Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Japanese breathing techniques, meet rush hour.
Driving a public bus is a notoriously stressful job. Navigating a hulking behemoth through oft-narrow and crowded city streets while sitting for huge swaths of time is bad enough. But bus driving is also a customer service job, one in which only people with a naturally calm demeanors, tolerance for irrational passengers, and low blood pressure can excel.
A number of studies show the horrifying impact bus driving can have on one’s health. A 1986 study of 1,500 American city bus drivers discovered these workers face significantly higher rates of hypertension than the rest of the population. Work from 1988 found bus drivers in the Netherlands to be twice as likely to become disabled as other male Dutch civil servants, mostly due to risks of back, tendon, and joint injury, mental disorders, and cardiovascular disease. A small British study of 22 bus drivers who had experienced violence on the job found that 23 percent had developed PTSD.
Bus driving, meet aikido. With the help of a government grant, the Danish bus company Arriva has introduced 80 of its drivers from particularly well-trafficked and high-risk bus routes to a Japanese martial art. The goal, Arriva spokesman Morten Nissum Larsen tells CityLab, is to give “our drivers a tool to deal with stressed situations—[for example,] an argument with a customer or in heavy traffic.”
Dispel from your mind images of portly bus drivers disarming irate passengers with one fatal chop. Søren Bidstrup is a seven-year bus driving veteran who now acts as the security and environmental coordinator for Arriva’s Copenhagen region, and says the company was more attracted to the martial art’s even-tempered approach to self-defense. (“Aikido” roughly translates to “the way of the harmonious spirit.”)
“You [are] taught a lot about remaining calm, about taking a deep breath,” Bidstrup says.
The bus company held 10 aikido classes for interested bus drivers between 2012 and 2014. Though a few showed up in the hopes of learning a more showy (read: violent) form of martial arts, they ended up arrayed on soft mats, learning simple interventions to de-escalate violent situations.
Here’s an easy one: “[When] somebody maybe wants to push something toward you, you don’t grab hold of their hand—you block the hand,” Bidstrup says.
But the biggest challenge drivers face, Bidstrup adds, is not one-on-one combat with passengers: It’s road rage. The aikido classes taught participants that when they “choose to not be part of the conflict, you don’t have this psychological loss of dignity. You can walk away from this conflict [without] feeling [like] a coward.”
Arriva hopes to receive enough government funding in the future to continue the aikido training. Bidstrup says the company has been approached by other firms—including a few other civil service groups—interested in teaching the techniques to their employees.
“I was in the very first class,” Bidstrup says. “I found [that], in my 17 years in the bus business, it was the first time I was taught conflict management that I could use for something practical.”