all say “when we feel like it”.

    1. It’s not the bus drivers. Yeah, if you don’t have a comparable paying job it might seem like “they” don’t care, and some don’t. But I’d like to believe that most, some what more than half, do. But yes, there are a percentage that perhaps have seniority and just don’t give a rat. Like the amazingly large number that still won’t open the back door unless you plead with them.

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