Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Smoker


Donuts anyone? I'll pass.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. I smell all kinds of stank on folks as they board the bus, but thanks to fans and windows, the odor usually dissipates fairly quickly. People often exhale that critical final puff as they board, much to my chagrin. But this...

Tooling along one evening, I detected an odoriferous emanation of a sort usually reserved for poker games. Glancing into the passenger mirror I tried to discern the source, but one to two seconds is all you get unless I want to risk missing a vital street scan. Couldn't tell. Then I heard one of my fellow operators, who was headed home after his shift, call out a fellow passenger.

"Please put that thing out," he growled loudly. "I don't want to smell that the rest of the trip."

I'm a bit slow, I know. But it finally hit me. CIGAR SMOKE!

Over the bus loudspeaker, I say: "Is somebody SMOKING on my bus?"

Another glance into the mirror revealed three fingers pointing out the offending desperado. Returning my gaze to the road, I spy the next stop and pull over.

"Sir," I said authoritatively, "here's your stop."

"But I don't want to get out here!" he whined. "I put it out, won't do it again, promise."


"That may be true," I replied in my pseudo Southern drawl, "but it's agin the law to smoke on a bus, and I'm refusing you service. You can get out now, or get off in handcuffs later. Your choice."

He hesitated a few seconds, head bowed in either shame, anger or both. I waited patiently; my time clock showed me running early. Then he slowly rose, shaking his head, and bolted out the back door.

The smoke and stench lingered, and my remaining passengers obliged me by opening some windows to clear the air. I think they were blasted awake by the sound of my normally-kind and friendly voice taking a sharply-toned detour. You see, I'm kind and polite to all who board my ride. It puts people at ease; even the hardest-looking cases usually return my smile and thank me for the smooth operation of my bus. But several regulars have seen what might be described as a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde transformation when somebody pisses me off. I've worked hard on modulating my temper this year, but serious circumstances require a firm hand.

The trees are starting to bloom as temps rise!
Now I struggle with a forthcoming dilemma. When Stogie Man, who's a regular himself, boards my bus next time am I going to warn him not to repeat his crime? Or should I let my previous action speak for itself? If I see him standing alone at a stop, I'm tempted to pass him by. But this seems like an unnecessary power trip. Sure, he smoked on my bus. His fellow passengers later told me it seemed he'd forgotten he was still aboard! Wasted, perhaps? While it's a bit more serious than farting in an elevator, it's hardly a capital crime.

I've been the victim of a bus passing me by, even in uniform. However, given Mother Nature's propensity this winter for dispensing large volumes of water from above, I take pity on my fellow soggy Portlanders. Yeah, I'll give him another chance. But just ONE.


Friday, February 19, 2016

Proposed "Transit Tax" Would Hit Employees


My brother Kent rode my bus the other day. It was nice to see him again because he helped teach me a run when I was really green, giving me tips I remember to this day. He also reminded me of Oregon Senate Bill 1521, currently being considered by the state legislature, which would allow TriMet to tax local employees, in addition to their employers who pay transit taxes within the transportation district. This raised my Irish, lemme tell ya. Here are a few reasons why.

The employees of companies within this district already pay enough taxes. Local, payroll and property taxes are pretty high in Oregon, with the only saving grace being we don't have any sales tax. However, those who rely on public transportation to travel to and from work, if not provided with passes by their employer, already pay fares that have basically doubled in the past 20 years. When you factor in wages that have not risen proportionately over that same time frame, someone's getting the shaft here.

Without plunging into great detail over today's rich vs. poor debate, it is still safe to say that a flat income tax on employees qualifies as regressive, meaning it disproportionately affects lower income residents. If a low-wage earner buys a $5 day pass every day to ride the bus to and from work, that's roughly $100 a month. When you factor in car payments, fuel, insurance and maintenance on a vehicle, it's still cheaper to ride a bus than to drive a private vehicle. However, when you start taxing people (0.185 is the bill's proposed rate) in addition to this, they're paying a lot more to spend hours on a crowded, stinky bus with fellow riders of whom many are unclean and lacking in social graces. Those who are just making ends meet but don't ride the bus would be paying this tax too. I'm sorry, but that big of a tax is definitely tougher on the folks with two minimum-wage jobs than it is on our $100,000+ per year TriMet executives, who would most likely be exempt from this tax. (Logic dictates that TriMet employees wouldn't be subject to a tax to fund their own agency, but I wouldn't put it past them.)
One of our "newer" buses, in service just over a year, just hit 100,000 miles!

