Nathan Vass is a bus operator at King County Metro in Seattle. For several years, Nathan has written about his interactions with riders on his route. His stories, compiled in a book called The Lines That Make Us, offer a compassionate glimpse into the lives of riders. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, bus operators have encountered a new set of challenges. Many are working without adequate personal protective equipment, transporting passengers at significant risk to their own health. They have also struggled to get clear information on sick leave and the health of fellow transit workers. In this episode, we talk to Nathan about how he’s coping with these challenges, and about the steps that King County Metro has taken to address the concerns of bus operators.
Nathan Vass is a bus operator at King County Metro in Seattle. For several years, Nathan has written about his interactions with riders on his route. His stories, compiled in a book called The Lines That Make Us, offer a compassionate glimpse into the lives of riders.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, bus operators have encountered a new set of challenges. Many are working without adequate personal protective equipment, transporting passengers at significant risk to their own health. They have also struggled to get clear information on sick leave and the health of fellow transit workers. In this episode, we talk to Nathan about how he’s coping with these challenges, and about the steps that King County Metro has taken to address the concerns of bus operators.
“I love driving the bus because it's an opportunity for me to offer help in a very elemental way. I'm providing this elemental need of transport. I feel like I'm offering something tactile that I can see the effect of. I'm taking somebody down the street and that's what they need.”
Disclaimer: Political views raised by guests on the podcast do not reflect the views of TransitCenter.
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To read Nathan’s blog, click here.
Music: “Comma” - Blue Dot Sessions
Hosted and edited by Kapish Singla
Produced by TransitCenter
Kapish [00:00:00] From TransitCenter, this is High Frequency. I'm Kapish Singla.
Kapish [00:00:05] There is a lot that most people don't consider when they think about the job of bus operators. In addition to driving the bus, operators respond to emergencies, assist with fare payment and intervene in passenger issues that may arise during a run. And now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the job presents a new set of challenges. Operators have found themselves on the frontlines, transporting essential workers and keeping our cities running at significant risk to their own health. Many have been left without personal protective equipment and have struggled to get clear information about sick leave and the health of their fellow operators. To learn more about what being a bus operator is like - both an ordinary and pandemic times. I spoke with Nathan Vass, an operator at King County Metro. In addition to driving the bus, Nathan is the author of The Lines that Make Us, a book that pains vignettes of his interactions with King County Metro riders.
Kapish [00:01:04] Nathan, you've written that your love for the bus stems from adventures in using the system as a teenager. I'm wondering what struck you as a passenger in that time?
Nathan [00:01:13] Well, I remember one of my first thoughts about transit at large was being struck by, wow, this stuff. All of this amazing and expensive equipment is on the road. This network is here for anyone to use. It doesn't matter who you are. And I just found that so inspiring.
Kapish [00:01:31] You're now a bus operator at King County Metro. You've been at that job for over a decade now. And for most of that time, you've kept up a blog that chronicles your experience as a bus driver. I know that you began the blog in part because you noticed a gap in positive representations about buses in the media. For someone who hasn't read your work, can you describe the vignettes that are contained there?
Nathan [00:01:52] Well, perhaps the best way would be to say that they are digestible, bite-sized stories of interactions that I have on the bus with passengers. And they are usually focusing on unexpectedly positive moments.
Kapish [00:02:08] And you've turned them the stories into a book called The Lines that Make Us. There's so much that's powerful about the stories in the book, and there's one I find especially moving. It's called "I Love Everybody." I'll let you describe the encounter more. But I think what I find revealing and interesting about the piece is the way that it's a reminder of how the bus, in your role as an operator is the lifeline.
Nathan [00:02:30] I'm excited that you choose this one because I feel like this story is different from the others. And then it reveals within me the tendency to suspect people are lying. And this guy getting on telling me that he just got out of jail as a way of explaining why he doesn't have fare in a neighborhood where there is no jail. But I still let him ride. I began to notice that, OK, this guy was telling the truth because he was putting together his attire after being released from jail and he had nowhere else to do this. And he was he was trying to be modest, but it's impossible. And he walked out from the back of the bus to thank me personally for letting him on in a way that's instantly revealed the truth of his situation. And I found that very moving, both because of his circumstance, but also because of how much he corrected my initial negative assumption.
Kapish [00:03:31] And I'm wondering if you can speak to why in normal circumstances you enjoy that work.
Nathan [00:03:37] I love driving the bus because it's an opportunity for me to offer help in a very elemental way. I'm providing this elemental need of transport. A number of friends of mine feel a need to volunteer because their jobs don't satisfy them in terms of how much they want to contribute to society. I don't have that urge because I do that already when I'm working. And I feel like I'm offering something tactile that I can see the effect of. I'm taking somebody down the street and that's what they need.
Kapish [00:04:06] And we're now speaking under pretty unusual circumstances with Coronavirus. And I know that you're currently on leave without pay. Was that pretty difficult to figure out?
Nathan [00:04:15] Yeah, it was very difficult to figure out how to do. They're still in the process. And by they I'm referring to HR and Metro management and all the folks involved in making these sorts of decisions. They are still in the process of figuring out how to let people off and what that looks like. The rules have been changing by the week. I'm currently on leave without pay. And the reason I'm on leave without pay is because when I was applying for this, that was the only way to take time off even if you were a high-risk individual without using up all your accruals. And of course, the rules on that have now changed significantly. Now, they're sort of, you know, realizing the gravity of what's going on here. And there are two different types of leave you can use.
Kapish [00:05:03] Do you know more about the two types of leave?
