Sunday, 9 March 2014


I sat all the way in the back of an articulated bus yesterday on my commute home. The heat pumped out from under the seat turning the air into a moist, fog inducing, musty mass of thick boots and wet socks that had me toggling from taste to smell as I tried to find a comfortable way to breathe.

I sat in the rear seat, and watched as the passenger in the other rear window seat banged his head on the very same overhead bulkhead as I did while he sat down, only he clutched his left temple whereas I banged my right side on the poorly placed panel. He glanced at me quickly, likely mistaking my silly grin as laughing at him when I was actually very much laughing with him. 

I love to watch people.

Directly in front of these rear seats are easily the most uncomfortable seats on the bus. Now it's not that the seats are physically uncomfortable, there are no pointy parts of the seats nor do they sit in a funny way that makes your back hurt. It's something else entirely. These seats directly face another row of seats. It never occurs to the occupants when they move to sit down in these awkward seats that they will be face to face with other passengers, but the minute they sit down and realize this, their eyes hit the floor. 

To sit here, you will inevitably wind up making eye contact with someone sitting directly in from of you, and hilarity will ensue. The dance begins with each person becoming very interested in footwear. Each detail of the shoes across from you becomes a focal point. The narrow point of dress shoe, or the thick mullet of a work boot takes but a few seconds of your attention to fully process. Slowly you wind up on the artistry of a pant leg, or a dress hem, your eye creeping side to side or back and forth like the persistent sailboat tacking through a strong headwind. Floor, to boot, to pant, back to floor again. You catch yourself looking upwards, maybe at a button on a shirt or the embarrassing glance at a crotch.

And then it happens. Eye contact.

Once eye contact has been established, there is nothing left to occur besides more eye contact, more shoe study, and more uncomfortable eye contact as both parties in this uncomfortable dogfight of deflected attention is decided by a rung bell, and an exit to freedom.

Sitting in the rear seat, a people watcher can enjoy this dramatic dance from a distance, be it watching directly through some sunglasses, or indirectly through watching your subjects in the wide fluorescent reflection of the rear window. Once in awhile the reflection technique results in eye contact itself, sending a misdirected jolt of electricity through both parties as the subterfuge is uncovered.

As I lose interest in these seats, my search broadens for distraction. There are 17 passengers in plain view. I count 12 of them feverishly pecking at devices. They too are looking for distraction. I watch a man open and close an app on his phone about twenty times. He clicks the app, closes it, opens something else, then back to the first app. It becomes obvious that he really has nothing to do on the phone, and that simply being on the device has become the purpose of the device. Marshall McLuhan never intended his famous quote "The medium is the message" quite in this way, but it fits.

Another man is playing a card game on an impossibly small screen. He is overlooking an obvious solution to win his game, but to admit that I too am looking at his device, and playing his game by proxy, would likely not be a welcome gesture.

To look around this bus as the commute unfolds is something every bus driver should pay attention to. These people we serve each and every day are behind us, distracting themselves from the mundane ride with equally mundane tasks and distractions. The only real interaction that occurs on a transit bus seems to be the interaction with the driver.

In the coming months, OC is rolling out its Customer Service Excellence program. I took the pilot program, and I'm impressed. Putting the focus on our clients ahead of all else is the direction that all transit companies need to go. We spend far too much time focusing on the vehicle as drivers, and not nearly enough time on the cargo.

I could teach almost anyone to drive a bus safely, but that would not make them a good professional bus driver. The real skill is maintaining professional standards.

 OC Transpo has not done a very good job in the past of training its employees to be service professionals. In fact, training has been nearly nonexistent for long term employees, having only a few hours of training every three years. The Union hasn't supported training, especially this kind of training since I've worked here.

Like the commuter, The Company and The Union have been distracted, spending far too much time trying not to look each other in the eye. Things seem to be changing on this front.


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