A photo illustration of a San Francisco Muni bus driver.
Threading a 40-foot-long Muni bus through the streets of San Francisco is not for the faint of heart. Or an introvert. Madison McVeigh/CityLab. Photo courtesy Patrick Lambelet

A driver’s-eye-view of what it’s like behind the wheel of a city bus, from a San Francisco Muni bus driver.

On my first day in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s bus driver training program, I had experiences so intimidating, I wanted to run away.

The one I most vividly remember was an exercise in which I was supposed to make a tight right turn around a stanchion, bringing my back tire within twelve inches of the object without touching it.

Being a novice, I ran over the stanchion. Looking in my bus’s right-hand rearview mirror, I was struck with the reality of just how big a bus is. That orange stanchion, now smashed under my back tire, looked tiny, as did everything else, because the back of the 40-foot-long bus was such a terrifyingly vast distance from where I was sitting.

If this had happened on a public street, I thought to myself, that could have been a kid.

That was more than a year and a half ago, but I’ll always remember that sense of terror, because threading a 36,000-pound vehicle through a city as crowded and chaotic as San Francisco is a delicate, dangerous dance.

People sometimes ask me why I wanted to become a bus driver, and I don’t have just one answer. Part of it was just an interest in the equipment—I’ve been obsessed with cars my whole life, and at some point that obsession expanded to include buses. When I rode on a bus, I was always struck by how strange it felt to be inside a moving object the size of a house, bouncing like a porpoise as it sped along the road.

During earlier periods of my life, I’d had jobs that involved driving for a living; I’ve been a Chrysler-Plymouth salesman, a valet parker, and a delivery driver for an audio/video company. But I’d never driven anything larger than a box van. I wondered if I could handle something as huge as a bus, with such an impossibly wide turning radius. The prospect of finding out was both scary and exciting.

And then there’s the money. Bus drivers for the city of San Francisco don’t have quite the pay and benefits they famously enjoyed in bygone decades, but it’s widely understood that if you’re looking for a decent hourly wage and a pension, working for Muni is still a pretty good choice. (For those who aren’t familiar with San Francisco transit: The San Francisco Municipal Railway is the oldest major public transportation agency in the U.S., and its nickname, “Muni,” persisted even after it became part of SFMTA in 1999.)

In my first year and a half at Muni, I’ve learned a few things about being a bus operator in a big American city. Even if you ride a bus every day, some of them might surprise you.

We are incredibly well trained

There is no job interview to become a Muni driver. There’s an entrance exam that determines whether you possess common sense and understand customer service principles, but your interview is the two-and-a-half months you spend in the training program.

During that time, you will awaken before sunrise every day, never come to class late, never miss a day of training, and basically put the rest of your life on hold. It’s bus-driver boot camp, but with no push-ups.

As CityLab reported in June, there is currently a nationwide shortage of bus drivers, which has created service delays for many transit agencies. Muni’s trainers, therefore, play a dual role. On the one hand, they must get as many new transit operators as possible trained and certified. But at the same time, instructors are gatekeepers, charged with making sure trainees who aren’t getting the hang of the job don’t make it onto the streets.

Muni kept close tabs on each of us during this months-long process, and not all of us were allowed to graduate. As one of our lead trainers put it, “For some of you, this will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.”

My first week of training was an intense, surreal experience. The skills course is held at Naval Air Station Alameda, not far from Oakland. You spend a week of your life on a sun-drenched former airstrip, 200 feet wide and 8,000 feet long, learning how to maneuver buses through an obstacle course designed to simulate the challenges you will soon encounter on the road. The runway is filled with orange cones and stanchions arranged in close formation to each other, and you have to avoid running them over while you learn to do things like parallel park a bus in a space not much bigger than the bus itself.

The airstrip sits next to the San Francisco Bay, and while you’re trying to master the skills course, you’re seeing these massive container ships bound for the Port of Oakland move slowly past—a reminder that braver people than you are piloting much larger vessels.

