Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2017/ Bus Factor

Bus Factor

This is a small nitpick, but I would like to write it out loud.

I have a problem with the term "bus factor". The concept is useful, but associated with it are a bunch of connotations I dislike.

"Bus Factor" is a concept used to describe the number of points of failure in a project. A project with Bus Factor of N means that there exist N people in the project such that if those N people were all debilitated ("if they were hit by a bus") then the project would collapse. For example, sometimes I worry that KWLUG has a bus factor of 1, because if I was to become debilitated nobody would organize or host or publicize meetings. Projects with small bus factors are vulnerable; ones with large bus factors are robust because there is redundancy of knowledge and skill within the project.

I do not like the metaphor of getting hit by a bus. It conveys the perception that buses are murderous. Like so many other cliches, it takes a concept that used to be funny because it was absurd, and normalizes it so that people think it is an actual risk.

I do not have numbers to prove this, but as far as I know not many people are debilitated from being hit by buses. Many many more are debilitated by being hit by cars. Yet more are debilitated in other forms of car accident. But we do not call the concept a "Car Factor" because that would be less funny; most of us know somebody who has been in a serious car accident.

It may be the case that there are fewer bus debilitations than car debilitations because there are far more cars than buses in the world. However, I also feel that the median bus drivers is far better at driving than the median car driver.

Similarly, we do not use the term "Airplane Factor" because we tend to be frightened about dying in airplanes in a way that we are not afraid (or at least, didn't used to be afraid) of being hit by buses. I am sure it is coincidental that there are powerful forces trying to normalize airplane travel, and there are no corresponding forces normalizing bus use.

There are also social stigmas associated with this term. Humourously suggesting that buses are bloodthirsty for important people is a statement against public transit. This is no surprise given that we perceive buses to be used by poor and undesirable people. We do not call the concept "Train Factor" or "Subway Factor", and it just so happens that wealthy software developers sometimes take trains and subways.

As I said at the beginning, this is a nitpicky point. I am not willing to die on this hill. I do not have a better term in mind, and I think the term is established enough that we are not going to change it. I would still like to register my discomfort with it.