There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Driving a bus and caring for riders

Last night I needed to make a quick grocery store stop on my way home. I had a choice: Go to Safeway at 19th and S streets and then catch light rail at 16th Street, or take the train to my regular bus and then go to Raley's at Watt and Marconi. The deciding factor? The choice of bus drivers.

There is more to driving a bus than, well, driving a bus. Some drivers make riders feel welcome on their bus, while other drivers just check your fare. But occasionally you have a driver who is so unpleasant that you just don't want to ride the bus.

Last night's choice came down to riding with a nice guy or a woman who lacks any people skills.

My first introduction to this driver occurred some time back. My outbound train was late arriving into the 65th Street station. Making matters worse, the inbound train was even later. Everyone transferring from the outbound train to buses had to wait for the inbound train to leave. By the time I was finally able to walk across Q Street, the No. 82 bus was starting to leave. I waived at the driver, but the bus continued to leave. Finally, I stepped off the sidewalk and stood in the path of the bus with my monthly pass held up in front of the bus windshield. The driver grudgingly stopped and allowed me and several other passengers to board.

I was willing to leave that be. Maybe she was having a bad day, like the one I wrote about when she was standing on her horn through most of the trip. But there's a pattern that just can't be ignored. On one occasion she snapped at a guy who had asked politely for some information. He rightly took offense and the situation got very tense before he finally returned to his seat.

Now she has come up with an especially infuriating tactic.

At the 65th Street station, buses enter the transit center from a side street off Folsom. The buses then stop at their designated stops and passengers transferring to light rail must cross Q Street to get to the station.

This driver skips the Folsom route and goes down 65th Street to Q Street. She enters Q Street and stops beside the train station. After all of her passengers leave, she drives to the far end of the transit center and parks next to the toilet provided for RT employees.

There is more than a little irony in the fact that I suggested to RT that all buses enter the transit center at Q Street to make it more convenient for riders transferring to the train. I was told that wouldn't work.

It is obvious that this driver's motivation to take the detour isn't the convenience of her passengers. By taking this route she can avoid dealing with the people waiting to get on the bus.

I appreciate that drivers are allowed breaks between runs. But most drivers park the bus at the stop, turn off the engine and let riders wait inside the bus while they walk over to the restroom.

Standing at the bus stop, stamping your feet to keep warm while watching your bus park 100 yards away is just not good for the overall thrill of riding Sacramento Regional Transit buses. To make matters worse, this woman routinely waits until after the official departure time before bringing the bus to the stop.

On Monday, I watched and waited and looked at my watch and counted the minutes as I tried to keep warm. When the bus finally arrived two minutes after its scheduled departure time, I boarded only to find a bus that seemed colder inside than outside. As the bus was leaving the station, a woman walked forward and asked the driver to turn on the heater. I didn't hear the actual response, but whatever the driver said sent the woman quickly back to her seat, now both cold and hot.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that the heater started working later in the run, when nearly everyone had left the bus.

What do I want? I want RT to invite people to tell them what makes a good driver. What special effort makes one driver stand out from the rest.

From 17 years of experience handling letters to the editor, I know that people only write when they are angry, not when they are happy. Unless RT asks to hear from riders, all they will get is disgruntled riders with tales like the one above. Without positive feedback to balance the overall picture, the negative reports can't be put in perspective.

And maybe if drivers such as the woman above were exposed to the "good" feelings that some drivers routinely generate, perhaps the drivers could better appreciate what they could do to make the ride more enjoyable. I've never driven a bus, but I'd be willing to wager that a bus full of happy riders is easier to drive than one filled with a sullen crowd.

But this idea won't work if the riders don't get some feedback. RT should publish a list of the "best practices" that the riders suggest each month. It could become a regular feature in RT's newsletter. Engaging the riders will make them feel that RT cares. That's important if RT really wants to stop the decline in ridership.


Jon Q. RT Driver said...

I hate to admit it, but some of us drivers are light years better than others.

Just like any quasi-organized entity, some apples are sweeter than others...and some are just plain rotten.

It seems the longer you work at RT the more antagonistic you become towards passengers.

You may notice that the younger drivers are considerably more polite than the old wrinkly bastards that frequent the 30/36, 73/74 and the 28. These drivers have the seniority to bid what pays the most while involving the least driving time as possible.

As a contrast, those of us who push the 51, 81, 82, 23, 67 & 68 may be cheery most of the time.

We are rookies in the grand scheme of things, and I would bet that we all try to make the best of it.

Sometimes we have bad days, but nothing compared to the wrinkly old pricks who have been at RT since the mid 70's.

John said...

My absolutely favorite driver on the No. 82 bus was an old guy. I overheard him talking with a rider once explaining that he had retired from some other job and he was driving a bus because he loved the work. (Since I don't see him anymore, perhaps he finally retired from driving too.) He would chat with students and even knew some of their names. I wrote about him more than once. (This post comes to mind.)

heartensoul4u said...

"You may notice that the younger drivers are considerably more polite than the old wrinkly bastards that frequent the 30/36 ..."

Whoa there buddy!
I BEG to differ.

I call your attention to the "old wrinkly" driver of the 6:20am Block 3006 who beats any young driver for polite AND entertaining.