In the second week, we learned how to do a pre-trip safety inspection and air brake test. By the third week, my classmates and I were turned loose on the streets of San Francisco in training coaches, each with three students and one instructor, who would shepherd us through increasingly difficult traffic environments over the next two months.

Those instructors have nerves of steel, because they would be held responsible in the unlikely event that a trainee were to have an accident. And once you’re out on the streets, you see exactly how many opportunities there are for such mishaps. Another leader in the training department told us, “Everybody knows we’re the safest drivers in this city, because even when we have a big sign on the front of the bus that says, ‘Training Coach,’ people will walk in front of that bus without even glancing in our direction.”

Another one rides the bus. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

The fear of hitting a pedestrian, cyclist, or motorist haunts every bus driver, and points to one of the most critical differences between driving a car and operating a bus. If a child runs in front of your car, you slam the brake pedal to the floor and let your antilock brakes do their thing. As long as you don’t hit that child, it doesn’t matter that the McDonald’s bag on your passenger seat flies forward, spilling food everywhere.

But if I need to make an emergency stop in my bus, the dynamic is different. Any passenger who’s standing up is likely to fall down or go flying. And if somebody on my bus falls because I stopped abruptly, that’s considered an accident, just as surely as if I’d hit somebody. A big part of the training process is teaching future bus drivers to develop a sixth sense about things, to predict dangerous moves by pedestrians and motorists before they happen, so we can avoid collisions without braking hard.

We are obsessed with safety

After I graduated the training program, I noticed something odd about my new coworkers. Whenever they part company with fellow operators, they never say “Bye” or “See you later.”

When Muni drivers part ways, they always say, “Be safe.”

And they mean something specific by it. What they’re really saying is, “Don’t hurt anybody and don’t damage their property, because I’d hate to see you lose your job.”

It’s rare to see an employer truly obtain buy-in from its rank-and-file laborers on any stated goal or value, but when it comes to safety, that is exactly what Muni has accomplished.

Even the worst malcontent among us—the jaded, veteran operator who routinely holds court in the break room listing his grievances against the agency—is still somebody who has made safety his religion, and views rookies like me as initiates who must be guided along the righteous path.

We see and interact with poverty every day

Driving a bus gives you unique insights into what it’s like to be poor in an American city—a process that, for me, began during training. On many days, we drove through weed-strewn warehouse and industrial districts, where San Franciscans who are experiencing homelessness have wound up, far from the sweeps conducted against the homeless downtown.

You can’t help but notice the contrast. Here you are on an upward trajectory, taking your first steps along a career path you hope will be long and lucrative. And there are all these people, living outdoors in tents, cars, and RVs.

One cold morning, I sought to illustrate this contrast by taking a photo of the tent encampment next to Muni’s Islais Creek division. As I aimed my phone camera through the bus yard’s iron fence, I realized one of the encampment’s residents was out of her tent, watching me.

Embarrassed, I put my phone away.

People at all income levels ride the bus, but serving our homeless and low-income passengers has shown me how disability, mental illness, addiction, and trauma intersect with a person’s housing status or lack of money. Muni trains us on inclusivity and diversity, and during one such training, the facilitator told us that early-onset schizophrenia often presents when a person is about 15 years old.

“So that person on your bus screaming about God or the devil is somebody who never got to attend their high school prom,” she told us, “because their world became very frightening and hard to understand before their senior year.”

I try not to forget that when a passenger with behavioral health issues is causing me problems.

But such people are outliers. Far more prevalent on my bus are the working poor. One night, a woman boarded my coach with her five-year-old son and rode for about an hour, from one end of the city to the other. She told me she was dropping her child off at a friend’s home so he could sleep there while she worked the graveyard shift at a homeless shelter.

Our buses are lifelines for workers like her; she’s whom I’m thinking about when I skip a break in order to begin my next trip on time.

