[UPDATED] The Real Deal: A SEPTA Bus Driver Speaks Anonymously
In our new feature, The Real Deal, we’re talking to people in Philadelphia who will only speak to us with a clear agreement of anonymity. In our controversial first installment, we spoke with a Philly cop. This time around, we sat down for margaritas with a longtime SEPTA employee, who has driven both buses and trolleys, to see what it’s really like out there on the streets.
With 40 hours a week inside of buses and trolleys, you are uniquely positioned to offer some thoughts on Philadelphia as a society. How are we doing?
I love Philly. I’m from here. And it’s a big city that is really a collection of neighborhoods. You see people fighting on the El, playing the “knockout game” on the buses, but there’s also an amazing amount of good. We tend to get marginalized by New York and DC people. But we’re just as passionate and good.
The problem is, that doesn’t sell. No one wants to see you and me here talking about shit, having a couple of drinks. They’d rather see you spitting at me on a bus and me taking a swing at you in return. That’s what we want to see. It’s like the decline of the Roman Empire. People are bloodthirsty. But it’s not all snowballs at Santa, the MOVE fire, SEPTA fights and cops beating on people.
Why in the world did you decide to become a SEPTA driver?
You know, it’s real simple. I’m a rail fan, a transit nut. I love anything to do with buses, trolleys and trains.
But you guys are so maligned — almost as much as taxi drivers. Especially when it comes time to negotiate a new union contract. People go ballistic when the SEPTA union demands a raise or better benefits.
Listen, I am a union man. Unions do exactly what they’re designed to do: Get the best contract for the members. Unions are why we have 40-hour work weeks and vacation time.
But any public service job, the connotation is that not only are you greedy, but you’re also fairly unintelligent. People don’t get that we are professionals who are navigating vehicles that can easily kill someone. You should want the best people that you can get in those positions.
You may be a professional. But I’ve interacted with more than a few drivers who were not.
There are idiots and knuckleheads in SEPTA just like there are idiots and knuckleheads on every job. But we are just blue-collar people doing our job.
I once had a driver who seemed at least a little tipsy. Have you ever driven drunk?
Absolutely not. I like my job. I really enjoy doing this. It provides a great livelihood for me and my family. Plus, my kids take public transit, and I would hate to know that one of their train conductors was inebriated.
What would you do to make SEPTA better if you were in charge?
From my study of different transit systems, it’s a Philly thing, this notion of stopping at every corner. It makes it inefficient. Instead of doing every block, stop at every three blocks.
I would also follow the Southwest Airlines model. Have our managers come out once a quarter or twice a year and do the job that they are in charge of. Drive a bus. Be a cashier. The right thing to do when you’re making policies or giving out orders from headquarters might not be what’s practical in the moment.
What can passengers do to make the experience better for everybody?
One word: Respect. One of my pet peeves is playing music. No one wants to hear your music. And trash. Don’t throw your trash on the floor. Oh, and don’t throw up on the floor and leave and not say anything. You’d think it’s common sense, but it’s not.
What’s worse: Bicyclists, car drivers or pedestrians?
Philly drivers are special. They slow down a lot unnecessarily. And then the people who just walk in front of the trolley. You think I can stop this hulking vehicle like that? I can’t. The trolleys slide. They don’t just stop. If you step out in front of me, I just turn my head and say, “Oh shit.”
Is SEPTA safe to ride?
You hear about the incidents of the kids fighting or people getting attacked. But it’s like a plane crash. How often does it really happen?
You hear a lot about drivers being assaulted. Do you carry a weapon?
No. There are drivers who are licensed to carry that do carry, or so I hear. But you’re not allowed to. A lot of our drivers do get assaulted, but carrying some heat or a 9-inch blade isn’t necessarily the way to go. SEPTA is not going to back you up. I try to de-escalate. It’s not worth it. I like the job. I like the money.
What are you trained to do when there’s a physical altercation on a bus, or when a mother is beating her child out in the open?
You’re trained not to get involved. But I do get involved. It’s just my personality. I stop the bus and say, “You can’t do this here. Do you really want to do this right now?” I try to resolve it quickly. Because if I sit there and wait for the cops, well, there’s going to be a lot of paperwork.
What’s the most annoying passenger?
The ones who talk too loudly. That is so irritating. People who discipline their children loudly. I don’t want to hear all that in the morning. Constantly on your cell phone. Or cursing. I can’t stand it. That is the most annoying person. Oh, and someone who constantly refuses to pay their fare.
Does that happen a lot?
[Laughs] Every day. The same people every day. SEPTA mandates that if someone does not have their fare [on buses and trolleys], you request it. I have to request it from you.
But legally, by the state, if you say you can’t pay, I have to let you ride. The state will actually pay for you.*** People who know that are so irritating.
Every day, I have people get on — usually the same people — and if you try to press them for the fare, they will say to you, “You can only ask me for my fare once. You have to let me on.” And you know what? They’re right.
That’s insane. You’re saying that anyone can ride SEPTA for free at any time. That’s basically what it boils down to?
Yes. I don’t mess with women and kids. I just tell them to sit down. But I said to this one guy, “Brother, you have to pay your fare sometimes.” And he looks at me and says, “I just don’t want to.”
If you are a taker and that’s what you want to do, I want to eliminate as much stress from my day as possible. So I just hit a button that says he didn’t pay.
And then SEPTA tells the state, and the state pays. It’s a state-funded operation, and if there’s a citizen that wants to ride, the state will pay.***
I just find that mind boggling.
Yes, but most people have enough self respect so as to not do it every day. There was a guy who got on and said, “My wife is in the hospital. I need to get to Presby.” I said, “No problem, brother.” Then on my way back later, he gets on again and says, “I’m on my way home.” No problem. Two weeks later, I have the same guy. “I have to take this food to my mom,” he says. No problem. A week later: “I had to go out and buy some toilet paper.”
For real? At least tell me a good story. He had to know it was the same driver each time. All us black folk don’t look alike.
Is SEPTA Key ever actually going to happen?
I believe so. But they have to get every vehicle equipped. We’ve been using tokens and transfers for so long. It’s embarrassing. But they have to get them in every vehicle, then they have to train us on them, then they have to turn them on, then they have to tell the public what to do. Things move at a snail’s pace.
What’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever found on a bus or trolley?
Feces. Twice a year. All over the seat. And then vomit, of course. But mostly feces. I will call in and say, “Someone defecated on my vehicle.” And they say, “Operator, can you clean it up?” And I say, “No. No I cannot.” Before cameras, you’d be surprised what went on. Now, it’s a little bit better, but you still have knuckleheads doing very stupid things.
What’s one route that you wouldn’t want to drive?
Well, I don’t know all of them, but one of the worst is the 15. The equipment is bad. The technology is from 1932. And that trolley goes from Haddington through West Philly to North Philly to Northern Liberties to Port Richmond. So you have your hood rats, your yuppies, your addicts — all those different personalities. And then the trolley is so slow. It’s pretty bad.
***Update: SEPTA spokesperson Jerri Williams informs us that the state does not reimburse SEPTA for fare evaders, but does reimburse for elderly riders. Williams adds that 1.4-percent of all riders do not pay the full fare or any fare. “And if we see an increase in people not paying on a particular route, we’ll put a SEPTA police officer on the bus or trolley to find out what’s going on,” she says. “People cannot habitually fail to pay their fare.”
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