on unacceptable behavior

Michael Pal has launched a new blog about his experiences as a transit manager.  In a recent post, he talks about the process of dealing with complaints about bus driver behavior, especially things that can be perceived as courtesy or the lack of it.

Here's Pal's list of "clearly unacceptable behaviors"

  1. Cursing and/or using profane vulgar language/gestures at customers, even if provoked.
  2. Raising voice / screaming at customer
  3. Ignoring reasonable requests from customers for directions/information
  4. Failure to provide explanations for delays/disruptions if known
  5. Failure to assist when required
  6. Speaking to the customer in a dismissive fashion
  7. Prejudging a customer based on past experiences
  8. Treating customers differently based on sex/race/physical disabilities
  9. Putting schedule before service

While I would agree that there's no excuse for items 1, 2, 7 or 8, a great deal of professional driver behavior can be interpreted by someone as including one of these faults.  If you are used to an intimate bus service where the driver knows your name and leaves the seat to help you carry your groceries, then you're used to a low-ridership, low-speed, low-efficiency service.  If you then get on a Bus Rapid Transit vehicle with 100 passengers on board an expect the same service from the driver, you're going to be disappointed.  You might even accuse her of "failing to assist" or "putting schedule before service."  And if you lean over her shoulder and harague her when she's trying to get 100 people to their destinations, she might eventually do something that you perceive as "speaking to you in a dismissive fashion."

What's more, the world is full of people who are angry at their parents, their employer, their landlord, their cellphone, the prospect of death, Microsoft, their government, their partner, their aching back, Wall Street, God, or the weather.  In all these cases, the anger can't be fully expressed at its true object, so people displace, becoming irritable with others who somehow remind them (and the resemblence can be vanishingly faint) of the true object of their anger.  If you're angry at "authority," for example, well, you're going to beat up on a lot of decent people who happen to be in charge of something — including a bus driver.

The driver of busy, crowded bus services needs an extraordinary personality — able to be calm and focused even as they deal with danger and aggression all around them.   They need to be totally attentive to their driving even as all kinds of needy egos surge and roil in a small space behind their backs.  Drivers who are dealing with their own rage really just can't do this and shouldn't be driving — either a bus or a private car.  I've seen bus drivers snap — suddenly begin screaming obscenities until passengers either flee or cower in silence.  Plenty of people don't have the right personality for the job, and should be doing something else.  Many, too, have the right personality for driving but not for customer service; they should be driving services that require less customer contact, like rail or Bus Rapid Transit. 

If your bus driver starts screaming obscenities, or driving aggressively, report him.  But forgive your bus driver for the fact that his job is to do something efficiently, as part of a larger network, especially if he's driving a big bus serving lots of passengers.  If you fixate on the fact that he didn't smile as you expected, or that he couldn't answer you question while he was focused on everyone's safety, you'll beat up on a lot of bus drivers, and their managers, unfairly.  And when you make a job more unpleasant, you make it harder to get good people to do it.

    17 Responses to on unacceptable behavior

    1. TimG December 18, 2011 at 3:17 pm #

      I’d say that, on a busy route, 9) is actually the opposite of appropriate behaviour. I’m constantly fuming at drivers who spend a long time helping someone with a silly request while 50 people sit on the now delayed bus waiting.
      Or in short: if being helpful to one person is unhelpful to 20 then your priorities are wrong.

    2. Pavel Farkas December 18, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

      I agree completely. Everything depends on the context. What I have seen in Lisbon (the lady driver stopped the car, opened the front door and waved back at a waving child) would not be possible in Prague I don’t think.
      Recently, in Prague transit, there are new posters all around the car interiors, representing the driver as a kind of information office, being kind and smiling…
      (I have seen very different scenarios, but very often, the communication with drivers in old trams is very brief and effective!). It’s interesting that this “friendly driver” campaign simply does not work in the two new types of tramways – where the driver is locked in tinted-glass cabin, some 10 feet from the passenger compartment.
      As for the rules discussed, I wonder, whether there was a situation that called for creating these rules. I think they might be a reaction to some extreme cases and doubt that we can make rules this universal. It will just make drivers more nervous.

    3. Steve Lax December 18, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

      The system where I worked did a survey of bus operator related complaints. The median number of complaints per operator was quite low; but a small number of operators (under five per cent) was responsible for more than ten complaints each during the period surveyed. They were developing a program to retrain and monitor those operators, the last I heard.

    4. Matt December 18, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

      #1, smoking. I’ve been on buses where the driver pulls out a cigarette and lights up. It’s happened 3 times to me, and I got 2 of them sacked. And then you tell someone you got them sacked and they think I’m the bastard since the guy’s lost his livelihood. I don’t buy that. It should always be instant dismissal.