We experience a lot of casual hostility

When you work in public transportation, you are seen as public property, and that gives people license to comment on every aspect of your behavior and being.

Much has been written about the physical violence and verbal abuse transit operators sometimes face. But what really bugs me are the much subtler and far more frequent acts of passive aggression we endure.

For example, one day I happened to stop my bus at a faded yellow line of paint on the ground—a once-active bus stop that had since been moved. Ideally the city would have removed the yellow paint, but it hadn’t.

“The stop is up there,” insisted a passenger in her late teens, pointing with irritation at the next bus stop, less than half a block in front of us. When I tried to explain my error, the teen said, with a sneer in her voice, “Well then you must be brand new, because you don’t know the route.”

It’s surprisingly common for passengers to do this sort of thing to bus drivers. But the city would not be well served if I took the time to defend myself. Politely allowing angry passengers to have the last word is part of the job.

It helps to be an extrovert

The flip side of this situation is that every outgoing person wants to talk to you. Small children wave when boarding your bus. Sports fans update you on the status of games you didn’t know were happening. People get on and share with you the most random, unexpected things about their lives.

One day, a 60-year-old woman told me she was in a state of exhilaration because she’d just finished running a marathon. On another occasion, a kid in his mid-20s rode my bus to the hospital, explaining he was going to check himself in for detox and try one more time to quit heroin.

San Francisco has never been like New York, where it’s normal for strangers to talk to each other on the street. And in this era of earbuds and social-media silos, communal experiences are increasingly rare. But ride my bus, and sometimes you’ll see the most amazing, serendipitous exchanges.

One night, I picked up a passenger at the Potrero Terrace housing projects. We got to talking, and I learned she was formerly homeless, and now worked as a program director, helping homeless people get jobs and transition into permanent, long-term housing. Another passenger overheard the conversation and sheepishly asked, “Can you help me?”

They exchanged phone numbers and the program director assured her, “We’ll talk.”

The bus is one of the last vestiges of the public square, and I never know when a bit of curiosity on my part will lead to a memorable conversation.

One afternoon, I had a “Candy Crush Saga” developer on my coach, and found myself pitching my idea for the ultimate bus-driving simulator game. On another evening, a Lucasfilm animator rode my bus and gave me some tantalizing inside info about the making of the next Star Wars film.

Even though I was born in San Francisco, I’ve never felt more woven into the fabric of the city than I do now. Drive a bus, and you are simultaneously a whipping boy, sounding board, hall monitor, and priest-confessor. You see people at their happiest and at their worst. You become a fixture in the community, and people ask about you when you’re not around.

One of the hardest things about being a bus driver is dealing with people.

But one of the best things about being a bus driver is the people you deal with.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Passengers line up for a bullet train at a platform in Tokyo Station.
    Transportation

    The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

    The nation’s famed mastery of rail travel has been aided by some subtle behavioral tricks.

  2. A photo of shoppers in the central textile market of downtown Jakarta.
    Design

    How Cities Design Themselves

    Urban planner Alain Bertaud’s new book, Order Without Design, argues that cities are really shaped by market forces, not visionaries.

  3. A pupil works on a cardboard architectural model at a Hong Kong primary school.
    Design

    The Case for Architecture Classes in Schools

    Through the organization Architecture for Children, Hong Kong architect Vicky Chan has taught urban design and planning to thousands of kids. Here’s why.

  4. a photo of New York City subway commuters.
    Perspective

    New York City’s Self-Induced Transportation Crisis

    Bill de Blasio and other city officials are heading for commuting calamity by failing to properly plan a coherent vision for subways, buses, e-bikes, and ride-hailing.

  5. The opulent anteroom to a ladies' restroom at the Ohio Theatre, a 1928 movie palace in Columbus, Ohio.
    Design

    The Glamorous, Sexist History of the Women’s Restroom Lounge

    Separate areas with sofas, vanities, and even writing tables used to put the “rest” in women’s restrooms. Why were these spaces built, and why did they vanish?