TriMet maintains the revenue from this proposed tax would be used to expand service to levels necessary to keep up with increasing demand. It also says it would "partner" with local municipalities to build safer transitions from transit to pedestrian/bicycle pathways, help provide lower income/disabled people and students with reduced fares, and purchase more buses. However, according to Chris Lyons of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners fears, this tax would make it harder for local government to raise monies necessary to fix our failing infrastructure.

"Clackamas County and many other local jurisdictions struggle to find dollars to maintain their roads," Lyons wrote in a statement against SB1521. "Our greatest tool to achieving these funding shortfalls is through vehicle registration fees and increased gas taxes. SB 1521 will make it challenging, if not impossible, to garner public support for these critical transportation dollars. Dollars imposed from SB 1521 will not improve roads or add critical infrastructure, but rather will increase the number of large buses driving over these failing transportation facilities that desperately need additional maintenance dollars."

Also, Lyons points out this would not sit well with the voting public. "We believe the employees of these businesses, many of whom do not use public transportation, would reject the fee if posed to them by ballot," Lyons said. "Our fear is that the Legislature will not give employees that option."

With TriMet accused of being a "bully" over the past few years, its support of this blatant money grab puts its operators, who deal with the public on a daily basis, at greater risk of abuse. Would people retaliate against the operators? Our union already faces an uphill battle when new contract negotiations begin in December. TriMet has a history of painting us as greedy, demanding more "Cadillac benefits" while they slice and dice the real deal down to "Yugos and Peanuts". I heard plenty of riders lambasting operators for negotiating better wages, with one having the nerve to refer to me as "rich". At the time, I was at the bottom of the pay scale, which I can assure you our GM hasn't had to endure while employed at TriMet. Even now, at the top of our wage scale, I could scarcely qualify as wealthy by any means of the imagination. Somebody who makes what I do is a working stiff, and would suffer taxation without representation if this tax were implemented.


Why does TM need more money? It keeps hiring overpaid executives while complaining about union workers' pay and benefits, an extremely hypocritical position. It buys more buses operators have determined are dangerous because of vision barriers, telling us to "rock and roll" in the seat more, which increases driver fatigue and repetitive-movement injuries. It also minimizes our safety concerns as attacks on drivers nationally increase every year, while its safety course teaches us the difference between "slips, trips and falls" rather than giving us tools to protect ourselves "out there".

Hey, I love my job. I'm paid well, but I'm worth more. My body takes a beating every week and I work very hard to be even better than TM expects me to be. I'm courteous, smooth driving and law abiding. Each day on the job I'm self-evaluating, learning hints from fellow operators, and making my best effort to provide even more than is expected of me. But if you tax our fellow citizens without giving them a voice in the matter, my brothers and sisters on the road are going to feel the impact while our executives reap the benefits. And by golly, that there's one helluva regressive tax burden.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Mantra Revisited

Center Street Garage before the remodel, circa early 2013,
 about the time I wrote the first Mantra trilogy.
Oh what a difference a few years can make! Shortly after I began this blog, I wrote a piece about the mantra I say every day before driving my shift. In the time since, it has evolved along with my driving skills (and attitude).

For those who might have missed it, my earlier posts were some long sonsabitches. So long in fact, I had to stretch out my mantra description into three parts. The first part described the first and last piece of the mantra, and as I read it tonight it seemed I wrote as if I were a 19th century author being paid by the word. Good thing I'm learning brevity these days. By the time I read the middle piece, my eyes were blinking from exhaustion, and when I finally finished reading the doggone thing my wife had to elbow me because I was snoring. Three excruciatingly-long parts to describe a 12-point mantra that takes as many seconds to recite? Guess I was a bit over-eager back then.

So here's an updated version. I've added a few points to the mix. Over the years it's become necessary to amend and improve it due to experience and many hours of contemplation. I usually drive my car with music; while bus operating, my mind tends to wander in other creative directions.

Temporary quarters for Lost & Found, 2013-2014.
THE MANTRA: Be safe, be kind, be courteous, be considerate, be polite, be thoughtful, be patient, be vigilant, be calm, be smart, be smooth... but above all, be safe (again).

