Friday, 25 January 2013

Evolution and Trained Monkeys

In my last post I poked a little fun of the Trained Monkey perception that many folks feel best describes the job requirements of an urban transit bus driver. Tongue in cheek? Sure. But in all humour, comes a grain of truth.

This job really has changed over the years. This city has changed too.

If you pulled aside drivers in order of hire date, and asked them to write a paper on driving a bus for OC Transpo, you might get some very interesting and diverse results.

The newer hires mostly remember what the real world is like. They come from jobs that paid less, are grateful for it, and have had recent training and exposure to company policy. The company has really (and rightly) focused on hiring people with customer service backgrounds in the past few years, and these folks are generally better at dealing with the public than the more senior drivers.

The scheduling system actually improved many of the new drivers' working conditions. Where a 6 hour day spread over 13 hours was the norm, they can get a 12 hour day and be guaranteed 3 days off every two weeks instead of one day per week.

Many of the newer hires have more diverse resumes. They have more experience and more education than the longer term employees. The newer driver is less concerned about preserving the old ways of doing things, and is more apt to follow new policies without question.

The hardened vet has an entirely different view of the job.

As a kid, I remember bus drivers as being authority figures. First off, they had taller hats than most. It was a conductor's cap, tall in the front and lower in the back. The hat always had a shiny ornament of some kind in the front, the same way a policeman's did. Bus drivers wore suits, neatly pressed, and had their hair trimmed tightly and were clean shaven.

You paid your fare or you walked in the old days. If you were causing problems on the bus, you walked. If you hit a bus driver, he would likely hit you back. He might even chase you down the street to do it.

Perhaps we shouldn't pine for the old days, but the authority is all but nonexistent in the present days, as is the professional standard that lined it with its polished sheen. Too many policies are obfuscated by "driver discretion" issues that create conflict with our clients. It is very difficult to maintain authority when so many other drivers' discretion is inconsistent with yours. Add to that the toothless response systems to conflict in any government employment, and you get an interesting mix of resentment and job dissatisfaction.

A newer hire might view a fare dispute as just that... a dispute... where a long term vet might view that same dispute as a challenge to his authority.

The hardened vet has lived through a few strikes. He has lived through a mass shooting in his workplace. He has lived through many regimes of managers and politicians, all who think their ideas of transit are the right ideas for transit. The hardened vet has lived through the era where a fare evader was a reason to kill a bus on the spot, and that decision was encouraged by managers and the public alike.

Now, a fare evader is tolerated after a single request for the person to exit the bus.

While most drivers would not admit this, reduced driver decision-making authority over day-to-day situations is one of the most stressing aspects of being a long term bus driver.

It is tough to be a principled person and let other people (who will likely not show up in time) deal with something you used to be expected to deal with.

The veteran bus driver has lived through the era of respect for professionals and graduated to the reality of today where 140 characters are more important to most people than saying Good Morning.

Authority is only one aspect.

Where a bus driver used to serve a neighborhood, he is interlined throughout the city in a series of mad dashes across the city to cover the master computer's next big idea to save money.

Let that sink in a second.

A bus driver used to serve a neighborhood. People used to know our names because we used to serve the street they lived on every day, all day. If there is one thing that the scheduling issues took from us, it is the ability to serve an area, a community, a neighborhood.

I miss the old folks on the 16 route as I chugged my way through to Carlingwood. There is just something special about picking them up every day, and hearing them make references to "Simpson" Sears. Then I'd pick them up a few hours later and drive them home.

One day, an older man got on my bus with a newly purchased set of jumper cables with a Sears logo on them. I quipped "You can ride, just don't start anything". For weeks that story was retold on my bus.

I work hard to try and establish these kinds of connections with each new booking. It's not the same as it used to be, but I still get Christmas presents from customers every year. So, it's not impossible.

Whether you are a hardened vet, a new hire, a manager, or a passenger, take one thing from this little rant.

The evolution of this job has moved us away from the professional standards and customer service principles we try to enforce with policy.

Policy is cold and obtuse.

If we want to make transit better, we need to find ways to create connections with our clients, and get drivers focused on getting job satisfaction through those connections.

We need to evolve back to the old days.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Your Chance To Be A Trained Monkey!

I'll never forget the way the call-in shows and Letters to the Editor treated us during the strike. I'm not going into the politics of what happened then, so put down your sharp objects. The strike was horrible for everyone, and should not have happened. I'm just talking about what people think a unionized bus driver's job entails.

