Saturday, November 28, 2015

Rants and Reviews


Wow, what a week. First, this blog was reviewed by Jonathan at While on one hand I appreciated the publicity and many great comments which gave me insights from the cyclists' point of view. On the other I was amazed at how many of those readers are simple boneheads. They can't distinguish satire from reality, for one. Others are liberally-infused with an unhealthy dose of hypocrisy.

While many appreciated what we do 'out there' while keeping people safe, others questioned our methods. Somehow, we're expected to be emotional robots when we avoid colliding with them, saving their lives whether they realize it or not. As our adrenaline level rockets sky-high after a near-miss with an errant bicyclist, we're often treated to the one-fingered salute. How many of you can honestly say that if you saved another's life and they flipped you off, you would nod and just say "Bless you, child"? Not many, I'll bet. All because you used your 'warning device' (aka 'horn') to alert them of impending disaster. It's silly, childish, and contraindicative of the majority of intelligent and attentive bicycle-riding public. Because I have the audacity to call stupid behavior just that, I'm labeled "angry" and "horn happy".

My good friend and brother, The Rampant Lion, was astounded someone would refer to us that way. In fact, he took it a step further.

"If you're a f-ing scofflaw, and you're doing something stupid and unlawful, like riding your bike across a crosswalk, then, without either signaling or looking first, you swerve back into the traffic lane in front of my 40,000-lb. machine, you bet your sweet bippy I'm gonna honk at your ass!" The Lion roars a lot louder than I can.

So for those who cannot maturely interact with the world into which they blindly venture, I'll jump back a few years and treat them accordingly. I'll wash their 'binky' in a politically-correct organic antiseptic, so no nasty old bus driver's epithets won't infect their fragile temperaments. (We're cursed and belittled all day, every day by ignorant ne'er do wells, but we tough it out.) Then I'll buy them a soft little bunny to cuddle. (Personally, I prefer my bunnies fried or in a finely-seasoned Welsh Rarebit.) Then, I'll give them a ba-ba infused with ganja juice to mellow them out. (Some of us resort to a fine scotch after a week of work, but are unable to taste the forbidden THC fruit, as per federal law.) Finally, I'll tuck them in wif a rancid blanky made of street detritus, singing James Taylor's Damn This Traffic Jam until they settle into a fretful nightmare.

Folks, I won't sugar-coat what we face out there. If I wake a few people up or even piss you off, I'm doing my job as the author of a transit-related blog. Maybe you'll read something that could possibly save your own life. I truly want to help you be safe. You're 100-200lbs. on a 20lb. nearly-invisible two-wheeled self-propellant sharing the street with a 40ft., 11' tall, 9' wide 20-ton monster operated by an attentive and vigilant professional. You're most likely safer near a bus, if you follow basic common sense rules, than you are around cars or delivery vehicles.

We're actually very nice people. We go to church with you, coach Little League, salute the flag, vote in elections, and feel sad when one of you is injured (whoever may be at fault) in an accident with a transit vehicle. If my 'ranting' offends you, I heartily invite you to read elsewhere. I'm not always negative, but as traffic gets worse each year, our jobs become proportionately harder. Sure, I pounce on stupid behavior. But you may notice I have a softer side. There are some funny bits here and there, so I've been told. I'm not a growling, spitting, finger-bending ogre who eats little kids for dinner with cute kittens for dessert. If you don't like it when my truths offend your fairy tale image of life, too damn bad. Go tell Stephen King to knock it off when his characters chop off limbs or think firestorms upon various pissers-off. You don't see him acting these stories out in real life, and to lambast me for it is just ludicrous.

Yeah, I "rant" in here. It's great therapy! It keeps me safe, sane and able to treat passengers to a courteous and safe ride. Before the crybabies chimed in when FTDS was reviewed, I had 42,000 hits. An overwhelming majority of comments have been positive. Many of my readers also drive a bus, and they say my writing usually mirrors their own thoughts. Operators and passengers all over the world read this blog to the tune of 4,000 a month. From humble beginnings to this point, all has gone well. I'm very grateful for this opportunity, and I thank you for your honest opinions, agreeable or not.