In adding "be courteous", I've learned that when I'm running late and somebody stands at the bus doorway as the light changes to green, it's not a good idea to slam the door shut in someone's face. Bad for business. But when it happens on the transit mall downtown with three buses waiting for me to shag ass down the road, I really have to struggle with the door handle. I grit my teeth and show a smile that would signal people who know me to hurry the hell up, I have miles to roll. Usually, the answer lies on the reader board they've failed to notice, so I point them to it.

What I want to say: "I have no idea when the next 19 bus will be here, I don't drive the damn thing!"
"What the hell, are you daft or slow, or both? Do you see 'Schedule Guru' tattooed on my freakin' forehead? Isn't that a smart phone in your hand? Amazing, because you're too damned stupid to use one! Figure this one out on your own, Gates."

What I do say: "There should be one coming along any time now." This is a much more courteous, albeit somewhat misleading, way to answer their question. If I knew the schedule of every line and train, I'd be too damn smart to work here.

This is also where polite comes in. When you're tired, or as my brother Dan Christensen describes it in his magnificent blog, in "fourth gear", this is an excruciatingly difficult part to practice. On my Friday night, I have to vigorously restrain myself from answering the inevitable schedule inquiry in a manner that could find me in big trouble with the bosses.

There are times when I can combine parts of my mantra. Tonight I realized it can be efficient, polite, thoughtful, and considerate to be courteous in traffic. By Nellie, I knocked five of them puppies out in one maneuver! Part of my route runs on a two-lane highway; one lane of traffic in either direction for several miles. If someone wants to turn left, traffic backs up for blocks. Tonight I let off some passengers, and as I scanned coming out of the stop, I saw ahead there was a bus coming the opposite direction stuck in a long line of traffic behind a left-turner. So I blocked traffic behind me and stopped so the motorist could hang a Larry and get the hell out of Ollie Operator's way. I was early anyway, and the car had been waiting to turn for over a minute. I could almost see Ollie's fingers tapping impatiently on his wheel. All it cost me was someone behind me flipping me their IQ salute at my next stop, but hey... I'm used to the bird.

When you won't find me stopping for another motorist is if I'm trying to make it through an intersection that has an annoyingly-long stoplight sequence. They can just sit there and wait all night, thank you, rather than cut into a line I've been inching forward in for several minutes. Try the next guy, lady... I'm working here! What are you doing, Polly Prius, going to have your butt hairs trimmed? Sorry Polly, no cracker for you.

I've added vigilance to my daily tool basket because sometimes it's just so damn hard to remain focused. You have to be a vigilant scanner, or you could miss something potentially disastrous. You know how it is when you're at work. Sometimes we have a tendency to daydream, the mind begins to wander and you catch yourself waking up from a mini excursion to napville a few minutes later. (Drool dripping from the beard hairs isn't very attractive, so I've been told.) If that happens on our job, the results could be deadly. So yes, it is important to remain vigilant, on the outlook for dangers that pop up. When you drive something that weights 40,000 pounds empty, it's vital you stay in top form. Much better that, than on top of somebody.

Finally, I added be calm. There are so many stresses out there we constantly deal with. When we're bombarded with several of them in a short time, it can truly put our game in jeopardy. People curse us for being late, even though they can see the line of traffic inching past them as we try to reach their stop. They will also stare at their phone until we're passing their stop, then yell at you for not stopping on a dime. Folks will say things in hopes they truly irritate you, just for fun. Or, they'll get into arguments over the most mundane topics. This is when I take a deep breath, hold it a second or two, then slowly exhale. Not long ago, I'd explode at them. Show them who's boss. But that's a recipe for professional indigestion. I'm supposed to be good at customer service, but mediating civil disputes is Perry Patrolman's job. Now I just let it play out. If they want to duke it out, I'll suggest they use the nearest exit.

Whew! This installment is much shorter than my 3-Part Series on Mantra Sense was. Hope it resonates with some of you. We have a very tough job. However, once you find your own way, it becomes easier. The hardest part for me nowadays is dealing with the body aches associated with sitting in a seat for eight or more hours. And they want me to work on my day off?!? I'd rather watch Polly Prius's butt hairs get pulled.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Traffic Woes

A rare sight on a February eve in Portland, Oregon... a clear sky!
Revisiting a recurring theme: traffic violators. The city is loathe to cite drivers for blatant traffic violations on our transit mall, one of the most dangerous places to walk, ride or drive in our city. Why? From what I've been able to find out, because they don't want to scare off tourists.

