Bus Travel Survival Kit

Studs Terkel on a Chicago bus. (Photograph: Chris Walker/AP)

Studs Terkel on a Chicago bus. (Photograph: Chris Walker/AP)

My bus travel survival guide has been designed with two things in mind: 1. empathy, 2. constructive complaint. Open the lid and you’ll find:

Here’s what I’m thinking: for years, bus users (including me) have put up with poor service. Late buses, missing buses, buses with “up to every 8 minutes” written on them just to wind people up when one doesn’t come for 30 minutes, grumpy drivers, the difficulty of getting prams on buses, fares going up by more than inflation (bus fares have just gone up again in Leeds) and of course big profits for private companies like First.

Recent quote from a Leeds bus user: “Are Worst [First] Buses having an initiative about drivers being as awful as possible? First time in weeks one has spoken at all and it was only to grill me really aggressively about where I’m going!”

But most people (including me) have allowed the axis of tension to exist only at the interface point between them and the bus driver. This is understandable, but achieves nothing.

After I happened to read Studs Terkel’s interview with Chicago bus driver Will Robinson I found I had a new insight into the experience of The Bus Driver. Will Robinson’s experience in 1974 chimed through time and space across the Atlantic to Leeds in 2013. Suddenly, I was able to emphasise!

Chicago Transit Authority bus, 1974. Will Robinson at the wheel.

Chicago Transit Authority bus, 1974. Will Robinson at the wheel.

Will Robinson: “You have your tension. Sometimes you come close to having an accident, that upsets you. You just escape maybe by a hair or so. Sometimes you get a disgruntled passenger on there, and starts a big argument. Traffic. You have someone who cuts you off or stops in front of the bus. There’s a lot of tension behind that. You’re watchin’ the drivers, you’re watchin’ the other cars. Most of the time you have to drive for the other drivers, to avoid hitting them. So you take the tension home with you… It’s like you gotta smoke two or three cigarettes before you can ease the tension after that run… all I do now is get up in the morning…like a machine, that’s about the only way I can feel.”

Bus drivers did not create the perfect storm of privatisation and sociopathy that has led to a drop in bus passenger journeys from 12,734 million in 1950 to 5,174 million in 2010 and sees our roads clogged up every day with cars…

It is right that people want to complain though, but moaning to each other or giving the bus driver a hard time isn’t going to change much. A better way could be to have a look at FixMyTansport, a website from the people at MySociety.org who created FixMyStreet and WriteToThem, among other excellent sites.

FixMyTransport helps people complain individually by making sure the complaint goes to the right people. But the creators acknowledge that individual emails don’t always work, so their system aims to bring complainants together – “a transport company that doesn’t respond to one person may very well respond to ten”. They go on to say, “In particular, we hope that the community comes to see FixMyTransport as a place where experts and old hands can transfer their skills to people who have little or no experience of lobbying for change.”

So there we have it. Empathy and constructive complaint. These days I say ‘thanks’ to the driver and I don’t mind if they don’t reply. I feel more at peace with the world.

Studs Terkel – Bus Driver 1974 (excerpt)

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