Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Past and present champions of the world’s premier bus-driving competition tell all.
Drivers maneuver around 11 obstacles. They need to get close to curbs, tennis balls, and cones, but can’t touch them. They need to go fast, but not over the speed limit. They can’t brake where they shouldn’t, or too hard—there are judges and special tracking equipment on board to make sure the ride is nice and smooth. They need to complete the course as designed (and every course is different). They’re docked points for infractions—for bumping, scraping or knocking over a cone, for passing on the wrong side, for backing up, or for stopping, even just for a moment.
They’re steering buses—some up to 40 feet long. And they need to use the buses provided by the competition’s home agency, not the ones they drive at home. They have seven minutes.
Welcome to the International Bus Roadeo, hosted by the American Public Transit Association as part of its annual Bus and Paratransit Conference. In early May, 75 transit drivers, mostly from Canada and the U.S., gathered in Fort Worth to compete in this year’s bus driving competition. They hailed from world-famous agencies—San Francisco’s Muni and D.C.’s WMATA—and from much, much smaller ones—MET Transit, in Billings, Montana, and the Star Tran from Lincoln, Nebraska. Most drivers had to win at least one state or local Roadeo to be there. Some had won three.
What makes a great bus driver? Past and current champions of the International Bus Roadeo should know better than anyone. CityLab spoke to a few.
Name and agency: Paul Klimesh, CyRide
Drives in: Ames, Iowa
This year: 13th place in the 40-foot bus competition (1st place in 2013)
Participating in Roadeos for: 19 years
How do the Roadeo events affect your driving at home?
The biggest thing is knowing exactly where your bus is. So if it’s a multi-lane street, it’s exactly a foot away from one lane and a foot away from the curb. Or when I go around the corner, I want to be exactly a foot away going around the corner the whole time. I consider myself pretty precise in driving—it’s gotta be just right.
Can you tell if you’re on a bus steered by a new driver?
Experienced drivers should be able to work the brake and keep the turns smooth. Not taking a curb on a turn or being rough with the brakes, braking too hard or too fast or too slow or too abrupt. That would be the thing you could notice with new drivers. And then there will be other drivers who are just plain in a hurry, who are going too fast. You want to be smooth to have a good ride for the passengers.
Name and agency: Julian Carranza, Corpus Christi Regional Transportation Authority
Drives in: Corpus Christi, Texas
This year: 3rd place in the 35-foot bus driving competition
Participating in Roadeos for: 23 years
What makes someone a good bus driver?
You have to have patience with people [and] like to drive. If you enjoy the outdoors but also the air conditioning, [then] you’ll enjoy it. You get paid to go cruising, and spend someone else’s gas, and talk to people.
Anybody that goes to a different city, they’re apprehensive to take a bus because they don’t know the system, they don’t know the route, they don’t want to get lost. I see that in [tourists’] faces. And I greet them: “Hello, I can help you? Take it this way, go this way.” They’re amazed that I talk to them, that I help them out. I say, “Don’t worry, I know how it is—I’ve taken buses in different cities all over the United States, as well as internationally.” I make it easy on them. [People from] Japan, China, people from New York, Boston, Chicago—they come down here. I make it easier for them to relax.
Name and agency: Howard Yoder, Central Ohio Transit Authority
Drives in: Central Ohio, including Columbus, Bexley, Grove City, Hilliard, Upper Arlington, and DublinThis year: 2nd place in the 35-foot bus driving competition
Participating in Roadeos for: 15 years
What makes someone a good bus driver?
You’ve definitely got to keep your focus. You have to focus all the time. If you get tired, you have to do something to get yourself out of that. You have to keep up on your safety habits. You have to work at them all the time. [And] you have to keep a rapport with people, because if you don’t keep a good rapport they get bitter and you get bitter.
A lot of drivers struggle with their right turns. [When they] take that bus around tight corners, a lot of them blow a tire, or tear up a curb. Don’t let people rush you. You got to think of bad situations and keep yourself out of that bad situation. If you have a close call, think it through, and how you’re ever going to prevent it from happening again.
Can you tell when someone is new to driving?
You can see them [if they’re trying to] come into a smooth stop, if they’re kind of weaving or jerking. If you can come in there without slowing way down, and nothing’s jerky, I can tell a difference anyway. I was training a student on my bus and he was driving. He had driven for other transit places. For the first three to four stops, he made me a nervous wreck. I was a nervous wreck.
What’s your favorite Roadeo obstacle?
Favorite one is probably...none of them. They’re rough. It’s tough.
Name and agency: Gabe Beliz, Ben Franklin Transit
Drives in: Tri-Cities, Washington State
This year: 1st place in the 35-foot bus driving competition
Participating in Roadeos for: 7 years
Do you have any tips for regular bus riders?
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. We get a lot that. I know that sometimes the bus drivers can be a little obnoxious and be part of the reason why the passengers are upset, but the passengers need to realize that the bus driver is the person who is ultimately getting them to their destination, so try not to, upset them. Be nice to him and he should be nice to you. We’re professionals, and we’re supposed to be used to that and not let it bother us much, anyways.