Heroes of the Local Road Earn Their Pay (And Then Some!)

By Susan Van Haitsma

In the grand scheme of things – we’re just travelers.
Never kings, never queens – we’re just travelers.

— from Big Moon Shinin’ by Chip Taylor

AUSTIN, TX (Sept. 23)–I boarded the bus with renewed appreciation.
Capital Metro operators were back after a one-day strike, and I was
grateful to be able to take my usual route to work. When I told the
driver that I supported the strike, he smiled and said with some
excitement, “I think we made a difference!”

I know that Capital Metro operators have made a positive difference
in my life since the year I stopped driving a car. In 1990, I began
using the city bus for most local transportation, and because my work
takes me to different parts of town at different times of day, I’ve
used almost every
route at one time or another. I feel at home on the bus. It’s a small community on wheels, more
richly diverse and more representative of the city as a whole than the
neighborhood where I live. Buses are street-going vessels of the
lifeblood of Austin, carrying workers, students, children and parents
through arteries all over town. Bus riders learn about each other in
ways that automobile drivers cannot. We talk to each other or just
observe.

On the bus, an atmosphere of helpfulness tends to develop that
contrasts with the everyone-for-him-or-herself attitude often typifying
automobile travel. Bus passengers lend one another a hand with bags of
groceries and strollers, and pool their knowledge of routes and
schedules for those who are new. When someone lacks the fare, riders
dig in their pockets for change.

My heroes of these rolling communities are the drivers. They carry
precious cargo. They often begin or end shifts in the wee hours and
handle the pressure of arriving at a day’s worth of stops neither too
late nor too early while accommodating unexpected delays or detours.

Drivers serve not only as navigators of large, complex machines,
but they also interact with a large, complex public. I doubt whether
the pay raises they are seeking take into account their roles as
counselors, assistants or public relations representatives, but they do
that work all the same. They
assist new passengers with bike racks and fare boxes and help buckle
seatbelts for riders in wheelchairs. They give directions to passengers
who don’t have their bearings and may listen for miles to a talkative
person in the front seat.

Drivers take the heat when a bus is late or when a rider is just in
a grumpy mood, but they’ll also wait a little longer at a stop when
they see someone running, and they’ll signal a connecting bus so that a
passenger can catch a transfer. I have seen drivers disarm disruptive
passengers or expertly calm a bus full of rowdy students by stopping
the bus and offering a few firm but respectful words.

Some non-riders who have complained about the bus strike have taken
union leaders to task for the timing of the strike, but those who
criticize the union should note that their argument against the strike
– that the services of transit union members are too vital to be halted
– is also an argument in support of what the union is asking. Because
the work of bus drivers
and mechanics is essential to providing fair, sustainable and safe
transportation for Austin area residents and visitors, these workers
should have a contract that is fair, sustainable and safe for
themselves and their families.

Non-riders often refer to “empty buses,” yet in 15 years of riding
Capital Metro, I have observed that the majority of cars passing
alongside the bus are three quarters empty, an occupancy rate below
most of the buses I ride. I am convinced that the bus is the more
efficient people mover, especially considering the many hours those
seats in cars remain vacant in parking lots while bus seats continually
refill as buses circulate.

Work stoppage is a time-honored, nonviolent negotiation strategy
that highlights just how much we value the service that is withheld. I
could not do without Capital Metro drivers. I trust them to take me
where I need to go, and I trust their determination of what is fair
compensation for that ride.

—–

Van Haitsma is a regular bus rider living in Austin.

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