Photo by el swifterino on Flickr.
Pedestrians across the region may soon find Metrobuses talking to them. Although WMATA will position these buses as a safety innovation, implementing system-wide talking buses would be a poor use of resources and would do little to improve safety.
Supporters of talking buses argue that audible warnings make our streets safer. But the whole scheme feels like a knee-jerk reaction by a transit agency struggling with an image that it doesn’t take safety to heart.
The ultimate question with regard to safety is whether there is compelling evidence that these warnings could have prevented a past collision between a bus and a pedestrian. I’ve yet to see analysis that concludes that talking buses would address the cause of these incidents.
One thing is certain about talking buses: they’re annoying.
Both for those on the street and riders on the bus, listening to the same safety message on repeat for an extended period of time is enough to drive most people at least a little crazy. This is true whether downtown, where lines of buses could broadcast for blocks, or in residential neighborhoods, where early-morning and late-night disruptions are rarely appreciated.
Worse, talking buses bully pedestrians into accepting responsibility for an incident that might occur. After all, if someone is unfortunately struck, shouldn’t they have seen it coming? It’s logic designed to distract attention away from the incident itself, and prematurely assign responsibility.
Washington isn’t the first city to experiment with audible warnings on its buses. I lived in Cleveland, Ohio at the time the city’s RTA rolled out buses that beeped whenever a bus driver engaged the turn signal. When drivers avoided using their turn signal to circumvent the noise, the transit agency wired the audio system into the steering column and replaced the high-pitched beeping with a female voice.
Cleveland’s RTA implemented audible buses after several notable incidents that involved collisions between pedestrians and left-turning buses. Much like the situation developing in Washington, Clevelanders questioned how spending money and resources on audio equipment addressed the root safety issue.
Talking buses have proven incredibly unpopular in Cleveland. A former colleague wrote me to describe the current sentiment. “It’s still incredibly obnoxious. I’m embarrassed that visitors to the city have to hear it,” he writes. “But like any repetitive sound it gets tuned out most of the time.”
This is a serious concern. After a while, talking buses lose any effectiveness they once had. The audible warnings merely become noise pollution in the urban landscape; and we’re left with annoying warnings that don’t do much good. Small-scale improvements to transit and pedestrian safety is a noble goal; but talking buses are unlikely to accomplish much. Resources would be better spent elsewhere.