The Commute: Some Thoughts About Bus Drivers

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Ralph Kramden, the granddaddy of Brooklyn bus drivers. Source: Wikipedia

Ralph Kramden, the granddaddy of Brooklyn bus drivers. Source: Wikipedia

THE COMMUTE: My thoughts about bus drivers are mixed. On the one hand, I appreciate the difficult job they have, driving in traffic, which is never easy, and being responsible for the safety of so many passengers and pedestrians. Bus accidents are rare, which is attributable to the MTA’s high standards for recruiting and retaining bus drivers. They also have to continually deal with the public, which can be difficult at times. A few have even been killed just for doing their job. They must keep cool even when provoked. As is the case with any occupation, there are always a few bad apples, and the MTA does its best to weed them out.

Complaints against bus drivers have dropped over the years. In the 1970s, the chief complaint was that buses stopped in the middle of the street and did not pull over to the curb even when they were able to, and refused to lower (also known as “kneeling”) the bus for the infirmed. Today, that rarely happens. The kneeling feature was rarely used back then because it was so unreliable. Many times, once engaged, the feature would not disengage when released, forcing the bus out of service. That also no longer happens, due to the increased reliability of today’s buses and improved maintenance.

The biggest problem with local buses today is still reliability. I wonder how many of the delays are due to unavoidable problems and problems that can be fixed. Once a month, I have dinner with a group of friends near Penn Station. The trip usually takes about an hour by bus and train. About a month ago it took an hour and 20 minutes because I could not get a B1 or B49 bus to stop for me. The other day, following the conclusion of Kingborough’s Spring Session, I made the trip in 55 minutes. On the way home, with good connections, I was on track to break that record and be home in 50 minutes. But as they say, don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

Half way home on the B49, the driver and I noticed that about half a dozen fire trucks were blocking the west side of Shore Boulevard between Cass Place and Emmons Avenue. I realized that the delay could have been avoided if the bus turned onto Cass Place instead, where the bus could resume its regular route the following block onto West End Avenue. I mumbled that to the bus driver. Instead, he continued with his left turn on the scheduled route and stopped at the bus stop directly behind the fire trucks. Now blocked in, he announces on the loudspeaker that we will be here for awhile.

Procedurally, he was probably correct since he is not allowed to change the route without receiving prior permission. I do not know how long it would have taken him to request and receive that permission, but it seems rather ridiculous to enter a block where you know traffic is not moving and may not be moving for quite some time. After all, the advantages of buses over trolleys is that you can alter a route when there is a blockage, as well as frequently modify routes as circumstances change. Yet, we seem to treat buses as if they operate on tracks, not always changing the route to avoid delays, and rarely making permanent changes to them.

About 20 passengers were on the bus, which was near the end of the route. Ten got off after the announcement, presumably to complete their trip on foot, because of the uncertainty as to how long before the bus would resume moving. I was one of them. Luckily, the bus was delayed by only 10 and not 30 minutes as it passed me when I was almost home. Would the driver sacrifice his layover time to get back on schedule for the return trip or take it anyway? We do not know. When there is a blockage should the driver have to request and receive permission first or just be allowed to alter the route as he sees fit and then inform supervision? If the latter, a 10-minute delay could have been avoided.

My thoughts about bus drivers are mixed because I am still upset about all the times that drivers do not stop to pick up passengers, although there is plenty of room in the back of the bus. I greet bus drivers when getting on and off less often because of that. Usually I would get a response; sometimes I would be ignored.

So try to imagine how I felt last week when I boarded the bus and received an admonishment for not greeting the bus driver. “You’re an MTA employee and you don’t even say hello especially after I waited for you?” Now I really felt guilty and had to spend the next five minutes talking to him to explain. I told him that I was upset because, on my initial trip that day, I had to walk because there were no buses. It was the first time I used MTA Bus Time. The B1 and B49 were both scheduled at about 10 minute intervals, and it appeared a 10-minute crowd had already formed. Bus Time reported that the B1 was two and a half miles away and the B49 two miles away. Adding 10 more minutes for a probable layover, which Bus Time made no mention of, the waits appeared to be an additional 40 and 30 minutes, respectively.

I asked the driver, “Why should that happen?” I could understand one of the routes being delayed due to some unusual circumstance, but delays on both routes at the same time, seemed like a bigger problem to me for a Sunday. He responded by saying, you know how it is with some drivers, the inference being that somehow the drivers are responsible.  I didn’t ask for a further explanation. This was not the first time I encountered a very friendly bus driver. A few months ago, one was so friendly asking me how I have been that I thought we might have known each other, but we didn’t.