The typical view of any job that begins with the word "unionized" is that image of four construction workers hovering over a single shovel, one working, the rest supervising. When you combine "lazy" with strike action, you get some pretty wild public accusations on these call-in shows, or in the Letters section of the newspaper.

The theme that always killed me was this idea that a trained monkey could drive a bus.

Now I'm not arguing the fact that a monkey could be trained to push the pedals and turn the steering wheel. It most certainly could be done. But let's see a monkey fill out an incident report, or argue with a drunk who insists his TD Bank card is in fact a Presto card.

So There it is. The link to Trained Monkeydom. Your ticket to $100k-a-year lazy afternoons of union employment.

Now there are a few clarifications I would like to make about the perks of the job.

You will not make $100k a year. Yes, there have been drivers on the Sunshine List, but those drivers (All one of them) work 120 hours every two weeks, the most hours allowed under Federal work/rest regulations. And, all one of those drivers are in the top seniority bracket at OC Transpo, meaning he's been there over 25 years.

You can expect to make between $52k and $57k working at standard 40 hour workweek at OC Transpo.  As stated ad nauseum in Letters to the editor, an entry level bus driver makes about the same as an entry level firefighter. What the letters do not state however, is that a 20 year veteran OC Transpo driver also makes about the same wage as an entry level firefighter. The only factor that affects your salary as you pile on the years is your access to overtime. Federal work/rest rules have forced the company to increase its workforce to reduce overtime in the name of compliance, so don't expect to be on the Sunshine List any time in your career.

The second thing you need to know before you apply is that unionized work is not necessarily lazy unionized work. Getting your paycheque at OC Transpo doesn't mean standing around watching a shovel.

Think of the last time you drove to Toronto. You hopped in the car, maybe with the kids in back. You headed out onto the 417, then to the 416 for an hour or so, onto the 401 for 45 minutes or so before you stopped to take a quick refreshment break. You then headed down the 401 into heavier traffic, and after another three hours, you were on the DVP heading to your downtown hotel. The trip took you around 5 hours, and the feeling of getting out of that car was sensational. You stretched your legs, and let out that kind of half yawn/half groan as your back straightened out and the blood came back to your legs.

Now think of that 5 hour drive as your first shift of the day at OC Transpo. Only add in about 750 transactions, 30 people asking you for directions or instructions, 7 or 8 people you don't know who want to get into your car and don't want to help you pay for the gas (and expect that you will comply regardless of what you say to them), and just for fun...throw in a drunk guy who you think might vomit on one of your kids.

Now go into your hotel, and come back out at 3pm, because you still have 3 hours left to drive if you want to pay your mortgage this month. Oh, and don't forget. You will be doing the same thing tomorrow. And the day after that.

Driving a bus is not lazy work. We OC Transpo drivers are some of the hardest working people in the city. Our shifts are comprised of turning the wheel, pushing the pedals, and doing transactions from start to finish. It is sheer ignorance to suggest that bus drivers are lazy. An 8 hour shift, be it a straight shift or a split shift, is 8 hours of driving a vehicle. Bus drivers do not get lunch breaks. The only time the wheels stop is what is referred to as "Recovery time", which is service recovery time according to the control center and not driver recovery time. Meaning, if you are late getting to the end of your run and are supposed to leave right away, you are expected to leave right away on your next trip.

Hard work does not necessarily mean difficult work. I will undoubtedly get emails from from a few nurses saying "Uh yeah. You should see what WE put up with." Bus drivers are not nurses, that is for sure. Those people are pure A-types. Salt of the earth.

In the Letters section of the newspaper, responses to the driver bashing letters were met with equally absurd responses from drivers describing wind swept platforms in the dead of winter, and almost all letters had one common theme.

The Twenty Thousand Pound Sixty Foot Vehicle That We Have To Lug Through Traffic.

I always get a kick out of that hyperbole. If you are thinking of applying for this job, you need to understand that you only have to push the one pound pedal, and the motor pushes the rest of the 19,999lbs.

Relatively speaking, driving a bus from a purely mechanical perspective is pretty easy in comparison to driving a large tractor trailer. The first large truck I ever drove had an 18 speed transmission, and had the turning radius of a jumbo jet. Matching engine RPMs to transmission speeds in order to shift was a skill you absolutely had to master, because taking 80,000lbs over the Rockies requires careful speed management and an almost zen-like connection to the machine. Don't even get me started on navigating the 1300+ low bridges in the city of Chicago.

