How a bus driver predicts the behavior of drivers and passengers, with Brendan Bartholomew

I’ve been resharing some episodes from early in the podcast that were interesting but that didn’t get that many listens. I’ve had a couple longtime podcast listeners tell me this was one of their favorites. A transcript is below.

This is a talk with Brendan Bartholomew, who’s a professional bus driver in San Francisco. We talk about the role understanding and predicting human behavior can play when driving a city bus. Topics discussed include: the importance of thinking ahead about potential pedestrian/traffic dangers; how bus drivers know who’s waiting for a bus and who’s not; thoughts on handling unruly and/or mentally ill passengers; how modern rideshare and scooter traffic have changed things for bus drivers.

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This is the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding human behavior and psychology. You can learn more about it at

This episode will be one from the vault. I’ve been resharing some episodes from early in the podcast that I thought were interesting but that didn’t get that many listens. This one will be a talk with Brendan Bartholomew, who drives a bus in San Francisco. We talk about his skills at reading drivers and road situations in general. I’ve had a couple podcast listeners tell me that this was one of their favorites. 

Before playing the episode, I also wanted to announce that my new book on American political polarization is now out in paperback and ebook. The book’s title is How Contempt Destroys Democracy and this one is aimed at a politically liberal audience. If you’ve appreciated my polarization work, you might like to check that out; I obviously would appreciate any reviews on Amazon or elsewhere, and any mentions to people you know online or wherever else. 

Okay, here’s the talk with Brendan Bartholomew. 

Zachary Elwood: Today’s interview was recorded on March 13th, 2020. I interviewed Brendan Bartholomew, who’s a city bus driver in San Francisco. We talk about how understanding human behavior can play a role when you’re a bus driver. One disclaimer before we start, Brendan speaks only for himself. He doesn’t speak for the organization he works for.

Hey, Brendan, thanks for coming on.

Brendan Bartholomew: Thank you for having me. I’m very excited to be doing this.

Zach: Yeah, I appreciate your time. I should say I first learned about Brendan when I was searching online for stories about people driving buses and I found an article he wrote for CityLab. Brendan, you like to write other things too, right?

Brendan: Yeah, I was a freelance journalist first for the San Mateo Daily Journal. I did that for about a year. And then that kind of transitioned into me spending about four years as a freelance journalist for the San Francisco Examiner, and it’s something I’m very passionate about. I love doing it and I just wish I had time for it now. [laughs]

Zach: I saw in your article about driving buses, you said – this was a quote – “A big part of the training process is teaching future bus drivers to develop a sixth sense about things, to predict dangerous moves by pedestrians and motorists before they happen, so we can avoid collisions without braking hard.” Can you talk a little bit about… Would they give you specific tips on predicting dangerous moves by pedestrians and motorists?

Brendan: You can probably tell from reading my article that I am actually very much in love with that training program. The people in the training department are amazing human beings. They’re some of the funniest, most intelligent, most creative people you could ever hope to meet. And every single one of them has done the job. Every single one of them is a veteran bus driver themselves. And so in terms of tips and tricks, a lot of it has to do with these veteran operators sharing with us their own experiences, you know?

Zach: Scary stories, kind of stuff.

Brendan: Not even just stories. But yeah, there’s certainly a lot of those. But also a lot of… Like, you know, you’re driving the training coach down the road and your trainer is hovering somewhere behind your right shoulder pointing out things that you should be noticing. You’re going down the road and the trainer will be like, “Okay, see that kid over there on that street corner?” You have to be thinking, “What if…” His mom is holding his hand right now, but you have to be thinking, “What if he abruptly breaks away from his mother and comes running into the street?” You know? One of the guys who’s in charge of the training department actually tells a story about a time when he was driving a bus. He was coming abreast of a convenience store and he found himself getting on the brake pedal before he even knew why he was doing it. And it turned out that somehow, some part of his mind- because of how good he was about scanning the environment and making these assessments- some part of his mind realized a kid was about to run into the path of his bus before it even happened. I think if I’m remembering the story correctly, this was a kid who had just stolen something from the convenience store. And so his whole point to us trainees is, for us, it’s not enough that you noticed this kid running out of the convenience store after he’s stolen something, we want you to know that he’s inside there shoplifting before he’s even done it. And of course, that’s not reasonable. But that’s how he illustrates the gravity and the importance and the level of awareness and vigilance that they want to see in their operators.

