Behind the wheel of a 40-foot-long, 30,000-pound bus
Picture this: It’s 5:30 in the morning and you’ve arrived at the Port Coquitlam depot. You sign in and are assigned the bus for your route. You start your pre-trip inspection; walk around the bus, make sure lights are working, lug nuts are all in place and secure on the tires, check for damage, check the air pressure inside the bus, make sure your horn and wipers are working, test the inside passenger bells and seat belts for wheelchairs, and sign a pre-trip card taking responsibility for all of the above. Now you’re ready to drive to the starting point for your route.
You are driving the 701 from Coquitlam Station to Haney Place in Maple Ridge. According to TransLink’s computer, this route should take you 40 minutes. It’s still dark out and passengers are standing at various stops waiting for you to pick them up. They are cold and tired, sometimes wet, and relying on you to catch their next bus or train to get to work on time. Only, there is construction on Lougheed Highway and Fortis BC is replacing gas lines on Harris Road. On top of that, you know there are two railroad crossings along your route with constant Canadian Pacific train traffic. The computer does not account for this.
Before you know it, you’re only half-way to your destination and running 15 minutes late. While some passengers are understanding, others are quick to let you know they’re displeased. “You’re late!” they’ll say, as though you don’t have a clock in front of you labeled ‘schedule adherence’ monitoring your time and GPS location. Passenger loading is taking time because you’ve come across a wheelchair, a passenger that didn’t know how to use the Compass card, and a passenger who needed directions to their final destination. The computer doesn’t account for any of this either.
By the time you reach Haney Place, you can forget about your bathroom break because you need to make up as much time as you can. You make it back to Coquitlam Station and there’s already a line of passengers waiting to load at your bay. You start your next run and the one after that without even a sip of coffee because you don’t want to be reprimanded for disrupting service or have a passenger report you for distracted driving.
On your bus, a passenger is riding with a child who is standing up on the seat and another passenger, distracted by their phone, realizes they’ve forgotten to pull the passenger bell until the last second. You need to decide, would you rather a passenger be mad because you couldn’t make their stop safely, or a passenger be mad because their toddler, who wasn’t seated even though they should have been, fell when you attempted to make the stop?
You decide to keep driving until you can safely pull over at the next stop. Now, the passenger who missed their stop is angry that they have to walk two blocks back. “How hard is it to do your job?” they say.
This morning’s episode of verbal abuse has added another two minutes to your run time. Everybody’s patience is running thin (including your own) and you decide to focus on getting your passengers safely to where they need to go, avoiding the car that cut you off and the oblivious pedestrian with headphones on who decided to dart across the road in front of your 40-foot-long, 30,000-pound bus. Then you spot someone running toward your next stop. You know they’re not going to make it in time to request a stop and you have to decide, would you rather passengers be mad that you’re waiting for someone when you’re already late, or someone be mad that you didn’t stop and they have to wait for the next bus?
You decide to continue. In the mirror, you see them wave their middle finger at you. Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t.
TransLink is exempt from providing employees the legally required 15 and 30-minute breaks—in fact, contractually, TransLink only provides "recovery time" and employees are not entitled to any breaks at all—but your bladder is about to burst and you make an executive decision to use the bathroom at Coquitlam Station. At the last light, you strategize the best route between your bay and the bathroom because, as always, you’re short on time but you might as well be wearing an A-frame that says “Information” for the number of times you’ll get stopped by passengers with questions or service complaints, and you don’t want to be rude and risk being called in for unsatisfactory customer service.
You make it to the bathroom and even sneak in a quick bite when your supervisor walks over. That passenger from earlier who missed their original stop? They complained and the camera and microphone on your bus that you were told were installed for safety are now going to be used to scrutinize your interaction and the decision you made. Part of you knows you didn’t do anything wrong while another part of you starts second-guessing itself. But the computer that doesn’t account for traffic surely doesn’t account for stress, so on you go.
Back at the depot at the end of your day, you catch TransLink’s CEO, who just capped his salary at $517,000 (up $107,000 from his total salary in 2018 and some $160,000 more than what Canada’s prime minister is paid), on the news. Faced with a strike, he says, “We’ve offered operators a 9.6% raise over four years but the union is being unreasonable.” You know that for an average operator, that amounts to a raise of $3 dollars an hour and no one’s brought up inflation or the fact that you’ve been working without a contract for months, but public perception is that you’re greedy before you’ve even had a chance to explain that salary is not the main issue.
You want a contract that recognizes that computer models create job expectations that are not realistic. Poor light sequencing, increased ridership, new customer interface systems, weather, construction, accidents—all of these things are beyond your control. Company policies on things like scheduling and fare evasion create conflict and stress for operators on the frontlines who continuously suffer abuse. And battling the consequences created by unrealistic expectations would be easier if your job provided better protection from assault, maybe even time to eat.
“We want to allocate our budget toward service expansions for the public, not extravagant wage increases,” states the president of TransLink whose salary was recently capped at $372,000, up from $328,000 in 2018.
Service expansions… TransLink can’t even handle bus maintenance for the services it currently provides. You keep that thought to yourself and head home hoping that the public will see through the bullshit. Buses aren’t driverless yet. Until that day comes, you will strike, if you have to, for your right to pee.