One thing this experience has taught me is that I've reached that point in a bus driver's career where I need to step back, take a deep breath, and not allow things affect me so deeply. If I seem angry to you, it's only because my fellow Portlanders practice ignorance at the worst times, and when they do so around my bus, it's highly stressful. Any sane person would be affected by a near-miss. If you believe these are all the fault of bus operators, you're horribly mistaken.

For the first time in my career not long ago, I had to stop driving in the middle of a shift because I was verbally assaulted. Nobody has ever spoken to me in that manner, tone or with such rudeness; not even my first wife, and she was a doozy. Sure, I've been verbally abused before, but this time I was so upset and angry that had I driven further, the incident would have caused such a distraction I couldn't have kept my passengers safe. When I stepped off the bus, my hands were shaking, my soul was in turmoil. I was glad I made the decision to call it a day. Even though they were inconvenienced by my decision, those riders understood. Some even thanked me, and said they were sorry I was treated so poorly. Such kindness brought tears to my eyes.

Peace be with you this holiday season, and I hope all your ups and downs are in bed.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Blame Sharing for Tragic Incidents

My most recent post came out of a "Re-Certification Class" our agency has once a year for all bus operators. This one will delve into more detail about what constitutes "safety", and whose responsibility it is in regards to transit.

Our local transit-blog muscle man, Al Margulies, recently posted a video on this subject. (See TriMet Refuses...) A retiree, he is well-known for blasting Portland's transit agency, TriMet, for its blunders and shenanigans. It's good to keep grinding the agency for dragging its feet, especially where the word "safety" is concerned. Also, while he's correct in lambasting the agency for its lack of action in lieu of a passel of fancy words and finger-pointing, my blog's mantra is "Safety is a Two-Way Street".

I've stated many times that bus (and MAX) operators SAVE lives every trip, every line, every single damn day. You won't hear about that in the media, because "safety" doesn't sell. Unless, of course, something bad happens. Then you hear about how TriMet needs to "train its operators more" or "study safety solutions" and blah blah blah.

Oh sure, once in a while you get the "Operator Good Guy" feel good story, but most of us don't tell the Public Information Office (PIO) about all the good things we do. Why? Because it's all part of our job. The "news" would most likely not be interested if it were inundated with "OGG" stories, and most of us are just simply... well, too modest to talk about it. After a shift is over, we just want to go home and be with our loved ones, putting that day's work behind us (if we can) when we walk out of the garage. The next day, we often forget what happened the day before. This is also how we deal with the shit thrown at us by rude and abusive passengers every day. In order to drive safely, we have to let it all just roll off our shoulders, good and bad.

So when you hear about tragedy in our fair city, such as Lady Doesn't Look, Loses Her Leg, people are quick to point at the operator, especially our local media. Do you think my "headline" for the link in the last sentence is what the media would say? Of course not! That would be putting the blame on the poor lady who lost her leg because some bonehead operator ran her over! Now wait a minute, we operators say, what about the lady's responsibility in this matter? If you read the quote by a police officer, it speaks volumes about "blame".

"Witnesses stated (she) had a hoodie on, and looked to be wearing earbuds as she crossed the tracks", directly in front of an oncoming train. A train that sounded its horn in warning, a signal everyone else but the victim, seemed to hear.

We see this type of behavior every day. Downtown. On Division. In Beaverton, Gresham, Oregon City, St. John's, Gladstone, Tigard, Tualatin; everywhere we operate buses or trains. People just act as if the world around them is responsible for their safety, and if they wear earbuds it's up to someone else to watch out for them. Bicyclists especially are guilty of taking foolish chances around transit vehicles. However, when we alert them of our presence with a firm "beep beep" of our horn, their idea of thanks is often an extended middle finger. Oh, how I'd love to bend those fingers back until I hear a "snap", just to teach them a lesson! But no. Can't do that. We're not allowed to respond. At all.