Driving an automatic transmission bus on roads that give priority to transit is a skill that most people with intelligent driving habits can master. If you're looking to drive a bus for a living, don't let the vehicle scare you. It is not a hard thing to drive, with a bit of coaching and practice.

I highly recommend working as a bus driver for OC Transpo.

When you consider that so many students graduate from university looking for white collar jobs, and wind up  serving coffee, waiting tables, selling insurance, or taking dead end contracts with the government, a job with long term security and a pension looks pretty enticing. Employers have been shifting away from benefits in their relentless efforts to cut costs and generate share profits. The job market right now is a wasteland of short term work and underemployed baccalaureate degrees just looking to pay off the student loans. The value of our labour has never been lower as these underemployed people compete with each other for jobs they consider worthy of their schooling, but they have no concept of what their labour is worth taking short term contracts without any kinds of benefits.

These are generally the same people that throw this reality in my face as I defend union work, saying that "I don't have sick days or a pension... and Unions were created to stop slavery..."

Seems the conservative mind will not rest until no one in the country has sick days or a pension. Then we can all work until we are 80 or we are dead. It'll save money.

I digress.

Driving for OC Transpo may not be prestigious, but there are plenty of hours the city needs you to work right now, and will be there for many many years. You will contribute to a pension that will help you live out your retirement with dignity. You will meet some of the best and some of the worst that Ottawa has to offer. You will serve Ottawa in a way that might surprise you, the sheer volume of people moving about their daily lives is astounding.

The rewards of serving people will only be enhanced as you master the art of thick skin, and come to the realization that people in general are pretty decent and cool. All it takes is a little extra effort once in awhile to make someone's day, and making someone's day can be a job perk not spelled out to you in the official job description.

You will be part of a family of very highly trained monkeys at OC Transpo, a family that will stick up for you when needed. I guarantee that it will never be boring.

You may get a little poo flung at you every once in awhile, but monkeys can't read anyway and the bananas are company issue.

So, grab a vine, and apply.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Adventures in Doubledecking

"So, how are these things to drive?"

Easily the most asked question a double-decker driver hears on a daily basis.

Meet Alexander Dennis.

The UK based manufacturer of the Enviro500 double deck buses likely never thought their buses would be fighting this kind of winter, and only time will tell if the brand will stand the test of time.

First off, I love driving these buses. I like the novelty of it. I like the feel of it. And, once the off-gassing of newly cured paints, plastics, and upholstery products subsides, maybe I'll even enjoy the experience of it. "New car smell" is horrible after an hour or two. "New bus smell" is downright nauseating.

The driving experience itself is unique to the fleet. The bus is equipped with a Cummins ISL9, a, 8.9L turbo diesel that puts out 300hp and roughly 1100ft/lb of torque. It'll do 0-60 in 15 minutes, unless you're doing the #14 route, as the bus is slowed down greatly by old tree growth. (You didn't really think I'd take bus stats seriously, did you?)

I have driven both models of double decks, the older taller version and this new fleet. Performance wise, no difference.

Winter handling is pretty good, with two biting axles to provide traction in deep snow. Steering is good right up until you brake, as it is with any large vehicle.

From the seat however, I have a few opinions.

The bus has been spec'd with a giant Recarro seat with full armrests that you cannot move without pinching your fingers, as the driver's compartment has a tub-style door that interferes with the movement of any part of the seat itself. It's as if Alexander Dennis engineering department designed the driver's compartment with The Shire in mind. I'm a pretty lean guy, and I still found it a little difficult to unlock the tub door to get in and out. It's very Jenga-esque in there. It took me longer than it should to adjust things, settle in, and get going.

Finally tucked into my compartment and on my way to Hobbiton, I began driving. I muddled my way through what I remembered of my training, and set out to decipher the symbols that represent functions on the bus's control panel. Like many UK companies, A.D. loves the so called "Universal" symbols. These ones aren't as bad as the old Icarus buses, with their ancient Germanic hieroglyphics and complex calculus function codes, but they are... well, annoying. Alexander Dennis is from England, and hey! I'm English. Why not put A/C instead of a snowflake symbol. Any why put a snowflake symbol if what you actually meant was Climate Control. We have winter. I want to turn the Snowflake off, not on.

Climate control is completely out of the driver's hands, by the way. The Computer whom I've named ADHAL (and you can pronounce that @#$%!) controls the heat level of the bus. A few days ago, the outside temperature was a balmy -16C.  Heat rises, so the people coming down the stairs complained to me that the bus is too hot. ADHAL likes it cool, so the people downstairs complained that the bus is too cool. I pushed the snowflake up, then down, then back up. Nothing. ADHAL was in charge.

