|Avoiding potholes is a new road sport here lately.|
We are suffering the effects of contradictory policies. It's confusing and frustrating to insist we be perfect in safety, schedule, and customer service. The three cannot all align in transit. It is certainly our goal, but from training onward we have been instructed that safety comes first. Always. Next, in no particular order, the other two follow. The best we can do is come close to weaving them all together, but it is basically impossible to have all three in harmony.
Transit agency management has a penchant for treating these entities as corporations. They crunch numbers and study trends while implementing policies which look good on paper. Everything would be perfect, in their minds, if operators would just run on schedule. Every run, each day. Oh but don't sacrifice safety, because "it's our core value!" Whatever you do, be nice to those 350,000 people who use our system every day. Oh sure, some of them will assault you, but we'll soon have you locked in cages so don't worry about that. You're here for them after all, to treat them as fragile daisies no matter what happens. Management wants the public to admire their constant improvements to the system. Operators? Oh they're overpaid, "undereducated" (a popular term coined by a local radio host) and greedy pucks who are only necessary until buses can drive themselves. Besides, driving a bus is so easy even a monkey could do it, right Lars Larson?
What these number crunchers don't realize is how much skill is required simply to move a bus or light rail vehicle, let alone do it safely. While middle management employs former operators to some degree, the majority of upper management is staffed with people whose only experience with transit is as passengers. This creates a major disconnect with those of us who roll the wheels.
In order to reduce assaults, management decided to "de-criminalize" fare evasion. While I applaud their intent after several years of rising numbers of transit worker beat-downs, it's like applying duct tape to a broken axle. It may hold for a few moments, but the weight is too extreme for the fix to be effective. When you tell a public it no longer is required by law to pay a price for a ride on our extensive transit system, eventually a majority of passengers will simply stop paying. They are no longer invested in the service. Revenue will fall, and when corporations lose money, they cut services. Some industries follow with salary cuts. This is not how you improve morale.
Next, tack on our agency's latest push: being on schedule. Management sees numbers. We see trends in traffic and passenger flow, and how to work with a schedule that benefits both ourselves and the riding public. After driving a route for a week or two, we know where the passengers will be at any given point in the route. If we're a bit early at one time point, we know how long to wait before taking off again so that we're not late to the next one. We know that if we're late at Point A by a few minutes, chances are good to excellent that if we play it right, we'll be right on time at Point B. We're also aware that Jimmy Hardhat gets off work precisely a minute after we're due at the stop he boards from, and if we're too early he has to wait another 15-20 for the next bus. If we hang out at the time point a few stops prior until we're late a few minutes, Jimmy gets to his connecting bus on time and we're still a bit late but will soon make up the time. If we're too early for him yet exactly on schedule, Jimmy will call Customer Service and lodge a complaint against us. Even though we're on schedule by letting Jimmy wait, we're not providing him the service he's accustomed to. Too many complaints result in disciplinary action. We don't like to leave Jimmy behind, and he hates standing in the pouring rain for several minutes hoping the next bus isn't late or broken down. He always has his fare ready when boarding, and is kind and polite to the drivers. He's the kind of passenger we enjoy driving home. He always thanks us on the way out the door, and has helped calm unruly people to keep us rolling.
Due to management's push to make sure we're on schedule, our ability to provide personal service declines. In order to please the bean counters, we feel pressured to not leave that time point "late" so the schedule metrics match management's unreasonable expectations.
Management swears they don't expect us to ignore safety in favor of schedule. But when they pull an operator into their office to "counsel" them on being a few minutes late every day, they're not giving credit for everything we do out there. Many transit passengers have been riding for years, even decades. They help us understand our own version of "metrics." When is that lady who uses a mobility device going to be at this stop as opposed to another? When does that connecting bus leave the transit center? If I leave a time point just a few seconds early, I'll help them make that connection. If there's a supervisor parked watching us at this time point and we leave early, we risk being disciplined for helping our regulars. Waiting out the time makes the passengers miss their connections but hey, at least management's happy.
Operators also communicate with each other about transferring passengers. Often, several bus lines will converge upon a transit center at the same time others are leaving. It used to be that operators would wait if we gave them a polite "beep beep" of the horn upon arrival. Now, we're too afraid of the schedule masters, and I've recently noticed some drivers refuse to wait. This causes tension between riders and operators. We've seen the results of this too many bloody times. Not all assaults happen because of fare disputes.
Which leads us to the most important of all our goals: safety. If we're expected to be on time every damn time, how are we supposed to do this? While I drive the same way whether I'm on time or late, some newer operators are feeling pressured. They're not experienced enough yet, but they might press that accelerator a notch or two over the speed limit to make up time. Each mile per hour over the limit exponentially increases the chances of disaster. Experienced, safe operators won't sacrifice safety for unreasonable expectations of management. No matter how they try to spin it all, their recent insistence on perfection is just plain reckless.
We're very good at what we do: safely transporting passengers to their destinations in huge and heavy vehicles. I try not to run late, and I avoid being too early. We all have our own metrics. They mostly deal with learning a route and its intricate details, passenger habits and behaviors, and squeezing just enough time out of tight schedules to enjoy a decent break on either end. It takes many years to learn this fine balancing act, and helps us remain happy and healthy in the seat.
As I've said before, people working in management should be required to drive a few miles in our seat. Maybe then they would learn true respect for what we do and how it's accomplished. Otherwise, they should respectfully back off and let us do our jobs.