Yes, I get a bit testy when the public, or the media, questions our "safety training". It's quite adequate, thank you. The public's, however, is severely lacking. There are no media spots on How to Ride a Bus (for Dummies). I never see any Public Service Announcements on how to BE SAFE. People won't even read Signs on the Bus! I get it. It's a personal responsibility thing. But wait... whatever happened to that? It blew away with the advent of the smart phone, I'll betcha. Plugged in and tuned out. That's what we are, as a society.

When something bad happens with a transit vehicle, BAM... blame it on the operator. They're overpaid monkeys anyway, right? I mean anybody can drive a bus! Well evidently not everybody can walk down the street without doing something stupid, but that's beside the point, I reckon.

Yeah, I had a Recert Class recently. The trainer was very informative, as usual. He was a veteran with many years behind the wheel, someone I respect and admire greatly. I learned some things that can truly help me become even safer. Bus operators are human. We develop bad habits that need correction. We need to be kept informed about different safety procedures. This class is really a good idea, even though the district probably wouldn't have done it if not for a fatal incident a few years ago. Yes, we get regular training. But does the public?

One thing about the class that bothered me was a demonstration by someone who works in the "Safety" division. We were subjected to a terribly patronizing video outlining such things as what constitutes a "fall", or a "trip" and other such things we all learned as children. We listened politely as this chap told us how "safety is our culture", yet the talk of the town was how this lady had lost her leg when she was hit by a train when she didn't look before crossing. We all had the same reaction to this corporate double-speak: bullshit. Show this tripe to the riding public, and I'll bet their response wouldn't be nearly as politely restrained as ours.

The only people at TM truly concerned with "safety" are the operators. Management seems to just like the sound of it. It's a pretty word to them, but when they're slapped in the face with obvious safety-related fixes, they "study" this word. Sometimes they study really hard, for a long time. But then they fail the test.

Take our beautiful new Orange Line, for example. Cost to build: $1.5 billion dollars. Yet with all this money, and a supposed "safety culture", the end-of-the-line boarding approaches are straight lines with feeble warnings (on the ground) to "Stop and Look". No herding passengers left, then right, before crossing the tracks; like they have on some of the remodeled approaches on other lines. Brand new line, horrible design where safety is concerned. No gates, little to save people from their own stupidity. Sure, the trains there are poking along at 5-10 mph. But if you get hit by a slow-moving object that weighs 100,000 pounds, it's definitely going to ruin your day, if not lose you a limb or two, or flat-out kill you.

Even though this post seems a bit hard-hearted toward the dear lady who lost her leg recently, I can safely say that all operators feel terrible this happened. Especially me. Whenever we hear about an injury, or a fatality, you can be assured that at least a thousand operator voices are raised in prayer for the victim and family. We're human, we truly care about our riding public.

Pay attention folks. We sure do.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Recertification Rambling

Sometimes, when my creative "well" is, well, a bit dry, I just sit at the keyboard. And type. So this is one of those times, and please bear with me.

Not that I have nothing to say, but if you've kept up with this blog you know I'm usually too damn wordy. But y'all support me as I ramble, and I appreciate it. We all know just one day in service shows us more than the average city dweller sees in a year. Although the media refuses to report it unless forced, we're portrayed as overpaid and grumpy civil servants who always want more than we deserve while we constantly save lives. We are actually underpaid, when you consider the quality service we provide to an inattentive and jaded public.

I recently had "recertification class", in which we sit  and watch the mistakes of fellow drivers and learn how to avoid repeating them. We watch film of accidents and discuss whether they were preventable from a driver's standpoint. The GM makes an appearance (on film, of course) and says what you'd expect him to say: "Safety is our Number One Concern!" and blah blah. As if his saying it makes this even more important than we already know. We practice it daily. It's ingrained into our senses. We're always watching for dangers, predicting behaviors, altering our speed or making slight alterations in our course to avoid accidents. People do stupid things around our buses so often we're used to it. Safety is second nature to us. But when it comes to OUR safety, drivers are nearly unanimous in our belief the district is more concerned with its image and bottom line than with our actually "being SAFE". We're on the front lines; management sits in the ivory tower making decisions it thinks are best for passengers first. We feel like a destitute fourth cousin at a filthy rich relative's wedding.