This laissez-faire attitude emboldens local drivers to dangerously foolish stunts we constantly see downtown. Vehicles with Oregon and Washington license plates are the most blatant offenders, and they should know better. Yet rarely do we see any police cruisers patrolling the mall for traffic, or pedestrian, or bicycle offenses. It's a scary practice that tells people "Just do what you want, we don't care!" rather than "We care about your safety, and we'll cite you for breaking the law". Why is Portland so cowardly when it comes to enforcing the law? You don't want to scare tourists away?!? I'm sorry, but when you're driving anywhere you should obey traffic signs. After all, isn't "BUS ONLY" spelled the same in all English-speaking vicinities?

One rush hour evening as I was pulling from a service stop on the mall, an impatient driver in the auto lane pulled into the bus lane, blocking my exit as the light turned green. I honked at him (our agency says to only use a "polite beep-beep"), but his response was to give me the finger as he made an illegal right turn directly in front of my bus. There was a cop in the auto lane, and I looked back at him over my shoulder, with a "what the hell?" expression. He must have felt duty-bound, because he flipped on his lights and pulled the violator over. It was the only time I've seen this happen in my entire career, and I drive on the mall daily! It was so wonderful to see that I was tempted to lock up the bus, walk over to the cars and applaud the officer. Stunts like that however, are only fantasies in a bus operator's mind.

Really? What a naughty thing for a transportation district to display!
Then you have the motorists who are so impatient, they must get around you so they can be the first to stop at that red light. When I'm leaving a service stop, I note how many cars are approaching and how far away they are before I can safely re-enter traffic. If there's a bus pull-out at the stop, I'm less likely to get a friendly (and legal) pass. Usually, three or more cars will speed up to try and block my lumbering beast. It's sadly amusing when a "smart" car tries to bully me. Any electric vehicle driver seems to think they're entitled to the road because they're "clean". I'm sorry, but even a clean-emissions car doesn't trump the 50 vehicles my passengers have left at home to take public transportation. Our newer buses are extremely emission-friendly these days, so the people riding my bus have effectively a smaller carbon footprint than Mr. SmartyPants Prius Driver.

So yeah, now I'm bashing people who refuse to Obey the Yield. Oregon traffic law requires vehicles to yield to transit vehicles with the "yield" light activated.  Most people, when confronted with this fact, just submit their one-fingered IQ salute and motor on past. Some are lucky, but a few learn the hard way... BUMP! CRASH! BANG! Then sirens follow. But I digress. We've covered this before, doggone it Deacon.

One evening last week as I became frustrated at the umpteenth time a motorist had sped up rather than yielding, I cursed. Yep, I called that sorry pile of dung a dirty name. Under my breath, or so I thought. Some passengers can hear a mouse fart miles away. Oops. Luckily for me, Perry Passenger suggested an innovative idea: cameras on back of buses to bust people out of the habit. What, won't yield, eh? Have a look at your mail in a week or so buddy, and you'll get an expensive lesson in road manners. Hey, if school buses can do it, why can't we? School Buses...SNAP! This could net thousands of dollars a week. I've asked several officers if they've ever ticketed a motorist for this offense, and only one has answered in the affirmative.

Over the next 20 years, Portland is expected to pick up nearly a million new residents. Unless we crack down on traffic violations, fix our roads, expand/repair freeways and bridges and keep updating public transit, we're doomed to constant gridlock. Unfortunately, I don't hear much foresight from city planners, other than how to shove light rail down a municipal throat that's already coughing up bile from the recent $1.5 billion dollars spent on a seven-mile light rail project.

I thought Portland was innovative, but lately I'm thinking not so much. You want innovative? Try something like this on our transit mall. Lead the way Portland, or we'll be too far behind soon and unable to catch up.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Tips for (New) Drivers



Hey we all were newbies once upon a time. A lot we've had to learn on our own, but once in a while I pick up a tidbit from someone else, either a grizzled veteran or even somebody with equal or less time than I have on the job. Either way, if you don't learn something new every day, you're just not paying attention.

