Thursday, 27 March 2014

September 18

I have sat down at this keyboard many times over the past six months. Each time, I think about what happened on September 18th, I write a few sentences, I think, and I stop. I honestly cannot believe what happened that day. I cannot erase the images from my mind, the scene, the way I felt, and the memories of the folks I knew on that bus that day.

I was driving the 122 route in Orleans that morning. I had been tinkering with some notes on bus driver assaults, and I was moving through a few paragraphs on the subject. I took the summer off from blog writing, choosing instead to enjoy my free time planning a trip to a remote part of North Carolina with the wife and kids. I had been writing mostly short stories over the summer, choosing pleasure over work, but it was now September and I was in the mood to write a bit here.

A regular passenger gets on my 122, puts an ominous hand on my shoulder, and says "Drive safe today, we're all thinking of you."

I thought about that strange interaction all the way back to Place d'Orleans. I had no idea what had transpired in Barhaven. When I arrived at Orleans Station, I could see a group of drivers huddled around the front of a bus, one was crying. I parked, and picked up my phone. Twenty texts, all asking if I'm okay, who is it, what happened? I flipped over to Twitter, and I could not believe what I saw.

I dashed into the station and did what many drivers did that morning. I looked up the bus number, and found out who was driving that bus. The name rang a bell, but I needed Facebook to connect the dots. God, he was such a nice guy. People tend to throw around the term Infectious Smile a little too liberally, as if it means a really nice smile. Dave made others smile, and that's what it really means. I paused on the pictures of his wife and his daughter, wondering if they knew yet, and if not, who would have to tell them. I grieved.

It wasn't long before a media type contacted my Twitter page. Can we talk? No good can come of this. This reporter from CBC is asking me to confirm the driver's name. I'm not biting. She is desperate for details, and to be first to confirm. She puts Dave's name out there, but really only clicked his Facebook page and thinks his name is Terry. The interaction feels like a shady car salesman trying to sell me electronic rust protection and a diamond grade clear coat. We know his name is Terry, it has already been confirmed. I'm feeling ill at this point. CBC wants to be the first to tell his wife. On the radio.

I drive around Orleans for the next few hours listening to the radio. I'm not supposed to do this, but I can't pull myself away. I wonder about the supervisors who had to respond. I wonder about the other passengers on that bus and how they got off. I think back to my trucking days, specifically a day where I was first responder to a horrible crash on I75, and the days that followed that. So senseless, I cannot turn the emotions off.

My first shift is over, and I now have to pick up another bus and drive up and down Bank St on the number one route for the afternoon. I am a zombie at this point. People want to ask questions about the morning, and they get on the bus and ask them. I can't answer any of them. I can barely make eye contact. Someone beside me is speculating that the Driver Must Have Fallen asleep, and a passenger hushes him, tells him to be quiet. As I ride up and down Bank, each bus I pass is a raised eyebrow, a shrug, a lowered gaze. The company is in pain.

When I arrived back to the barn, drivers are quiet. I walk back to the parking lot, all the while wondering if his orphaned car is still parked in this lot. Who might have to pick it up? Will it stay there, collecting the dust of age that has been denied to Dave? I break down, sitting in my car, feeling sorry for Dave's car.

“And when something awful happens, the goodness stands out even more ...” 
― Banana YoshimotoThe Lake

The next few days, I began to realize just what kind of city we live in. It seemed that the entire city was in mourning, each passenger struggling to find some kind of connection to the event. While a few people still tried to engage in speculation, most were telling me that they've taken that bus, or that they knew someone who did. Some paid tribute to the victims with a hand on the shoulder, and a kind word. Passengers were so nice, and supportive. I really appreciated the kind words, Ottawa.

That night, I had discovered the names of the passengers, and upon seeing their pictures, was terribly upset to see a few faces I knew. One in particular, with whom I had shared a running joke about the motorcycle helmet I sometimes kept on the dash fan of my bus. I would tell her that I do all of my own stunts. She retorted that the passengers should be the ones wearing the helmets on my bus.