I know a driver who was verbally abused and threatened recently. He's around 60 and has concerns this person could physically assault him. One punch could kill literally kill him. Hell, just thinking about whether the guy is waiting for him at a stop could cause a heart attack. Yet he was asked to give the passenger a ride anyway, because he was on good behavior for the supervisors. To his credit, the driver refused. As captains of these ships, we should have the right to refuse service to anybody who threatens us because that person also is a danger to other passengers. Drivers who are distracted by obnoxious passengers are not fully in tune with what they need to be doing. It seemed this driver was being pressured to serve someone who is potentially dangerous, and that's also insulting. What about his safety? Isn't that as important to management as it is to us?

As for the class, it's interesting and sometimes sobering, but I always leave with a renewed sense of purpose: to keep it SAFE out there. Riders are largely unaware of what we do in the driver's seat. They have this misguided notion that all we do is "just drive a bus". True enough. Yet they haven't the tiniest notion, most of them, what it entails. Constant scanning around the bus and the stresses other vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles put on us take their toll. Stopping and starting several hundred times a day puts intense pressure on the feet, ankles, knees and hips. One eight hour shift (or more) can leave us Strained and Drained (SAD, as I like to call it). Although most folks give us a nice "Thank You" as they head out the door, I know they don't have an inkling of what it took physically and mentally to get them from Point A to B. Once in a while, such as during a recent Portland gully-washing storm, I get a pat on the back and a heartfelt "Thanks for driving, I truly appreciate what you do every day". The gratitude I feel when I hear this is indescribable. Unfortunately, it's also very rare.

On my recertification check ride, which is where a trainer has you drive while watching your operating behavior, I was very careful. I am every day, but we're always trying to impress the training staff with our professional techniques. Scanning constantly, watching the mirrors every 5-8 seconds, covering the brake at intersections, making good square turns and executing perfect service stops is something we do every day. All day. Yet after a few years of driving, even the best of us are prone to slide in some areas, or pick up bad habits. My trainer corrected a few of mine that I was unaware of, and I appreciated her input. It will all go into my "bag of tools" I use as I maneuver the behemoth bus down the road.

Once in a while, a driver will make a bonehead mistake. I certainly have, and I'm extremely hard on myself and work hard to avoid further occurrences. We're nowhere near perfect. Compared to other drivers though, we're damn close.

Be SAFE out there fellow ops, and for you riders, here's some advice: next time you're on the bus, unplug your headphones and put the phone away. Watch the operator and observe what they're doing in relation to their surroundings. What you see might just give you a greater appreciation for that person in the seat.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Newer Rides, Older Joints

Well the verdict has been in for quite a while on the "new" Gillig buses. Many of them have 100,000 miles or more, and most bus operators would much rather drive the older New Flyers.

Somewhere along the line, a design team decided to add a few feet to the front of the bus. This added more vision barriers. We already have to "rock and roll" in the seat to make sure we don't miss someone, but with several more barriers to scan around, it's more like "bob and weave while dancing to a Michael Jackson tune" on the new buses. Doing this activity is actually dangerous in itself, because we're not stable while moving around in the seat so much.

In addition to the added vision barriers, the driver's seat is still uncomfortable. If you're over six feet tall, the edge of the seat cuts off circulation just above the knees. The adjustable pedals is a nice touch, but on some models the turn signals are too close, making it so you have to actually move your foot onto the turn signal rather than pivot the heels.

The kneeler control is on the dash on many models, requiring the operator to lean forward in the seat to lower the bus. On a typical route, we can kneel and raise the bus hundreds of times a day. Drivers are suffering from repetitive motion injuries, because it's quite a reach even when you're a long-armed monkey like me. If you're shorter of stature, it's more than just a reach. The newest Gilligs have the kneeler and mobility device ramp controls combined with the door opening lever. This is much more ergonomically-correct for the operators.

