January 2012

Understanding the Complexity of Transit Safety

by Levern McElveen

Photo credit: Larry Levine/WMATA

Photo credit: Larry Levine/WMATA
For transit industry leaders to be successful in developing and sustaining a vibrant safety culture, they must fully understand the complexity of transit safety and the organizational culture and sub-cultures within their respective systems. Transit systems are tightly coupled, technologically complex organizations. These systems are comprised of multiple sub-systems that are interdependent and interrelated. It will be necessary for leaders to understand the synergy, interdependence and interrelationships needed between systems and sub-systems as well as the organizational culture and the many different sub-cultures.

The importance of understanding the complexity of transit systems and sub-systems and the effect on the development of a vibrant and effective safety culture is best understood by the theoretical concept of system theory. System theory is a conceptual tool that would allow transit leaders to better understand the interdependence and interrelationship of systems and sub-systems within the organizational structure. The notion of system theory has been around since the 1930s and 1940s. According to David S. Walonick (1993), in "Organizational Theory and Behavior," "The foundation of system theory is that all the components of an organization are interrelated, and that changing one variable might impact many others." Additionally, he states "Small changes in one variable can cause huge changes in another, and large changes in a variable might have only a nominal effect on another."

Similarly, Dr. Nancy Levinson's "Engineering a Safer World,"states, "Systems are broken into distinct parts so that the parts can be examined separately." Transit leaders must examine these sub-systems independently to ensure synergy between them because they work independently, and in conjunction, with one another. When sub-systems operate in sync with one another, it is the result of many factors at work. Patterns of safety behavior are influenced by the cultural change and processes in place.

The impact of synergy is an operating system that works at or near optimal level of efficiency; therefore, it will reflect a change in employees' safety performance and attitudes. When systems and sub-systems are in alignment, the result is a safer transit system. Safe transit systems are the reflection of how well safety has been ingrained into the fabric of systems and multiple sub-systems. When transit systems are not properly aligned, these systems and sub-systems will reach their safety limits, which may lead to catastrophic events.

Transit Profiles
To understand complexity of transit system safety and system theory, let's examine the profiles of two large transit systems. New York City Transit (NYCT) is the largest transit system in the U.S. The transit system makes 1.56 billion annual passenger trips, with a fleet size of 6,485 subway cars; averages 8,160 weekday train trips; and transports 5.12 million weekday passengers, traveling over 343 million annual revenue vehicle miles. NYCT has 26 lines traveling over 659 track miles with 468 stations and runs a 24/7 operation. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is considered by some to be the second largest transit system in the nation. According to WMATA's profile, the system operates more than 222.9 million annual passenger trips, with a fleet of 1,138 railcars operating over 106.3 miles of track with 86 stations and 860 escalators and elevators. WMATA service hours are from 5:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. on weekends. The task of managing safety for these systems is critical and complex because of multiple sub-systems that are interrelated and interdependent.

Transit Sub-Systems
Transit system profiles explain, to a degree, the complexity of safety in transit systems, however, knowledge of these profiles, in and of themselves, will not guide transit leaders in the direction of developing and sustaining a vibrant and effective safety culture. Transit systems differ in sizes across the transit industry from large — NYCT — to medium, such as the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) in Baltimore, to a small system like Kenosha Transit in Kenosha, Wis.

However, there is one thing all transit systems have in common: they all have sub-systems (examples of sub-systems are operations, maintenance, signaling systems, traction power, etc.). It is through these tightly coupled technological systems and sub-systems that transit leaders must examine and evaluate thoroughly to begin understanding the complexity of transit safety and safety culture. Transit leaders must examine these sub-systems independently to ensure synergy between the multiple sub-systems and the systems.

For example, transit systems operate in many different environments: political, social, legal and economic. The rapidly evolving demands placed on transit by society today have created an overarching demand for transit leaders to focus their attention on getting service out (productivity). Transit leaders must be cautioned when viewing sub-systems interdependently in that they don't separate the sub-systems in any manner. When greater emphasis is placed on one sub-system, such as operations, other sub-systems, such as maintenance, will be de-emphasized. When this practice is continued over a period of time, the system will soon reach its safety limitations. As a result, the consequence is an increased probability of accidents occurring; some of which will be catastrophic in nature.

Transit leaders cannot place greater emphasis on one sub-system over another, nor separate sub-systems because systems theory "reminds us that if you break up an elephant, you don't have a bunch of little elephants," C. McNamara, author of "Organizations as Systems," says. System theory suggests that if any part of the sub-systems is broken, the system in and of itself may not be able to operate efficiently, or drastic changes will occur.

As transit leaders examine these sub-systems, they must understand that sub-systems are often at odds with one another due to internal conflicts. These conflicts are often caused by a lack of balance between the sub-systems, which are not working in conjunction with each other. Conflicts may also be caused by the mere structure of a transit system (i.e., locations, shifts, work hours). Transit leaders must continue to diligently seek balance and equilibrium between the systems and the multiple sub-systems before the foundation of a vibrant and effective safety culture can begin to flourish.


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