Dear Willamette Week Readers, Brother/Sister Operators/Maintenance/Supervisory Personnel, and Fellow Portlanders,
I just read the WW article "What Bus Riders Want," and I couldn't help but notice what was missing. That is, the other half of the transit equation: "What Bus Operators Want".
The article states Metro Council will ask Portland-area voters to approve a $3 billion tax to benefit transportation. Our agency states it won't extend any bus lines to more logical and passenger-friendly end points because it doesn't "have enough drivers". First, it doesn't actually take more operators to extend a bus line past its end-point; it just takes better planning, a better response to those who need transit. Our agency says it's hiring 20 new operators a week. When I began in 2012, the agency had just lifted a hiring freeze, a result of the Dubya Depression. Then, there were about 750 full-time bus operators; now there are over 1,100, plus nearly 300 part-time operators.
We have seen a few new lines added, some schedules extended to Frequent (every 15 minutes or less), or even 24-Hour Service. This requires several operators to fill these lines. Problem is, some new operators don't make the cut. Others transfer to rail. Of those 20 new operators each week, a year down the line there might be 10 or less remaining. It's a tough job. Perhaps if this new tax helped provide for better conditions for the operators it hires, many more would be attracted to this intense job. Also, if transit management rewarded those who make the wheels roll with better benefits and more-commensurate pay for the work we do, it would be a more attractive career. Instead, it coddles its corporate upper management with unearned raises and bonuses while ignoring the demands our union collectively bargains for every contract negotiation. It works harder to take away than it does to give back to those who make the wheels roll, and that leaves union employees feeling frustrated, downtrodden and betrayed. We didn't sign up to be abused, yet each year management finds new ways to be punitive rather than innovatively-invested in our general well-being. So much for our being a "family". We're more a dysfunctional one than happy.
Case in point? I've worked here nearly eight years, and as a single-wage earner still cannot afford to buy a house for my family within the area in which I serve my fellow Portlanders. I toil behind the wheel 55+ hours every week. Conversely, our GM was recently awarded a fat raise much higher than his subordinates are proposing for my brothers and sisters. He has never driven a bus in service.
Additionally, management is proposing a ludicrous end to the Maintenance Apprentice Program, which encourages service workers to train as they move up the ladder to become journeyman-level mechanics instead of spending thousands of dollars on a trade school to scoot in as a non-union worker. It's a classic "union buster" our corporate-born management is trying to sneak past us, but we're not buying the bullshit. I will vote NO to any contract which allows an end to apprenticeships. This program has been widely-successful for decades, and there is not one logical argument that supports ending the program. However, we've all seen what happens in management: the higher you climb, the less oxygen there is.
It's true that buses often run late during rush hour, because we share the streets with private motorists, truck drivers, delivery vans, school buses, and any number of other road users who pay horrific taxes to roll upon ill-maintained roadways. However, we have improved our on-time stats to the tune of 90%. That's pretty impressive, given the growing amount of traffic on roads that weren't designed for today's heavy loads. Nine out of every 10 buses are on time. Pretty damn good, given what obstacles skid into our path every moment we're in service.
The Metro and transit plan is to add dedicated lanes for buses. That's nice, but it's too bad the cities in our transit district don't have enough resources for police to patrol and cite offenders. In my nearly eight-year tenure as an operator, I've seen police pull someone over for not obeying the yield light exactly twice in my 130,000+ miles driving a bus. Never has one cited a motorist around my bus for disobeying this law (ORS 811.167). Motorists know this, and regularly zip past as I try to merge back into traffic. On the few streets that have been designated as "transit only", motorists have collectively responded with "bullshit, I'll do what I want and get away with it." It's a snub to law enforcement and transit that goes unchecked every minute we roll. Any time you see a red, blinking light, it means to pay attention and OBEY, dumbass... it's the law!
As for "being kicked off a bus for not having fare," this is largely uncommon. Bus operators are trained now to leave fare enforcement to those who enforce transit code. Fare evaders are given a ride, yet warned that a Fare Inspector could cite them if they are caught without proof of payment. Some operators remain sticklers about this, but a great majority of us just roll without hassling people. It's no longer our responsibility to give a damn about fare collection; this new management simply wants us on time. We work hard to accomplish this, but our first priority is to arrive safely, and that often sends the schedule packing. If we don't concentrate on safe driving, we're likely to not arrive anywhere, let alone be on time.