We're supposed to be impressed with drop-down chains for the maybe once-a-winter snowfall in Portland. However, one driver said he had to crawl over a curb and it broke the chains. Show me a driver who has never driven over a curb, and I'll show you a true service animal: they're both pretty rare.

Another thing I've noticed about the newer buses is the back door opens differently. Instead of pushing when we activate the door, passengers are supposed to just touch it. Since few of them bother to read Signs on the Bus, sometimes they slam through the doors. Problem is, these newer buses don't like a heavy hand, and they tend to slam shut on the unsuspecting illiterates without warning. This earns us angry glares as the boneheads walk past after de-boarding, as if it's our fault they can't bother to read simple instructions.

There are some good things about these newer buses. They burn cleaner and have more fuel-efficient engines, leaving a smaller carbon footprint. When you add the fact that most riders on the bus have left their car at home, riding a cleaner-burning bus is an even greener way to go. The route signs are easier to see, because they're larger and have bigger letters/numbers. Also, curb lights come on when we activate turn signals, making it easier to see our way around tight corners.

So next time we order buses, let's have flat-faced New Flyers that incorporate the operator-friendly features, rather than the ugly new Gilligs with fat noses and too many blind spots. But hey, I'm just a bus driver... what do I know?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Use Common Sense to Avoid Tragedy

While my job as a bus operator pays me well, there are often times the income doesn't keep up with the bills. So the outcome of my income disparity leads me to be a taxi driver on my nights off, in my personal car. Of course, I'm still bound by Hours of Service rules, but in this signup I have plenty of wiggle room so I know my hours won't put me in violation.

The other night was Halloween, which is a very lucrative time for taxi drivers. I must have ferried a few dozen inebriated and costumed revelers in various states of intoxication. It was fun. Unlike those drunken slobs who ride our buses daily, these people were kind and considerate. Since I'm a professional driver by trade, I find it comforting to know I'm providing a valuable service to our community. The partying crowd is becoming more responsible. Even though a ride can get a bit pricey late at night, the other option is the very expensive and dangerous choice of driving while intoxicated.

Just before 1:00 a.m. that evening, as I drove two fellas to their home off Lombard, we came upon a ghastly sight. A man lay motionless in the middle of the street on Lombard at Peninsular, and a vehicle sat nearby, on fire. We safely detoured around this horrible scene, having arrived moments after it occurred. A witness was checking the man's pulse... but he evidently died at the scene. Later I found the news story (Pedestrian Killed by Suspected DUI Driver), which confirmed my suspicions. My heart was heavy, and I was sad to know the family of the deceased would be informed of this senseless tragedy in the middle of the night.

As bus operators, we constantly see people taking foolish chances in traffic. A few weeks back, an 11-year-old girl darted in front of the bus (on Lombard too) she had just exited, into traffic. Even though motorists can't see around a bus, they speed around us all the time. This time, a car struck the  child, seriously injuring her. The bus operator saw it happen, and was devastated.

When people do stupid things just to catch my bus, I cannot help but comment. One bicyclist actually said it was none of my business she blew through a red light just to dart in front of my bus and put her bike on the rack. But it is, damnit. Everything that happens in or around my bus is definitely my business. I'm charged with ensuring the public's safety, and if someone does something stupid in the vicinity of my vehicle, it's my responsibility to avoid hitting them. Many of us refuse to reward stupid behavior, and pass up the fools. This gets us in hot water with the transit agency, which sides with the public much of the time. They don't want Clueless Cindy to make a scene, so they actually tell us to give people a ride who truly don't deserve one, in the name of safety. I'm sorry, but if you're too stupid to follow basic safety procedures, you're too stupid to ride my bus.

If only the motoring public had the same training as bus operators do, they might understand how to drive safely. Perhaps those who think they're "better drunk drivers than sober" should wise up. It could save their life, or that of the poor pedestrian I saw lying in the street the other night. Call a cab, and let a professional get you home. It could prevent your loved ones from answering that dreaded late-night knock on the door.