Zach: There’s so many jobs that have that hidden kind of sixth sense that you can’t really communicate to people just from experience. Yeah.

Brendan: Speaking of the line training that I mentioned – that process during those last two weeks of training where you’re driving the bus actually in revenue service- that was another experience that really stuck out to me. There were moments where I’d be pulling the bus over into a bus stop because there’s somebody standing at the bus stop, and my line trainer would say, “Oh, no, no, she doesn’t want us.” And I’d be like, “How did you know that?” You do develop a certain sixth sense about that. It has to do partly with body language. But I’ve also noticed, with the prevalence of rideshare services, that’s actually a problem for us. There’s a lot of people out there that think it’s perfectly fine to stand at a bus stop and summon Uber or Lyft to come pick them up in the bus stop, which causes us no end of problems because then you can’t get the bus into the bus stop. But oftentimes, you can tell who’s at the bus stop waiting for Uber and Lyft and who’s actually waiting for a bus.

Zach: Right, because they’re just not paying attention. They’re looking at their phone kind of thing.

Brendan: I think part of it has to do with there is a certain stratification in terms of wealth and class in San Francisco. So the people waiting for Uber and Lyft, oftentimes, you can tell by the fact that they’re young and they look well dressed and upwardly mobile that it’s like, “Oh, yeah, okay, those kids are from the tech industry and they’re waiting for Uber or Lyft.” [laughs]

Zach: Let’s talk a little bit more about telling who’s waiting for a stop or not. Do you feel like it’s mainly just about body language? Like either they’re paying attention or they’re not, and then it’s about some class type?

Brendan: Yeah, at the opposite end of the class scale, there are certainly a lot of unhoused individuals in San Francisco. And many of them will habitually sit inside a bus shelter because they have no place to be and so you can oftentimes make a prediction based on whether or not they look like they might be homeless. As you’re approaching a bus stop, the person that’s waiting for the bus to stop, you might notice their head will trick up or they’ll turn and look towards the bus, you know? There are little nuances of body language.

Zach: What about when you’re pulling up to a bus stop and there’s a lot of people around like a crowded stop? I would think it would be hard at crowded stops to know when to pull away because, theoretically, people are coming towards the bus. Do you start to get a sense of, “Oh, this person’s rushing towards the bus, I have to wait,” or, “This person is walking towards the bus, but they’re not hurrying.”

Brendan: Yeah, there have been times where I’ll be mid block, like nowhere near the bus stop itself, and I’ll see somebody in the middle of the block hurrying up or running. And I’m thinking, “Okay, that person is trying to get to the bus stop before the bus does.” And I’ll toot my horn real quick, get their attention, and let them know that I’m aware of their presence so at that point they can relax because they know I’m going to wait for them when I get to the bus stop. The biggest hazard there is they want both wheels of the bus to be within 12 inches of the curb so that people with disabilities don’t trip and fall as they’re trying to get from the curb up into the bus. So for safety sake, you’ve got to get the bus close to the curb. But when there’s a big crowd of people standing at the curb, you really have to pay a lot of attention to whether or not some people in that crowd are going to spill off of the curb and into the space that the bus is in the process of occupying. So, part of that is reading the crowd. But at the same time, you have to respect the fact that your ability to read the crowd is not infallible. You know, honking the horn a little bit to kind of give people… Not an obnoxious honking of the horn, but a brief tap of the horn to let people know, “Hey, there’s a bus coming and maybe you all shouldn’t be standing with your feet hanging over the curb.” You know?

Zach: Yeah, people are pretty unpredictable.

Brendan: Yeah, very much so.

Zach: Do you feel like driving a bus has changed other things in your life like, for example, how you drive a car or how you interact with people or how you read people?

