I love public transportation and was very pleased to interview GoDurham bus operator Tonia Burnette at the City’s General Services Department offices. Thanks to Brad Schulz (GoTriangle’s Communications and Public Affairs Officer) and Jeffrey Sullivan (GoTriangle’s Public Involvement Associate).
Q How long have you been a bus operator, and why did you want to become one?
A Sixteen years! I’ve been a bus operator for 16 years and I love it. I have always liked a challenge. I love to meet new people, plus when I can find something that challenges me, I love it.
Q Driving a huge city bus must be a lot different than driving a car. How did you learn how to manage handling such a large vehicle?
A Well, the biggest challenge is turns—you have to get used to making much wider turns. And you have to use your mirrors. Buses have mirrors on both sides and you’d better use them. And making eye contact helps, too. For example, that turn on to Capps Street from Bacon Street is tight and sometimes the [car] drivers don’t know what to do when they get to that intersection if my bus is trying to make that turn. So you make eye contact—that always helps.
Bus operators get training for 6 to 8 weeks. Of course, you have to already have a drivers license—in fact you need to have a CDL [commercial drivers license] with passenger endorsement. If you don’t have your CDL, you at least should have taken the written CDL test and then you’ll get your permanent CDL licensing after training.
We get training in the classroom and on the road. And we have to learn all the GoDurham routes—you don’t know if you’ll have to fill in for someone. We physically drive the routes, and that means we go out with a trainer and drive each route. That way we get to see where all the stops and turns are. When we ride along with other drivers to observe, we call that “cadeting.”
Q What happens when something big happens, like the closing of that Walmart on MLK Parkway. Do you think GoDurham will make some kind of adjustment to routes when something like that happens?
A We do have a group of drivers that attend SPEC [Service Planning Efficiency Committee] meetings. They talk about things like route design. Now, about that #7 route—even though the end of the line was in the Walmart lot, the #7 riders are still served by Kroger, DMV, and other stores in the mall. There might be a small change like where the last stop will be, but the #7 route will probably stay pretty much the same. Besides, we know somebody’s probably going to move into that old Walmart space.
Q How does GoDurham set up your work shifts? I know it’s not a 24-hour operation, but they need to cover from early morning to midnight or so, don’t they?
A Actually, GoDurham is a 24-hour operation, because we have attendants—that’s the cleaning and maintenance workers, plus the mechanics who work on the buses when they’re not in operation.
So the bus operators work five days a week. You can choose to work 8-hour-shift days and get two days off or 10-hour-shift days and get three days off. We used to work 8 hours straight, but now we work 4, take a break, and then go back and finish our day. Part of our training is learning how to stretch and move around.
Q Seems like if somebody calls in sick, that could mess up the whole operation. How does GoDurham handle emergencies?
A The operators and service planners work out all the logistics and scheduling so we can have full coverage. There’s a “manifest,” where the regular routes are listed; there’s also a vacation board and an “extra” board—that’s how we get drivers to fill in as emergency substitute operators. It’s like being on standby, so we’re always able to cover all the routes.
Q Does each operator get to pick which routes they drive?
A It’s all according to seniority. The drivers who have been here the longest get to pick what route(s) they want to drive. My schedule is routes #12 and 14 on Mondays and Wednesdays. That’s my favorite because that route takes me our farther—it’s a 2-hour run instead of the shorter ones like the #8. It’s like taking the scenic route; I get to see more and don’t have to see the downtown station as often. That can get kind of same-y. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I got the #7 and #5K, and on Fridays I drive the #16B.
Q I live on the #8 route, and except when there’s snow and ice, it seems that the buses never take a holiday.
A GoDurham runs 3-6-4. The only day the buses don’t run is Christmas Day. And as far as taking holidays off, that’s according to seniority, too. The drivers who have been here the longest get to choose what holidays they want to take off.
Q I’m originally from Chicago, and I remember Chicago police officers always getting on the buses and trains and riding for free. Can Durham police officers get free rides, too?
A Sure, not only the police but also any City employee with an ID badge can ride for free. I don’t think everybody knows about that, though.
Q What do you like best about being a GoDurham bus operator? And if you could change anything about your job, what would it be?
A Well, I love people. I’m a people person. I love talking with them on the bus and so it’s like I’m meeting new friends every day. And if I could change anything, I’d say it would be great to have some nice music on the bus … but that’s probably not going to happen!