The response from our passengers was so very supportive, equaled only by the support of OC Transpo management and employees. If there is ever a case study to be made in how to do things right in a time of crisis at a major company, the study should begin with John Manconi.  His performance was exemplary. I can't imagine how this must have affected the higher floors at the Ivory Tower, but Mr. Manconi walked shoulder to shoulder with his troops and enacted a plan of support that caught this driver way off guard. There was never a question of where to get support. There was never a question of what was going on. There was never a question unanswered for the blue collar driver. Mr. Manconi put it all out there. Drivers banded together to support those that needed to attend services, or grieve. Work was covered across the board, with drivers cooperating and helping those in need.

It's funny. I was thinking about Dave's car the other day, and how it had triggered me to break down. I was sitting in my car, listening to Steve Madely praddle on about how he cannot trust John Manconi anymore because he did not disclose details on a minor brake maintenance bulletin set forth by Alexander Dennis around the 18th of September. These types of service bulletins happen all the time, but Madely decided to turn it into a core-meltdown major story, with all of the duck-and-cover fervor of a tabloid story about Justin Beiber.

There really is no need to make this story worse than it is. It makes me angry and a little ill to hear this kind of bunk.

If you really want a compelling story to accompany this tragedy, talk to the other 3,000 people who have a version of this story just like mine. Talk to the families of the passengers that had to hold it together while supporting all of us. Talk to the thousands of people who look to John Manconi with reverence and respect in the way he handled all of this.

Treat this story with the respect it deserves.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Distraction

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.

Finally.



Saturday, 2 November 2013

Action

The term "Fare Dispute" has always bothered me.

According to every study I have read in researching assaults on bus drivers, "Fare Dispute" has been listed as the number one reason that bus drivers get assaulted. If I were to go to Futureshop, grab a four dollar item off the shelf, and refuse to pay for it, would that be called a "Payment Dispute"?

Hardly.

And if I punched the clerk for refusing to just take my excuse and the item, what would that be? Would I be allowed back into Futureshop? What if I dragged the clerk outside and broke his nose and ribs? Could I still head into Futureshop and expect it to be life as usual? It's just a payment dispute.


You probably know the story already, but there it is. 38 year old Paul Ness gets a suspended sentence for what the media has reported as his second assault charge, and our driver gets a lifetime of wondering when the next Paul Ness might walk on his bus and do what Ness' lawyer describes as a minor assault, namely drag him off his bus and break his ribs and nose in front of a bus full of his stunned passengers.

Lest you think this is an isolated incident, it isn't. Sixty, yes SIXTY of us get assaulted each year here in Ottawa. At least, that's what gets reported. Sixty times a year, a dispute escalates into a physical confrontation on a bus. Urine in cups thrown on drivers. Spit spat on drivers. Punched drivers. Kicked drivers. Drivers hit with cellphones. Food thrown on drivers. Hot coffee thrown on drivers.

And it's all because of the strike.

Reading comments in Ottawa often focuses on the strike.

Which explains why drivers are being assaulted in record numbers all over North America. Google it. I don't have the time to write this all down. Bus drivers are under attack in every major city in North America. We get assaulted more than any other profession.

Somehow, the strike in Ottawa has caused passengers in every city in Canada and the United States to assault their bus drivers. 

I am of course, being facetious. 

There is a problem in our industry, and it's time we talk about it. 

Ralph Goodale has tabled a BILL that singles out assaults on transit drivers with language that makes these types of assaults an aggravating factor in sentencing. The argument against this type of legislation is that bus drivers are no more special than any group. I understand that logic, and would agree that an assault at any workplace should fall under this legislation, not just bus drivers. But Tim Hortons cashiers are not the folks fighting for this legislation. Bus drivers are. We'll blaze the trail, you other folks can latch on later once the precedent has been set.

Precedent really is what this legislation is about, by the way. Folks are worried about bus drivers getting special treatment in the justice system, but think about it. The same legislation that lets a bar fight deescalate into a minor assault charge and boys-will-be-boys type sentencing is the same legislation that lets a passenger bully a bus driver for months, drag him out of his workplace, and break his bones over a few dollars. The court system is littered with suspended sentences over assaults between two folks who know each other and let things go a little too far one night after a few wobbly pops and an argument over who has the bigger pants-shovel. Those are the current precedents that protect bus drivers.

