Felix Salmon is our favorite Englishman in New York. Why? Because he's anything but laconic. He can write a thirty paragraph essay regarding just about anything. For instance, over the last two days, he's written more than 3600 words about buses. That's right, buses. The heart of his meditation is a simple question: would buses move faster if drivers were paid per passenger, instead of a fixed wage. The question comes out of a University of Arizona paper that considers the Santiago, Chile bus system, where many drivers are paid per passenger, and do seem to get where they are going a little bit (up to 15%) faster than their fixed-rate colleagues.
If paying bus drivers per passenger is really so much better, why don't more cities do it? Felix points out:
Do drivers paid on a per-passenger basis get into more accidents? Yes. The report shows that they have 10.03 accidents per million kilometers travelled, compared to just 5.98 accidents per million kilometers travelled on the Chicago-style buses. That's a huge difference, which can't be shrugged off by saying that they are "moving from place to place more quickly". The pay-per-passenger system means that drivers have a very strong incentive to overtake the bus in front of them, and pick up all of the passengers which the bus in front would otherwise get. So they are likely to drive more aggressively, and less safely.
He goes on other potential downsides, as well as ways to improve the incentive system using technology. And that's just in the first post! In the second post, he considers more complex incentive schemes, and whether decreased waiting times for buses always result in higher accident frequencies.
During a visit to Santiago last year, we got to ride their bus system a number of times. The bus drivers compete furiously for passengers. The buses do seem to move faster, but there is a lot of jostling around as the buses dodge in and out of traffic-- and we saw more than a few accidents during the week we were there. Also, the bus drivers attempt to pack as many people as they can into the buses, resulting in a very crowded ride. In short, it's not at all clear to us that this scheme would be good for New York. Do you have a better idea for how to improve bus service? We're all ears.