One of the reasons I moved to Seattle over a decade ago was because of the bus drivers. I first started visiting here regularly in the early 1970s and among many pleasant experiences was the friendliness, indeed the downright garrulousness of these captains of public transportation. They cheerfully gave me directions, chatted with passengers, let me off without paying once or twice when pocket change came up short, and most shockingly, said good-bye when I alighted at my destination. Like other riders, I took to thanking them upon departure for a fine and pleasant ride. What a welcome difference it was from my own city of origin, a much larger place than Seattle not at all known for the civility of its public servants.
Now shift to Third Avenue near Macy’s a day after the recent big Seattle snow storm, with bus schedules a wreck and many more riding public transportation than might in fair weather. As I come to the bus stop a thrill shoots through me. There is my bus, second in line, waiting to leave. I wave at it, do a little dance of exultation, not knowing when the next one will be coming by. But the driver pays no notice to my exuberance, although surely he has seen me. He pulls away, I call to him to stop, and jump up and down a bit more, perhaps startling a few Christmas shoppers as they bustle by.
But my avid gymnastics are for naught. This captain is not going to halt. But then traffic holds him up a few feet past the end of the bus zone, and while he is still near the curb I bang on the door and ask him why he would not let me on. He is rude in response, and I will not bore you with the details of the rest of our engagement, but suffice it to say that there is some heat involved. This is not the first time that a bus has passed me or other riders in this way, its commander in chief deciding we don’t merit a passage.
The bus that I take to work downtown four days a week is relatively full at rush hours, very little so at other times. For the past year I have boarded mostly with the same driver. My good morning greeting, not at all saccharine and meant only as a gesture of politeness and good will, is met with silence or barely acknowledged. There are a handful of other riders, so it can’t be exhaustion from effusiveness that has so wearied the driver that he can’t raise his voice or lift a finger in recognition.
If this driver’s response was the exception, I might chalk it up to shyness or a dyspeptic nature that might be better served with employment as a night watchman. But it’s not. I seem to get a fair number of surly drivers like this, seemingly more with each passing year. In our economically perilous times when I have to fend off overly solicitous salespeople in stores and tellers at banks, all of whom want my business, I find it curious that some of the people whose salaries I actually help pay can be so impolite.
Metro should take note of this. If public transportation is to succeed and get automobiles off the road, then it need offer not only more efficient buses and routes but also drivers who have better training in dealing with their customers. I realize the safety of passengers is their paramount responsibility, but a touch of civility can go a long way.
Driving a bus must not be easy work. Crammed in your seat, endless questions, safety rules, loud, smelly, and at times dangerous passengers, keeping to schedules in heavy traffic. I’m sure it can be stressful in ways I know little of, and that there are times when being engaging with passengers is not high on a driver’s list. But in our world that seems to get angrier each day, courtesy can make things a little better. And a little better can mean a lot.
There are many wonderful and personable bus operators out there, and they should be the models for others. Let Metro make it easy for riders to commend them, and to find ways that reward them for being not only safe, but also more responsive. There shouldn’t be a driver of the year, more like one a month.
Let me also take this opportunity to thank some bus operators who have done a fine job. The gentleman who used to drive me to work and now occasionally takes me home, who exchanges pleasantries when time allows, and lets me cross the street in front of him after I disembark. Another, who I no longer see, stopped her bus mid-block one day in the Central District when she saw me walking in the street, inquiring whether I needed a ride. I did not, but was deeply touched by her concern. And just the other day, the driver who got off his bus to assist a blind person to the sidewalk, not leaving until he was sure the passenger knew in which direction to proceed.
I close with a final nod to that fine fellow who a few weeks ago, soon after I got my senior’s card for Metro, told me that I couldn’t possibly be 65 years old. Now that’s what I call customer service!
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