How can that legislation possibly serve to protect what has proven to be one of the most vulnerable public servants in all of Canada? There were 2,061 assaults on Canadian bus drivers in 2011. This is an epidemic, and it's high time we stop comparing workplace assaults to fistfights at the Sens game.

The courts need to fix this. The industry needs to fix this. The cities need to fix this.

Once the courts fix their end, we need to reevaluate our role in the culture of transit, because we are doing it wrong. 

If Fare disputes are such an issue, then first order of business : Fix Presto. Get automated tellers that can refill a Presto card on-the-spot. Give customers 24 hour access to these machines. MAKE IT EASY to pay. Do away with the tickets, the transfers, the headaches. Put fare collection entirely into the hands of the customer. You cannot have a fare dispute with yourself. You won't see a customer arguing with a handheld interac machine at the local Mac's Milk. Put the fare collection into their hands.

Customers need real-time data at the stations. Staring at a static schedule makes the bus late, and the first available interaction about that lateness into a confrontation with the driver. Staring at a monitor with a real-time display of where their bus is, and any traffic delays or detours makes the customer into an informed participant in the process. There are apps dedicated to traffic, weather, and bus locations. This is the information that passengers need to make informed choices. So give it to them. Frustrated passengers might not take it out on the front line if they see what's happening in the trenches.

Drivers need more training. We need intense training in customer service, and ATU279 needs to get involved in this. No more standing on the sidelines. The Union needs to get involved in identifying combative and disgruntled drivers, and help them to change their attitudes and behaviors. The Union and the City need to get the attention of their workforce, and get them focused on changing the culture of transit operations to a focused fleet of service professionals. Drivers need to find pride in customer service, and stop focusing on the vehicle. This begins with the hiring process, and continues with training and retraining. Drivers should be trained to take the bus, as well as drive the bus. Drivers should spend time in a wheelchair, getting around. Drivers should spend time planning a trip across town at rush hour, with an appointment time. We need to walk a mile in their shoes, and roll a mile in their wheels. Maybe we could bring a few scheduling folks out with us while we're at it. 

Drivers need to be trained and retrained  in deescalation techniques. Drivers need strategies to diffuse, externalize, and refocus disputes away from the nose and ribs. The psychology of assault needs to be explained in detail, and drivers need to be open to using advanced techniques to deal with irate and irrational people. If you want to be a professional, and want to tell everyone you're a professional, then you need to learn the part of the trade beyond maneuvering forty feet of metal around a curb.

Where deescalation fails, drivers need self defense training. One of the casualties of light rail was the demolition of the OC Transpo dojo on Belfast. There used to be a gym with a floor space and mats. That's gone now. The company never really used that facility to its potential, where we could have trained drivers to protect themselves. Self defense training should be mandatory in an industry with an assault ratio as appalling as ours.

Buses need cameras. Good ones. Taxis were mandated by the city to install cameras because of security. Buses were outfitted with stickers saying that some buses were equipped with cameras. Obviously, the city feels that cameras would make a difference. If taxis are more secure, and stickers prevent some kinds of mischief, does it not stand to reason that actual cameras are a needed part of the solution? The double deckers came with factory cameras. They do not record. Cameras would record the face of the problem. 

Once the cameras identify an assault, we need to publish these pictures. We need to see the face of these bullies over and over again. We need to hear about them when they are caught. We need to hear what the consequences of their action are. We need to advertise this. I shouldn't have to explain why. 

Buses are already equipped with a silent alarm. Buses should also be equipped with a very loud audible alarm. Some situations need the direct attention of everyone around us. People will step in if they hear a cry for help.

Lastly, we need to get our force of Special Constables out from their conferences under the bridges and onto our buses in the most visible way possible. That entire police force should be riding our buses in uniform to the benefit of everyone who rides transit. 

Put all of this together, and we have a strategy to fight the bullies. 

This city needs to go beyond what other cities are doing. This city needs to take a leadership role in the transit industry, a role that other cities can follow instead of simply working the status quo and waiting for the next assault.

Step up, Ottawa. We need action.