When I was in charge of Brooklyn bus planning at the MTA in 1981 and 1982, a chief dispatcher who reported to me would state, “There you go again, always blaming the bus driver. It was not his fault. These guys work hard and do the best they can.” During the following two years we became close friends, both of us learning from each other. Then when we were discussing another situation, I found myself sticking up for the bus drivers and he responded with a different attitude. “Those bums? They will try to do as little work as possible, following their leader so the other guy gets all the passengers and they can just coast.”

So how many of the delays are the fault of the bus drivers, how many the fault of poor supervision, and how many just can’t be avoided? When I would take the F train home from work in the 1980s, at Avenue X at 5:41 p.m., I always knew I would get the same B1 bus driver. Always on time, and always in a good mood, and getting along with all his passengers. Most of them even greeted him — some by name. I always wondered why all bus drivers couldn’t be like him. He was only about 50, when one day he informed me he was retiring and that it was his final week.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at]sheepsheadbites [dot]com.

  • sonicboy678

    Some bus drivers certainly are friendly. I’ve come across a few on the Q22 and Q35.

  • gustaajedrez

    They should have certain streets where the bus is automatically allowed to go in case the bus is required to make a detour. So for instance, Cass Place would be marked as one of those streets where the driver is permitted to detour as he sees fit, regardless of which route he’s on (so if he’s on the B4, and Neptune between West End & Cass is backed up, he can detour via Cass).

    The only problem is that if the stretch is too long, you could end up missing stops. (And it also opens up potential for abuse by the drivers, taking short cuts for the sake of avoiding passengers). But then again, is it any worse than sitting in traffic for no reason and delaying those passengers?

    Like you said, in an ideal world where the drivers were truly using their best judgment as to whether their decision was best for the passengers, this would work well to set up some default detours. The problem is the few drivers who would take advantage of the rule.

    • Allan Rosen

      You are afraid of abuse. What about the drivers who won’t stop for passengers when half the bus is empty? I’ve even seen drivers refusing to stop when the bus still had empty seats and there was no bus behind, just because they wanted to catch the green signal? There will always be abuse, not only with bus drivers, but in any job.

    • Andrew

      That doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea to me.

      First you’d need somebody to sit down and write up each and every possible detour across the entire bus system. Somehow I don’t think that’s feasible.

      Then you’d leave it up to each and every bus driver to independently decide when to go off-route and bypass scheduled stops. How is anybody supposed to know where to wait for the bus? What happens to an elderly or disabled rider, or anybody else carrying large packages or groceries, whose stop is bypassed and can’t easily walk from the nearest stop available along the detour?

      If there’s a blockage, the driver should call it in, if possible before committing to it, so that there can be a systematic, coordinated response. Yes, that means that, once in a while, a bus or two will end up trapped behind the blockage – but that would happen even with your proposal if the blockage isn’t obvious from the prior intersection.

      I’d have no objection to formalizing the practice (that already exists) of taking detours along non-stop segments of express routes (and quasi-express routes like the M98), especially if they can be incorporated into BusTime. But giving drivers free license to bypass bus stops for any little traffic jam? No, I really don’t think that’s a good idea.

      • gustaajedrez

        Alright, then what about cases where no stops are missed, like in this case? I think it would work well in cases like the one Allan described.

        But it does remind me of times when drivers independently decided to bypass certain sections of the route. Once, I was on the S44 where the B/O accidentally missed the turn from Morningstar onto Walker, so he followed the S46 route to Port Richmond Avenue, and then took Port Richmond Avenue back to Post, bypassing the Walker/Pt Richmond segments. Another time, an S44 stalled out in the middle of the turn at Pt Richmond/Post, so his follower made no attempt to make the turn, and just took Pt Richmond-Castleton-Jewett-Post, without calling it in. (Had he gone down Heberton instead of Jewett, he would’ve been able to stop at Decker instead of bypassing it).

        • Andrew

          But a stop would have been missed in Allan’s case!

          As I said, on nonstop route segments, I have no objection to formalizing the practice of taking detours.

  • WilburWorld

    There’s an issue now with drivers ignoring stops along Ocean Avenue, so they can get a few minutes aheae of schedule, leaving them time to call ahead to a corner deli which delivers food to the driver while passengers wait.

    • Allan Rosen

      And I am sure they are not allowed to eat and drive at the same time either. That is just not safe for them or the passengers.

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