    5. Joseph December 18, 2011 at 8:48 pm #


    6. Retro Jordan Shoes December 19, 2011 at 12:30 am #

      I worked did a survey of bus operator related complaints. The median number of complaints per operator was quite low; but a small number of operators (under five per cent) was responsible for more than ten complaints each during the period surveyed. They were developing a program to retrain and monitor those operators, the last

    7. jfruh December 19, 2011 at 12:32 am #

      On San Francisco’s Muni buses and streetcars, there are (or at least used to be) signs that read “information gladly given, but safety precludes unnecessary conversation,” which I always thought was a nice if ever-so-slightly passive-aggressive way of encapsulating what kind of interaction you should expect from a transit operator. (A friend of mine once said that the phrase also neatly stated her attitude on talking during sex, but that’s another story.)

    8. Simon December 19, 2011 at 12:40 am #

      None of the nine behaviours deal with bus drivers’ behaviour towards other road users.
      Sydney bus drivers are quite representative of ordinary Sydney drivers in respect of the way they drive around cyclists, ie, dangerously and illegally. Complaints to Sydney Buses go into a black hole.
      Should bus drivers be able to break road rules, not as “mistakes”, but as deliberate actions that they angrily defend at the next red light? Shouldn’t deliberate illegal behaviour in the course of their employment mean instant dismissal for employees?

    9. Alan Howes December 19, 2011 at 4:48 am #

      Hmm. Smiley-driver posters, neat SF Muni posters …
      The “behaviour” posters I most ofren see on transit are ones stating how the operator (=agency) has a zero tolerance for physical or verbal abuse of their staff. Which is quite reasonable of course – but the slightly aggressive tone of the posters makes me slightly uncomfortable just the same. I feel that I’m being accused of something I would not even contemplate.
      I also feel that they give the wrong message to infrequent users about what sort of behaviour they might expect to encounter on transit. (And that’s without taking account of the posters about drug abuse clinics and the like, which with an awful predictability appear on buses operating in low-income neighbourhoods but not on trains …)
      (NB that both “operator” and “beat up” have different meanings either side of the pond.)

    10. francis December 19, 2011 at 10:44 am #

      “information gladly given, but safety precludes unnecessary conversation” has become a slogan placed on t-shirts and mugs at the SF Muni museum.

    11. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org December 19, 2011 at 10:56 am #

      Francis.  Purists note: In the original version of that sign there was no comma.  J

    12. Matt December 19, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

      There was a recent case of a bus driver driving whilst doing her crossword in the newspaper balanced on the steering wheel as it went down the busiest street for pedestrians in Wellington. The passengers were not impressed and dobbed her in.

    13. Frederick December 20, 2011 at 12:58 am #

      Ironically, the post before that one is about on-time performance, where he does somewhat contradict himself.

    14. EngineerScotty December 20, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

      Hong Kong busses have a sign on the front with a bilingual notice (in English and Chinese). The English version informs that “it is an offense to talk to the bus captain while the bus is in motion”. Interesting for no other reason than the use of “captain” to refer to the bus driver (there are no other crew aboard HK busses beyond the driver); whether this usage simply derives from a translation of the Chinese (where captaincy is perhaps not reserved for those in command of ships or planes but not of land-based vehicles), or from some other custom, I’m not sure. Google reveals that the term is used in English-language transit discourse in Singapore, where operators are also called “captains”. In North America, there appears to be a Christian missionary organization known as the Bus Ministry that uses the term “Bus Captain” to refer to ministers within their ranks; but this organization has nothing to do with public transit.

    15. Andre Lot December 21, 2011 at 5:06 am #

      I think transit services should be efficient, but interaction with transit employees reduced to instances where it is necessary. People should get used to automated ticket booths, automated arriving electronic signs, apps for routing etc.
      Buses, trams and what else should have isolated driver cabins. That doesn’t need to be an expensive proposition, it is quite cheap to fit plexiglass or something else that physically isolates the driver from passengers. Coupled with cameras (even a cheap one) in the passengers compartment, it increases security and let the driver focus on driving.
      Of course, this would only work in systems where proof of payment, automated payment or prepayment are the norm. A good example are many Italian cities where bus drivers are not allowed to sell tickets of any kind.
      Transit is a service of passenger transportation, not a place for socializing.

    16. Jeff Welch December 24, 2011 at 7:53 am #

      Responses to this article serve as more proof positive that people are much more likely to report what they are unhappy about, than what they like. Do any of you folks bother to take the time to call/write/e-mail in compliments about what your driver is doing RIGHT?

    17. Rantingsofatrimetbusdriver.blogspot.com December 25, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

      Nice essay Jarett.