In January I began "subbing," as in filling in on routes when the regular driver was out sick or on an extended field trip.
From October 1 through December 20th I was in the "mentor driving" phase, where I was on another driver's route for 2 to 3 weeks at a time, familiarizing myself with the routine of taking kids to and from school, doing after school "activity runs," and honing my student management skills.
Subbing throws the concept of "routine" out the window. Sure, there is the 10 minute routine of pre-tripping (inspecting) my bus before I leave base -- that doesn't change -- but each day it is a different bus, so quickly identifying where all the switches and knobs are adds variety. Above you can see 3 drivers trying to help figure out a radio setting. (The cell phone is being used as a flashlight).
The biggest challenge is finding your way on a route you've never been on, in areas you've never been to.
Can you count how many different roads named "1st" there are in the map below? (You can click on the photo to see it full screen).
That's right, there are SIX of them!
Two "NE 1st Cir" that don't connect with each other and are going different directions.
Two "NE 1st Pl" that don't connect
a "NE 1st St"
and a "SE 1st Pl"
There are days when I wish I could ring the necks of our city planners, for allowing developers to create subdivisions with such circuitous, narrow roads with sharp turns not designed for 40 foot vehicles. Then I turn my frustration towards our routers, who don't ask kids to walk to subdivision entrances, and instead send our buses into these rat's nests of cul-de-sacs to pick kids up as close to their homes as possible.
Going through these neighborhoods is very disorienting, especially in the dark and fog. You can't see signs, you don't know which way is north, and most cul-de-sacs and dead ends are not labeled as such, so if you make a wrong turn and end up down a dead end, you're stuck.
Our area is very hilly, with 3 mountains, so when you look up a road you can't easily see where it ends, or it curves to accomodate the slope, and you have no idea if the road goes through or will end suddenly around the bend.
Of course it doesn't help matters when the same street has multiple names. Or you are heading straight and the road signs change from SE to NE to SE again, within a matter of blocks. Forget looking for house numbers, if you can even find them posted. They'll go up and down and up again within one block.
Now take a look at the map below. Say you are coming down on SE 28th St, which becomes 216th Ave SE. The routing directions (this is from a real route that I drove) say "continue on SE 32nd Pl," however the arterial turns to the right to become SE 32nd St, but SE 32nd Pl is a left turn, which quickly becomes SE 33rd Pl, and then of course you don't want to accidentally follow SE 32nd Pl into the dead end that it branches off to.
The route book we are given has plain paper maps, not always accurate, and often poorly labeled. The driving directions, which give turn-by-turn instructions, are confusing, especially when there is a lack of road signage to help you know where you are in the first place. And of course being told to "continue on" when you are in fact going off the main arterial and taking a left turn onto a side street, doesn't help matters.
We're not allowed to drive with any kind of GPS or mobile device, so in the driver's room we sit around and try to figure things out using aerial images from Google Maps. We drivers share with each other the mistakes we've made, in hopes of saving another driver the ordeal of sitting in the bus with 60 squirrelly children at a dead end, waiting for up to half an hour for someone from base to arrive in the district vehicle and stand behind us and help us back out or turn around from the tight spot we've gotten ourselves wedged in.
In the photo above, take a look at the dark red car on the left. Does it look to be properly parked? Why no, it is about 3 feet out into the roadway, on a curve, on an already narrow street. That white car blocking the middle of the road is double parked, because there are no parking spots available. This is a "master planned" community that was poorly planned with not enough parking. The theory was dense development with businesses nearby would allow residents to live car-free, but the reality is that this neighborhood is off in a remote area, up a steep hill, a half-mile from public transportation, and every household has at least one, more likely 2+ cars.
The road in that photo above is on one of our bus routes. It seems at least once a month there is a sideswiping collision in this development between our buses and passing or improperly parked cars. I also regularly hear calls on the radio from bus drivers who are blocked in, and have to wait, often with a bus loaded with kids, for police or the school transportation administration staff to come help a bus go backwards on a road and make a detour down a different street. Most rewarding is when the driver of the blocking truck/car gets a ticket, but usually the driver of the blocking vehicle shows "just in time" to drive off with only a warning.
In the morning we go out on our runs to collect kids and deliver them to school, leaving the yard as soon as we complete our pretrip. In the afternoon we wait in the yard until our turn to join the "procession" so that the buses arrive at the school in a specific order. One middle school is served by 26 buses, and you should see us packed in there at dismissal time. We park at a sharp angle in stalls, and then like a chain of dominoes set on end, fall away one at a time when given the signal to go. In the photo above I am in my bus at the far end of the yard, straining to see the buses departing in the distance, making sure I don't miss my turn. If I hesitate, it slows the whole parade, and soon a voice comes over the radio from another driver asking when I'm going to get going because I'm holding things up. Sometimes the voice is kind, but other times there is clear irritation in the tone. I bet other drivers hate subs as much as we hate being subs sometimes!
At another middle school we fill an entire city block, both sides, with 23 buses. The view above is a normal day, when the road is clear. At least once a week we encounter parked cars, so then our buses end up staggered in the middle of the road, which is not good if an ambulance needs to reach the school. Our transportation department is in constant discussions with the different cities and towns our schools are located in, trying to work out reliable access for our buses through better signage and proactive ticketing/towing of vehicles that park in bus zones. Like most people, I never thought about the politics involved in getting kids to and from school by bus.
Every day is a new adventure as a sub, and I'm learning more than I ever imagined I'd need to know. I'm sure I'll have plenty of stories to share with you in the coming months.