Coaching VTA Bus Drivers On Their Routes

VTAOne of the more curious sights at the start of the New Year was seeing VTA bus drivers studying a small handbook like monks examining scriptures. Whenever the bus pulled into a new stop, and the passengers finished boarding and departing, the driver pulls out the handbook to study the opened page for a moment. What’s the handbook? After several incidents where the passengers coached the drivers on driving their routes, the handbook listed the driving directions for all the bus routes. Some of those printed directions weren’t very accurate.

Since I started my new non-writing tech job six months ago, I liked my new commute of taking a five-minute local bus from my home, taking a 20-minute express bus to Palo Alto, and a five-minute local bus to my job. With 30 minutes of waiting between connections, it takes an hour each way. This is perhaps the most efficient route I have ever taken to work on the public transit.

The express bus had a new driver for Thursday and Friday afternoons. Like many drivers I’ve seen, he had a handbook nearby. He also had several 3×5 cards taped to the dashboard with handwritten directions. Leaving Palo Alto via Page Mill Road to southbound 280 was uneventful. When it came time to take the freeway loop for the Fruitdale Avenue stop, the driver drove past the southbound Meridian Avenue exit and took the northbound Meridian Avenue exit.

I leaned forward from my seat. “You missed the exit.”

“For real?” the driver said, dismayed. He glanced at his 3×5 cards. “The handbook says northbound exit.”

“Your handbook has a misprint.”

Everyone else in the bus became backseat driver and shouted directions at the driver. Most of those directions were wildly inconsistent for a confused driver unfamiliar with this part of San Jose. Being the closest person to the driver, I spoke up over the din behind me and directed the driver to take a loop-de-loop around the 280 on local streets to get to Meridian Avenue. The driver became more confident as the backseat drivers agreed with my directions and stopped offering alternative directions..

After the driver stopped at the morning bus stop for the express bus (the afternoon bus stop was across the street in the opposite direction), he crossed out “southbound” and wrote “northbound” for Meridian Avenue on his 3×5 cards. He hasn’t made that mistake again since learning his new route.

The local bus in Palo Alto never has the same bus driver in the morning. My coworkers and I often have to coach the new driver on the route. The location of where I get off from the express bus to pick up the local bus in Palo Alto is at an intersection in the foothills, a middle-of-nowhere place filled with rich joggers and poor jackrabbits. Most drivers don’t expect to find people waiting for a bus out here in the morning, and, if running behind schedule, will bypass this leg of the route to make up time.

One driver tried to drive on without picking me up. After I got into the street with both hands waving (this typically happens during a rainstorm), and my coworkers from inside the bus shouted at the driver to stop, I ran down the block to get on the bus. The driver told me that she didn’t pick up passengers at that stop. I told her to look up the handbook. She discovered that my stop was a time-point stop listed in the schedule—and she was ten minutes late.

Despite each bus having a GPS system that list turn-by-turn directions for each route, the drivers consulted their handbooks at each bus stop for the first two weeks of the New Year. Except for the local bus in Palo Alto which always has a different driver each morning, the drivers know their new routes as coached by the passengers.

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