CINCINNATI — I hardly ever drive. As in, I’m in a driver’s seat once, maybe twice a month.
That’s why, even though I'm fully licensed to operate a vehicle, when Cincinnati Metro called and asked if I’d like to take one of their buses for a spin, I was intrigued but hesitant.
The invitation came in anticipation of Metro’s upcoming job fair, scheduled for August 22, as the transit authority seeks to hire and train more bus operators.
According to Metro spokeswoman Brandy Jones, Metro's ideal number of bus operators is around 480. Right now, they're operating with about 30 fewer than that.
Looking at the sheer size of a bus, it's not hard to imagine why even a driving enthusiast might balk at the thought of winding a 40-foot, 29-ton vehicle through the streets of Cincinnati.
So, out of curiosity (and a pesky impulse to test the boundaries of my comfort zone), I went and took a peek at what it takes to become a professional bus operator.
'I Can Teach a 5-Year-Old To Drive a Bus'
So, full disclosure: I didn't drive a real, live bus. To do so on a city street would have been illegal, and there were too many employees' own vehicles parked nearby for me to feel confident risking even a quick lap around the parking lot.
But I did take Metro’s bus simulator for a virtual spin around some generic, computer-generated city blocks.
When I saw the simulator, my inner-arcade nerd kicked awake. The simulator 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.
I took a spin around the fictional "30th Street."
As it turns out, my recent departure from driving might make me a perfect candidate to become a Cincinnati Metro bus operator.
That’s not sass or sarcasm or any sort of slight aimed at bus drivers at all. That’s just how Metro trainer Debbi Byrd likes her trainees — blank slates.
Byrd said the operator training process usually lasts around 8-9 weeks, depending on where you train and whether or not a candidate already has his or her commercial driver’s license (a CDL is not required to apply).
“I would prefer to train an applicant without a CDL than one with,” she said. “I love the ‘I-know-nothings.' I can teach a 5-year-old to drive a bus...”
Not Harder, Just Different
While Metro would never put a 5-year-old behind the wheel (for obvious reasons), this is where Byrd’s blank-slate idea comes into play. She said even drivers with experience operating larger, commercial vehicles can sometimes bring with them driving habits and techniques that do not translate well to maneuvering a bus through a metropolitan area.
After spending about half an hour in the simulator with Byrd, who has been with Metro for 27 years and has trained nearly 200 new operators over roughly a decade, I experienced this first-hand (and came to believe that she probably could teach a 5-year-old to drive a bus).
Byrd said that, while someone’s first hesitation at the thought of driving a bus might be its size, buses are no more difficult to learn to operate than a consumer-sized automobile — with practice, of course.
In other words, it's like re-learning to drive.
In the simulator, it became clear that even my dormant everyday driving impulses, like glancing over my shoulder to check my blindspot or looking several car-lengths ahead, didn’t really translate.
Byrd repeatedly instructed me to check my side-view mirrors.
“We call it brushing your teeth,” she said. “Left, then center, then right, then left again. About every five seconds, you’re checking your side mirrors.”
This, she said, provides drivers a constant sense for any obstacles that might creep up along the bus’ flanks.
The side mirrors, I learned, are also crucial for making any sort of turn while driving a bus.
“Don’t cut that steering wheel until your back tire reaches the end of the center (traffic) line,” she instructed.
Overall, I did OK during my seven minutes of actual "drive" time. I drove a little too fast at times, Byrd said, but it turns out I’ve got a wicked right turn.
And I didn’t even crash. That is until she told me to — she had me drive right into the side of a (virtual) building, in order to show me how the system responds when a mistake is made. The simulator jostles like a rumble pack would a video game controller when the bus hits an obstacle like a curb (or the side of a building).
Typically, Byrd or another trainer will be sitting at a control desk, generating different traffic or weather scenarios — like a sudden snowfall or a pedestrian darting into traffic — that a trainee might have to deal with, in real-time.
As fun as the simulator was, though, Byrd said it’s just a tool in a much larger training process, and most of a trainee’s time is actually spent behind the wheel of a real bus.
"After you complete the training, you’ll feel as comfortable driving a bus as you would driving your car,” Byrd said. “You adjust to what you’re (driving) once you’re trained to drive both.”
And Byrd would know. When she’s not driving a bus, she’s driving a Fiat. That's a car that could fit inside a Cincinnati bus probably two or three times.
Not Just a Driving Job, But a People Job
When Byrd said she could teach a 5-year-old to drive a bus, that was really only half the idea.
“I can teach a 5-year-old to drive a bus, but the people-skills, the multitasking...that’s what makes or breaks a bus operator,” she said.
“A lot of applicants look at this as, ‘I’m good at driving. It’s a driving job,’” Byrd said.
But driver competence and safety, while critical, only make up a small portion of the job description.
Orlando King has driven Metro buses for nearly 25 years, and was just named this year’s Metro Operator of the Year. That means he’s had perfect attendance, no accidents, no customer complaints and — most impressive of all — he had a 90 percent on-schedule driving rate.
King said driving the bus is actually the easiest part of the job.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure my passengers are comfortable,” King said. “Nothing is trivial.”
Byrd went on to say that, beyond learning to maneuver the bus, operators are trained in situational customer service scenarios, defensive driving, and safety procedures for passengers with disabilities.
They’re also trained to deal with unruly riders.
“I keep an eye out for potential problems before they become problems,” King said.
At the end of the day, King said a driver’s personality and demeanor is just as important as his or her ability to drive safely, saying that he constantly keeps an eye out for passengers who have what he thinks it takes to be a bus driver.
“It makes me sparkle when I interact with someone with an awesome personality,” he said. “It’s every day someone’s getting asked if they’d ever considered coming on as a driver."
Ultimately, Byrd said, the real value of the job — beyond the competitive pay (just raised to $14 per hour to start as a trainee) and benefits package — is that, once you arrive, most don’t want to leave.
“It’s a career move,” Byrd said. “Most of our operators retire here. Metro is a solid foundation. Anybody can do this, and what you put in is what you’ll get out of it.”
Metro’s job fair is Saturday, September 26, at its Queensgate Garage facility at 1401 Bank Street.
Follow Pat LaFleur on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) for all things public transit and alternative transportation in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.