The pandemic sucked, but I will miss these things about it on the bus

This past year has sucked.

The pandemic has sucked. The death has sucked. The sickness has sucked. The economic upheaval has sucked. The political chaos sucked. I have nothing nice to say about this year.

I have no silver linings. I have no profound reflections on the year and what it meant. I didn’t use my free time to learn Mandarin or write the Great American Novel or start my own business. Sure, there were some good things that happened, but honestly a year later I am just happy to be healthy, housed, fed, and employed. It’s been a rough year and I would have been a happier person I think if the pandemic never happened.

That being said, there were some nice aspects to this pandemic year, things I’m guessing will disappear now that the world is returning to “normal.” They were the, “well, everything fucking blows right now but at least this part is nice” things of bus driving during the past year.

No traffic

I didn’t realize how much traffic stressed me out as a driver, how much it made buses late, how all consuming of a stressor it was in my life as a bus driver until all of a sudden it wasn’t there.

It was shocking, going from dealing with crazy drivers, packed buses, rush hour, to all of sudden being the only thing on the road. I remember at the beginning thinking it was like Christmas, as it reminded me of one night driving the 17 on Christmas day near midnight and being the only vehicle on Broadway, with not even cars parked on the street.

No traffic meant I was a lot less stressed about driving the bus. The problem was the stress that traffic caused was replaced by other stressors: worries about catching Coronavirus, passengers cranky from a world turned upside down, street racing, tear gas.

The lack of traffic, however, did give me time to think about what a world without it would look like, and honestly I liked what I saw. Faster travel times, quieter neighborhoods, streets that are more pleasant to walk down. Now that it’s picking back up again, I have to say this is the thing I will miss most about this past year.

Clean buses

The past year saw a dramatic drop in folks riding the bus. Fewer people on the bus meant less life on the bus. Less life on the bus meant less trash and fewer spills and other accidents on the bus. TriMet also hired scores of new bus cleaners to sanitize buses during their trips and to disinfect and clean them better at night.

This has all meant that buses are probably cleaner than they have ever been, and it shows. TriMet’s bus cleaners have been doing an awesome job and I really appreciate it. They don’t smell as bad. The bus isn’t full of trash and stains at the end of the night. The seats and grab bars don’t have that grimy dirty feeling they sometimes had before the coronavirus.

While the coronavirus is primarily spread through the air we breath making all the sanitizing of surfaces questionable, it still has been really nice having clean buses, both as a driver and a passenger. Lots of passengers have remarked to me how nice it is having cleaner buses, and I have to agree. I am worried this will come to an end though, because most cleaners were hired temporarily, and I’m worried it would be one of those things cut from the budget as the budget situation continues to look dire. That’s too bad, I think cleaner buses is an easy way to woo back transit riders.

Staying on time

Before the pandemic, it was impossible to keep some lines on time. The 19, 17, 75, almost any trip during PM rush hour, were notorious for being late. It was a struggle to keep the bus even close to schedule, as hard as drivers might try. I know I struggled with it, knowing how annoying it is waiting for a bus to come, only to have it show up 10 minutes later than it was supposed to.

The pandemic changed that. Suddenly staying on time was no problem. With no traffic and fewer passengers, the schedules that had little to no connection with reality were suddenly easy to maintain. Sometimes, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, schedules had too much time built into them, time for traffic that was now non-existent, and buses would spend lots of time waiting at time points. Instead of being a struggle to stay on time, suddenly it required no effort at all, and my stress from staying on time time disappeared.

I even got a certificate from TriMet congratulating me for my better than 92 percent on time performance in 2020. I joked with a friend that the certificate should have just said, “Congratulations, you drove during the pandemic,” because we knew our exemplary on time performance had nothing to do with us as drivers, but rather the conditions around us.

All the breaks, all the time

Because I could stay on time, I got all the breaks, all of the time, and dang has that made me a happy camper. OK, maybe not the happiest camper since I used a lot of that time at the beginning of the pandemic to doomscroll, but it still felt good. I got to enjoy my lunch, call my wife, call my buddy to see how hour five of being on report was, watch the show at North Terminal, read about the Spanish Civil War. The breaks have been nice.

Working on my skills as a driver

With no traffic, no passengers, no difficult schedules to keep, I had to fill the time up driving the bus with something. So I worked on my skills as a driver. Instead of just being a stressed out extraboard driver hurrying through traffic trying to stay on time, I could work on those little things that make you a better driver. I focused on my braking, trying to come to as smooth of a stop as possible. I figured out how to make all of the turns so I looked like a pro. I switched to vacation relief and started driving all the routes I had never driven before, adding to my knowledge of the region and working out of all the garages.

Still, would not recommend

Still, this pandemic year sucked. I can see the toll it’s taken on me in all of the grey hairs that are coming in on the top of my head. The traffic, dirty buses, bad schedules, I knew those were part of the job when I applied to work at TriMet. What I hadn’t signed up for is fearing a deadly airborne pathogen, the level of desperation and poverty on the streets right now, the antimaskers yelling at me about the rules, the protests and teargas, the crankiness that just about everyone has because we are sick and tired of it all.

Still, I feel like it is all ending soon. Traffic is picking up, there are more people downtown than I’ve seen in a year, more folks are riding the bus, and honestly now that the VA has given me a dose of the vaccine, I’m feeling pretty good about the future. I think we might survive as long as we keep wearing masks and don’t do dumb things. I’m not gonna miss the pandemic at all, but I am still gonna miss not having any traffic to deal with though when it’s all over.

This is a personal blog, the views expressed in this blog are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of TriMet.

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Don Iler

Don Iler

I’m a public transit enthusiast in Portland, Oregon. I love public transportation, history and writing.