When I'm pre-tripping a bus in the yard, I'm always reminded of the basics. They apply to life on the road too. I've been meaning to write this one for quite a while. So here's a few things I'd like my fellow operators to remember.
  1. First and always, SAFETY first! Once you've stopped your bus, set the parking brake and put the transmission in neutral. Make it a habit, whether you're in the yard or at the end of the line. So many operators have been injured (one recently in our own yard), or sadly even killed, because of carelessly forgetting these basic procedures. 
  2. Next, turn everything electrical OFF before shutting the bus down. That way, the next driver to take the bus isn't met with a blast of air from the heating/cooling system, fans set on high blasting hot or cold air at you, or windshield wipers squeaking away on dry glass.
  3. Make sure the driver's window is closed. We've all had the bus where the previous operator left the window wide open, then Mother Nature dumped a few gallons of rain onto the driver's seat. Often times it could be sunny and gorgeous when you jump off the bus at the end of a run. In the Northwest, just wait a few minutes and the weather changes. No amount of paper towels can sop up a steaming wet and stinky seat. It's a bit embarrassing walking off the bus with a dark stain on your navy (or worse, tan shorts) pants and having someone say, "Did you pee yourself?" Unfortunately, some of your fellow operators have incontinence issues, and perhaps they have soiled their pants because they didn't reach a restroom in time. Operators don't normally think about things like this. Try walking a few steps in their shoes and perhaps you'll understand the significance of something as simple as closing a window.
  4. Early at the downtown transit center? Burn time before you arrive or at the last position of a shared stop, not in the first position. Recently, a few operators downtown were victims of an early brother who shared the same stops on the mall. He'd show up early, throw on his 4-ways, and let his clock burn down. Meanwhile, here I cruise in behind him, right on time, and pick up my passengers. I close the door and wait for my turn to take the first position. My bus is already full, and here we sit behind this operator who hasn't moved in two light cycles. Now I'm two minutes down. At the next stop, if the operator is still early and burns time in the first position, I'm four minutes late. The bus behind me is likely late as well, and we're getting a bit steamed at our brother in front. As operators, we all know schedules are imperfect at best. Regular operators quickly learn where the "bubbles" are on a paddle and the best spots to burn time. Extra board operators don't always have this luxury, because each day presents them with different work of varying lines and trains. If you're unsure where to kill extra time, ask other operators of the same line how they drive the route and you'll likely learn other valuable tips in addition to what you've asked.
  5. If presented with a situation that you cannot immediately decide how to handle, here's a simple solution that will help you safely determine how to proceed: STOP AND LOCK. Often, we're afraid we'll be thought of as a dumbass by our passengers or fellow operators, so we just plunge through a safety concern depending upon our lucky stars. This is when shit happens, folks. Bad shit. Whenever I've counted on my lucky stars, they've usually fallen. If you stop and lock up the bus, perhaps the delivery truck driver bearing down on you on a narrow street while he consults his cell phone will hit your mirror. There's a BIG difference here to the incident review panel, which is especially important if you're on probation. It doesn't matter what other people think if you stop and lock; what matters is you safely maneuver your hulk of metal and glass from Point A to Point B. Remember your trainer's first words: Don't damage the equipment. Using your best judgement requires a lot more caution than the average driver uses. We're not "average", we're professionals.
  6. If you've just started your run and you cross paths with an operator who is nearly done, yield to them in tight spots. Chances are good they're running behind. It's important etiquette to remember, as it shows respect to your brothers and sisters.
  7. If something is wrong with your bus, report it. Some things we fix ourselves because they're minor, or are not "mission critical" to waste time asking for a bus trade. But if you have a wobbly mirror that is hard to see out of, an "idiot light" on the dash even though the bus is running fine, or a burned-out headlight, send Dispatch a message. I once had a bus that nearly stalled as I slowed to a stop, but since it didn't quit running I didn't report it right away. At the end of the line, I took my break and just let it slide. On my next trip, it did start stalling at every stop, which is obviously problematic. Instead of blowing it off, I should have hit "Mechanical Rolling" and let Dispatch make the decision. My delay in reporting it inconvenienced passengers when the bus wouldn't start again and we had to wait for a replacement I likely could have had before they even boarded.
These are just a few tips, and I hope they help you. Of course, there is a lot more information I could have told you, but I'm feeling lazy tonight. A lot of it is just common sense anyway, and you'll figure it out as you go along. Some of you are seasoned veterans who don't need the Deacon nagging at you for stuff you've known for years. Besides, according to Bishop, I've only been operating for 45 minutes or so, a wet-behind-the-ears smartass in comparison to my respected elders. But hey, I'm also getting old, and according to the late, great Richard Pryor, "you don't get to be old bein' a fool".

Have a safe trip, ya mugs.