Transit Agencies, Feds Should Walk a Mile in Our Shoes

By Dave Millhouser

In 1862, the Civil War was going poorly for the North (and no, this is not a personal memory).

That summer, General George McClellan penned a long letter to Abraham Lincoln essentially telling him he was doing everything wrong. When Lincoln was asked what his response was, he said, “Nothing.”

But it made me think of the Irishman whose horse kicked up and caught its foot in the stirrup. “Arrah!” said he. “If you are going to get on, I will get off.”

It’s remarkable how smart folks are when they don’t see the whole picture or have little personal stake in the outcome of something they’re criticizing.

Our business is currently treading water (some say drowning) in sea of regulations promulgated and enforced by folks who have little insight or stake in the coach business. As a result, we spend a ton of our time figuring out how they think we should operate.

A TV program recently portrayed “Life After People,” or what earth would look like if we disappeared. Hmmm, what about a bus industry without regulators?

It would likely be a mixed blessing, because certainly a measure of regulation is necessary. There’s a line between the government protecting us from serious dangers that aren’t easily visible to even a sophisticated public, and regulators getting involved in minutiae that either doesn’t matter much or can be addressed by market forces.

The advent of social media and instant communications has moved that line. Maybe it’s time for market forces, in the form of informed consumers, to pick winners and losers among operators.

Overregulating blunts that force and skews the market towards major carriers that have more resources to deal with silliness.

The trouble with regulating is that the public comes to trust it, and mentally gives up personal responsibility. If a bus line meets government standards, what could go wrong? And when something does go wrong, we just add another rule to “fix” it.

On paper, all drivers are “qualified.” Yet customers consistently request some drivers while shunning others. That’s a responsible marketplace speaking.

Somewhere along the line (pun intended), the pubic has bought into the perception that the private sector is “greedy” but government entities like transit authorities are “well intentioned.”

If you look at safety statistics, a different picture often emerges.

The difference between well-intentioned public-sector carriers and us is that they are too big (or important) to fail and they have no real competition.

Their customers have no choice, and when such carriers screw up, it’s our fault for not giving them enough money. When they REALLY mess up, it is damned near impossible to hold them accountable.

We, on the other hand, are subjected to scrutiny by regulators enforcing a mixed bag of rules. Because many come from a law enforcement background, they have neither the insight nor motivation to teach real safety, only to play “gotcha.”

We are subject to a price-sensitive marketplace that keeps us honest and efficient. Social media catches, and often amplifies, our missteps, allowing alert consumers to choose operators that meet their needs.

A major accident can destroy a life’s worth of investment and hard work in a heartbeat.

The question is, in real life, who is more motivated to get things right?

Again, the point is not that there should be no rules, just fewer of them that are targeted at improving safety, not imposing fines for violations.

Each current regulation should be required to stand up to scrutiny – such as a cost-benefit analysis — to prove that compliance actually enhances safety in an efficient way.

Wouldn’t it be fun to switch places for a year? Public-sector carriers would be forced to adhere to all the “stuff” we endure, while we would enjoy a market in which people are forced to ride on our buses.

They would actually have to maintain equipment in an economical way, and we could throw money at coaches.

Our customers’ complaints would be buried in layers of bureaucracy until they’re eulogized in a form letter. If we weren’t making enough money, we’d demand more. If we messed up, we would blame our customers.

There’s an old Native American saying about walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins. If public agencies were held to the same economic and safety standards as private operators, how long do you think it would take them to force change?

Even better, since regulators and transit authorities are both playing for the same team, maybe they’d use some actual operating experience to choose which rules actually made sense.

Instead, it seems that the governmental folks have seized on another, more modern, version of the aforementioned Native American saying: “If you have a dispute with someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way you’re a mile away, and you have their shoes.”

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at

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