Nathan [00:05:06] I'm not, of course, an expert on this, and I'm going off of the information which I have been reading up on. Currently, you can take 80 hours of the emergency federal sick leave, and that is something that you can do without the approval of H.R. They trust you. You do not need a doctor's note. You can just say that you do not feel comfortable coming into work. You've been advised by a medical person. The other method for taking time off is paid administrative leave, which was initially only for employees who are either administrative or frontline workers who had no leave accruals. That has since changed. It now applies to Metro employees at large, including frontline workers.
Kapish [00:05:50] It sounds like Metro is starting to reform some of its procedures. In your opinion, what prompted Metro to begin to make those changes?
Nathan [00:05:58] To have this happening may have been harder to take seriously at first. Or from an organizational perspective, it may have seemed more risky, but I think entities are now more willing to do that as we realize our collective, cultural understanding that this is a serious event worthy of making significant changes. They have never before said, for example, that you don't need a doctor's note there. They're acknowledging the seriousness of it. And there are plenty of things people can choose to complain about. They're still not being completely transparent with which drivers have the virus and which don't. Disclosing, you know, did your colleague get infected? I think part of that is to reduce a panic. And they understandably want some of their drivers to continue to show up to work. So they are only informing you of colleagues who have been infected, if you were known to have been in what's defined as close contact, I think that's where you're standing within six feet of them for longer than 10 minutes. But of course, that information would be almost impossible to come by. So basically, nobody knows anything. And it's bizarre.
Kapish [00:07:11] I read that in a Huffington Post piece that you're quoted in--the fact that they weren't disclosing that information.
Nathan [00:07:17] Yeah. And I don't want to dispute the wisdom of that decision because there's many different angles to looking at this. Freaking everyone out and telling everyone to stay home from an operations perspective is going to harm a lot of lives out there--transit dependent lives. And also there are a number of very compelling measures that Metro is taking to ensure the safety of their employees, especially more so now with the distribution of the cloth masks. And they've got the gloves and hand sanitizer issue down in a way that it wasn't at the outset of this. And we have new information about the HVAC systems. The HVAC on the buses doesn't distribute the virus. It would filter it out.
Nathan [00:08:08] And that's a better environment than before, because early on it was easy to develop the opinion, justified or otherwise, that there was not a big concern about drivers. They were not giving out gloves or anything else. They basically just had bulletins saying, please wash your hands, etc etc. and those types of directives from Metro and the lack of supplies and information about how to take time off. The fact that you know that there was new supplemental leave available at that time did give the impression that, "OK, keeping the transit running is a priority. but operator safety does not appear to be a priority." Once that opinion of the operators got out, then you had an enthusiastic level of response on the part of Metro as quickly as can happen in a bureaucratic environment where everything takes forever.
Kapish [00:09:05] And to your knowledge, has Metro been adjusting any service according to ridership data?
Nathan [00:09:10] They're still running most of their service. If there is a pattern, it's that they've cut weekday commuter express routes to affluent suburban neighborhoods because that service is drastically underused right now. They had some helpful or fascinating data on key routes, which routes have seen bigger drops and which ones haven't. And the results of that are predictable. The area is going to working class and low-income neighborhoods have the smallest drops in ridership. The areas serving major business centers such as Amazon are not getting a lot of ridership right now. Those are seeing the biggest drops.
Kapish [00:09:51] Nathan, you were a panelist at a TransitCenter event in early March before all of this began. Something that came up as a persistent challenge of the job as bathroom access. And I'm wondering if you can speak to how the pandemic has made that even harder.
Nathan [00:10:04] Yeah, it's never been harder to use the restroom than now as a bus driver. There are so many bathrooms that we used to have access to in hotels and restaurants, for example, that we no longer have access to. I had to drive a mile-and-a-half off route to go use the bathroom and that's never been something I've needed to do before. Metro's allowing it. Because, you know, you have to do it, but it complicates the day. And I'm thankful that there's zero traffic where it's not a big deal to drive a mile and a half off the around and go use the restroom and get back on. It's just it's a lucky coincidence that this virus also involves completely empty roads. But it's a little more complicated, especially at night.
Kapish [00:10:51] Finally, Nathan, I should mention that you've announced that the blog will stop sometime over the summer. What are some of the lasting messages that you'll hope to convey in your final months of writing to the public audience that you have?
Nathan [00:11:04] Well Kapish. Thanks for mentioning that. I was dead set on terminating this thing on June 30th and focusing on some book projects instead. But in revealing the notes that I have for a large number of stories, I'm going to try to get up all these stories before June 30th. But if I don't and there's still stories I still want to put up, I will continue putting those up until they're all up, because I want this blog to feel complete. And I don't want it to be like, you know, those like lame TV series that gradually get worse over time until they peter out into nothing. I want the sort of climax, as it were, of the blog to feel substantive. And I'm still working out what it is that I have learned over these years that is going to get articulated in these last posts. But it's been a lot of fun to just throw everything I have into writing them. And the Coronavirus pandemic has been useful in allowing me more time to do that, although it's been a distraction in that a number of my recent posts are about the virus instead of about regular bus stuff. It'll still transition into being just a informational announcement blog rather than an ongoing collection of stories. But putting everything I have into getting these last stories up might take us deeper into the year than the summer.
Kapish [00:12:28] Thank you so much, Nathan.
Nathan [00:12:30] Thank you, Kapish. You're just fantastic and I love talking to you.
Kapish [00:12:36] In the past few weeks, TransitCenter has been part of a broad alliance that has advocated that the White House Coronavirus Task Force deliver PPE and other supplies to bus drivers. For more information on that campaign, please sign the petition in the show notes.
Kapish [00:12:56] That's all for today's episode. I'm your host, Kapish Singla. This conversation is part of the event's program at TransitCenter, a foundation that works to improve transit in cities across the US. For more information, please visit transitcenter.org