Also, to "fear" a larger police presence on transit is truly disingenuous. I've met several Transit Police officers, and they have told me this assignment truly opens their eyes to the plight of the poor in our city. They are decent, hard-working blue-collar workers like most of those they serve and protect. They need not be feared, unless by those who are law-breaking trouble causers we'd rather not see on transit anyway. If a cop rides my bus, I'm very grateful because passengers are more apt to behave in their presence.
My experience has shown the cops to be very responsive any time I've needed their support, and I've seen them deal with people who caused me trouble. They listen, are often empathetic, and more times than not have actually helped rather than arrested someone. Yeah, I'm a white guy who has never had to deal with racial profiling. How can I be any sort of authority where policing is concerned? Because I have observed the work of these dedicated men and women who don a uniform and kiss their loved ones before leaving a shift, not ever sure they'll safely return home. My money is on them to do their job honorably, much more than I'd bet on some wayward jerkoff who just wants to cause trouble on my largely-peaceful ride full of honest Portlanders.
In one discussion with an off-duty cop, she told me, "We're just working folks too, ya know. Just like you." I would truly welcome a larger police presence on transit, but I know that where transit says it lacks operators, police forces lack cops. That's probably why there are fewer traffic citations issued... the cops we already have are busy responding to reckless violent acts committed across our increasingly crime-infested neighborhoods.
So, What Do Bus Operators Want? Here's my alternative angle on this lopsided article.
1) Have your fare ready when you board. You're likely at that stop for 5-10 minutes, waiting for us to bounce from stop to stop in heavy traffic, fighting lawless motorists and sweating the clock as we persevere toward your location. Instead of spending waiting time checking your social media, take a few moments to get your pass or cash ready. The longer you take to board, the later my bus becomes for those waiting down the line.
2) Greet your bus operator. I smile and welcome everyone aboard, and it's sad how many won't even look at me, let alone utter a word of greeting. I work hard to give you a safe and smooth ride; the least you could do is simply acknowledge my presence. To those of you who smile and thank me for being on time (which I am, 92% of the time), I truly appreciate that brief moment you give me. Thank you.
3) Be respectful and courteous of others. I am old-fashioned, and truly get annoyed at hipsters who bound aboard ahead of elderly people with walkers, or those who use mobility devices and need the ramp deployed. While these ill-mannered punks rudely brush past, these folks sit in the rain and wait while I growl at this inhumane display. Their parents would likely chide them for such behavior, but it's me who is charged with instruction on basic social graces. I will often stop their boarding, insisting they get off while I board the Americans with Disabilities, often veterans who served our country with honor and deserve every respect we can afford them. Otherwise, it could be as simple as someone allowing their phone's audio to blast the eardrums of fellow passengers and a seriously-distracted operator. Turn the damn sound off!
4) Don't insult or assault us. Last year, we reported over 113 incidents where passengers attacked us. In 2018, there were 116. While I'm glad the stats went slightly down in a year, we still don't deserve any of them. When we roll to your stop with our Destination Sign reading "Drop Off Only", please do not insult us for not allowing you to board. We didn't do this solely to inconvenience you. Shit happens, bud. First, we're horribly late through no fault of our own, and this status is designed to get us back on schedule. Please accept this worldwide transit reality. Arguing with us over our refusal to board you only makes us later. If we pull way past the stop pole to allow passengers to exit, that means our follower is directly behind us, ready to board you. Use your eyes for something other than that phone in your hand, which if properly used, could alert you of the very fact you refuse to see. That's why they call it a "smart" phone.
trimet.org) provides passengers a plethora of information about schedules, and can even alert you to any anomalies as we roll toward your stop. When you see our arrival is within a minute or two, that's the time to prepare your fare, stand near the pole so we can see you at those darkest of stops while you wear Portland's favorite color (dark), and be ready to board. Transit takes teamwork, and yours is greatly appreciated. If you choose to sit in a shelter, hunched over your phone, don't whine to Customer Service that we passed you by... if we can't see you, it's your fault. We have just a few seconds to determine if someone is waiting at a stop because we're scanning a 180-degree view plus our rearview mirrors as we guide that 20-ton beastie down the road. We do not have X-ray or superhuman vision. If you want to catch a bus, it's your responsibility to make sure you are seen.
Those are the five most basic tips for riding, FromTheDriverSide, which the WW, our transit agency and other media outlets constantly fail to inform the riding public. You're welcome. Safe travels, fellow Portlanders.
Deke N. Blue
Worldwide Transit Blogger/Author