After trudging through the snow to get into the bus, shaking off the icicles from my hat and shoulders, I found myself cursing the fact that the bus is not equipped with any kind of driver compartment (or even just a basic coat hook) to place winter gear once you start driving. I found myself draping my winter coat over the back of the driver's seat. Melting ice became water, and before long I found myself with wet shoulders.

ADHAL helped me figure out why there is no hook for my jacket.

After 10 minutes, there was still only a lukewarm breeze emanating from the driver's heat vent. I turned every control to its highest setting, and still no real heat. Just the lukewarm breath of  ADHAL, and his off-gassing plastics, apparently burping out whatever leftover heat remained from passing his antifreeze through every other heat dissipating radiator in the bus.

I put my jacket back on. And my gloves. And lit a fire in the garbage bin. Okay, I made that last one up.

The driver's compartment is very cold in any kind of extreme temperature. Windows ice up. Feet ice up.

The actual driving (other than temperatures) is pretty decent. I don't feel like I'm going to tip over around corners. As a matter of fact, the computer controlled suspension is pretty awesome. It hugs the road. Bumps are easily handled unless you are braking. I love the fact that the engine retarder can be activated with a light  tap on the brake pedal, light enough in fact that the actual service brake doesn't engage. Properly mastered, I can bring the bus to an almost complete stop without using the service brakes. (Smooth like Buttah!)

Wind is an issue, the bus does tend to wander on the Fallowfield transitway. It's nothing unmanageable, but I could see a driver getting a little spooked by it if they weren't expecting it. And, judging by the number of people who have mentioned to me that The Other Driver is so freaking slow, I'm guessing more than a few drivers get spooked.

Some drivers have complained that the smaller radius steering wheel to too tough to turn. I don't find this to be an issue myself. The whole reason buses came with larger radius steering wheels is because buses used to be equipped with Armstrong Steering. (No power steering, for you rookies out there) These buses steer well enough to be almost car-like.

The service side of things is very predictable.

The double deckers have many seats, and that is awesome. People really seem to like that aspect of the vehicle, but you cannot stand upstairs unless you are under 5ft tall. I watch you folks in the camera, head down, knees bent... then THWACK! Getting up is harder than it looks and our memories are short! Funny how Zamboni drivers have to wear helmets to clean the ice for 10 year old figure skaters who don't wear helmets. The city should reallocate those helmets to tall bus riders.

Kids love the double deckers, too. Hard not to feel like a rockstar when I pull up to a stop with a couple of young ones waiting there. It'd be nice if there was a place to store a stroller while mum and dad take the kids upstairs though. Being a kid stuck on the bottom floor of a double decker is like putting a swing in the backyard of Disney World. "Yeah, we went, but we just rode the swing out back and watched the rides."

From a "Keeping the schedule" standpoint, these buses take a longer time to load that the 60 footers do. Fewer doors make for longer loading, and people have to walk up a flight of stairs to get to their seats, and then walk down a flight of stairs to get off the bus. This takes more time than a conventional bus. Hundreds of U of O students test this theory on a daily basis as they board at MacKenzie King station, go upstairs, ring the bell, and get off the bus two stops later on Campus. (I could swear I hear them saying Wheeeeeeeee! in their minds)

I remember shaking my head a few years back when the suggestion was made that the lesser road footage of the bus would ease gridlock, because the buses take less room than 60 foot buses. That's a shining example of book smarts beating street smarts to the buzzer with a wrong answer. More doors make for faster loading. Period. Want to speed up the core?  Take all service out of it, save for an East-West line that starts at Lebreton and ends at Hurdman. Load up your double deckers and 60 footers at those stations to head on their express routes. Without a 60 item menu of buses in the core, you'd be amazed at how fast everyone just grabs the first thing smoking and heads out of dodge.  No more deadheading across the core. No more multi-stopping buses trying to round up an indecisive herd of clients. No more browsing. Doors open, get on, move along. (precisely why light rail works so well, btw)

When the transitway shuts down, I hope we'll see this kind of shift in thinking and that we can use these double deck buses in this kind of fashion. We will see them shine, used properly.

All in all, the buses are better than I expected on the service side of things. The ergonomics need a little tweaking, but I can see that once we master that, it'll be a jolly good time, and I look forward to seeing what ADHAL thinks a snowflake means in +30C.

Given that none of the windows open, I'm hoping it's literal.