CINCINNATI -- As someone who almost never drives, to me the prospect of captaining a Cincinnati Metro bus seemed like a big undertaking in almost every way.
Turns out, though, that might be what makes me the ideal candidate.
That's not sarcasm or any other sort of slight toward bus operators. That's just how Metro Training Specialist Freddie Dukes likes his recruits.
"We really prefer you come here with no experience," Dukes said.
He would know. Dukes has been driving a Metro bus for more than 20 years, and training others to do so for a decade -- all without a single collision or traffic incident on his record.
"We'll take class A (commercial driver's license), of course, but you're de-programming and re-programming because a semi-truck is different than the bus," he said.
Dukes is one of three people tasked with training Metro's nearly 500-strong roster of drivers. It's a crew that Metro estimates is short-staffed by about 30 operators.
"We need to fill 33 positions immediately," Metro spokeswoman Brandy Jones said. "If we aren't fully staffed, we have delays and things of that nature, and we don't want that for the public or for our service, so it's really important that we hire."
That's why the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority -- the agency that oversees bus operations -- is gearing up to host three "Operator Days" in the coming months, the first of which is scheduled for April 15. Metro also will host Operator Days May 13 and June 10.
Although Metro announced earlier this month an anticipated $3 million budget shortfall in 2018, Jones said the 33 hires are already built into the budget.
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"There you can talk with current operators to learn about the role, take an assessment test to see if it's a good fit for you, and learn about the benefits of being an operator," Jones said.
A daunting experience
Starting pay for a Metro bus operator is $15.86 per hour, Jones said, in addition to health, dental and vision benefits.
"Within three to five years, an operator can be earning $25 per hour," she said. Jones said Metro is now offering a $500 bonus to all applicants who complete training -- a sign of Metro's urgency to fill the staffing gap.
Jones also said potential applicants for the job often steer clear because they look at the size of a Metro bus and feel intimidated.
"Sometimes you say '40-foot bus,' and that kind of intimidates people," she said. "Most of them find out that they can do the job, that it's not as difficult as they originally thought."
So I decided to put that to the test, and climb behind the wheel. I found out: She's probably right.
While this was my first time behind the wheel of a city bus, this was not my first time visiting Metro's training facility. In 2015, I took a virtual spin in their driving simulator, one of three operator training elements Dukes described, along with other classroom training, and on-road and route training.
"(The simulator) actually prepares you for maneuvers, turns, weather, different conditions with customers, how to prepare customer service," he said. "Whatever you experience out on the road I can build it and have it in class on the simulator."
Stepping into the simulator will awaken an inner arcade nerd in anyone. It feels like climbing into one of the old Cruise'n USA racing pods, only with a much slower, much larger vehicle. It consists of a bus operator's seat, equipped with all the same buttons and switches as you'd find in a standard bus. That "cockpit" is surrounded by giant monitors, displaying a rather average streetscape. There's even a rumble pack-like feature, to let trainees know they've hit a curb or other object in the road.
Dukes said the training process begins with two weeks spent splitting time between a desk and a driver's seat, followed by 4 to 6 more weeks on the road learning routes, schools, loops and streets.
"The program we use here is TSI -- the Transportation Safety Institute -- a great system," he said. "That system is set up to where you're in the classroom for half of the day, then we go out onto the road where we practice the maneuvers we learned that day in class."
Applicants do not need a CDL, but will need to obtain a temporary CDL to begin the training process. Dukes said Metro will reimburse the cost of the temporary license to applicants who successfully complete the program.
"We prepare you for the CDL state test in addition while learning your schools, loops, streets and routes," he said. "So you come here with your temps and we prepare you to take your state test."
Time for a drive
I'm certainly not ready for any state licensing test, but my time behind the wheel -- while a little unnerving at first -- was relatively smooth. Because I'm not licensed, my journey was limited to the perimeter of Metro's garage facility in Queensgate.
Jones and Dukes insisted I don the standard-issue Metro operator hat. I did not protest.
Test drove this bad boy today. @cincinnatimetro #transit pic.twitter.com/w43e0L6OKL
— Pat LaFleur (@pat_laFleur) March 23, 2017
It didn't take long to get a sense for the bus' position relative to lanes, curbs and other objects along the roadway. Like other, smaller vehicles, the bus is equipped with two side mirrors, which, as Dukes pointed out during my training, are every bus driver's best friends.
"You can't move without 'em," he said. "You're blinded without your mirrors."
Dukes trains his drivers to be checking both mirrors every three to five seconds, something he works very quickly to repeat and reinforce while standing next to a driver-in-training.
"We're checking left, checking right," he repeated, drilling in the fundamental operator concept. When I tested the simulator the first time, Training Specialist Rita Byrd called it "brushing your teeth" -- left, then center, then right again.
Despite reaching a scorching top speed of 5 miles per hour, one thing Dukes had to repeat while I was behind the wheel: "Slow down."
This was particularly true while I was making turns, something I commented on as feeling different than a car.
"Yep, it'll really pull through them," he said as I practiced my left turn.
The biggest adjustment was probably the braking. Dukes said the difference is that, while cars typically use hydraulic brakes, buses like those Metro operates use air brakes.
"It's three steps," he said. "Tap it, take pressure off, then slowly ease back on the brake." The bus' weight is also a factor, especially when full with passengers.
All told, I took two and a half laps around the garage and successfully avoided crashing into anything -- despite my initial trepidation -- entirely thanks to Dukes' attentive instruction and positive attitude by my side.
It's a positivity that Jones said finds its way into operators' lives who choose to pursue the career, primarily because, at its core, the job is about serving the community.
"We serve the community in ways that help them get to work and school and have improved quality of life," Jones said. "So we are looking for operators to do just that."
Metro's Operator Days will take place April 15, May 13 and June 10, from 9 a.m to 2 p.m., at the Queensgate facility located at 1401 Bank St. Online registration is required to attend.
Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).