Brendan: Oh, yeah, all of the above. It’s kind of funny. Like in terms of how I interact with people, you know, you’re setting limits for people all day, and oftentimes you have people on the bus who might be dangerous. They might be acting wrong on the bus. So you really start to exercise this muscle of being able to politely confront a person who’s doing wrong in a way that maybe is not going to escalate the situation. And that does kind of translate over into your non-working life. There are times where you might encounter some situation on the street or whatever. Maybe somebody’s cat calling a woman or being racist in public or whatever, and I just find myself kind of being in their way and saying, “Hey, you know what you’re doing right now is really inappropriate.” That kind of thing.

Zach: Gently defusing it.

Brendan: Not necessarily gently, but it’s like-

Zach: Firmly.

Brendan: Yeah. So, there’s that. And then what was the other part of the question? Oh, in terms of how I drive my car. Yeah, I have a very good friend who owns a dog walking business. And on my days off, I love to meet up with her and actually drive her doggy van around with her while she’s picking up dogs and dropping off dogs. And the way she tells it, she’s like, “Muni has ruined you.” Because her little doggie van, it’s this tiny little thing. It’s no wider or longer than a passenger car, but I make these wide turns with it like I think it’s a bus. And oftentimes she’ll be like, “Okay, you’re overlapping with the oncoming traffic lane.” And I refuse to speed and I refuse to go through a yellow light. Because Muni trains us really good on, you know, if you see what they call a stale green light- like, if you’re approaching a green light and you didn’t see that light turn green- you have to be prepared for the fact that it might be about to turn yellow. And we don’t want you running a yellow light. So I’m now the slowest driver in the world, which is still-

Zach: Very safe. Yeah, very safe. That’s good. Good habits to have, for sure.

Brendan: Indeed.

Zach: I read a story on Reddit. There was a Reddit thread about driving buses and somebody had a funny story about I think it was their dad drove a bus. And sometimes when he was driving his car, he would absentmindedly stop at the bus stops. You know? [chuckles]

Brendan: Well, I’ve almost done that. It’s like there are times when I’m in my personal vehicle and I see people standing at bus stops, it’s like you kind of have to stop yourself.

Zach: Yeah, it makes sense.

Brendan: Another thing, actually, there are times in my personal life where you just almost organically happen to run into somebody who’s in crisis, or for whatever reason, stranded somewhere. And you’ll say like, “Well, of course, I’ll give you a ride. That’s what I do.”

Zach: Right. It kind of makes you into much more of a friendly driver when maybe you shouldn’t be that friendly.

Brendan: Yeah. And, of course, the other thing is as a motorist doing this job, it’s really made me very, very conscious of the fact that a cyclist or a pedestrian or somebody on one of those little rented e-bike scooter things could appear where I don’t expect them to be. It’s almost out of nowhere. And so it’s like just driving my personal car around, I’m much more likely to make eye contact with pedestrians and cyclists so they know that I know that they’re. I’m much more likely to yield the right of way to them, even if they’re acting wrong and violating my right of way or whatever.

Zach: Speaking of confronting people and setting limits and other non-bus circumstances, I was curious when they trained you, did they train you on de-escalation kind of scenarios? Or was that mainly something that you learned driving the bus?

Brendan: Both, I’d say. I mentioned in that article I wrote that there’s some training about cultural differences and inclusiveness and what not. As far as de-escalation training, that’s something that SFMTA is in the process of rolling out right now. I believe some of my coworkers have been through that already. And it’s kind of important because they don’t want us carrying weapons. I mean, we’re prohibited. Not even pepper spray. And if you get violently attacked, they’re going to look at the video. And it’s one thing to defend yourself while you’re being violently attacked in the driver’s seat. But if they see you get up out of that driver’s seat and chase the assailant down the street, at that point, they’re going to have a problem with you because they’re going to say, “Hey, your attacker was retreating. At that point, the situation should have been over. Why did you chase that guy down the street?” You know? Basically, the agency is very big on de-escalation.

Zach: Well, I’m surprised they wouldn’t even want you to carry pepper spray. That’d just seem like they would want you to have something like that. But I guess I can see why they wouldn’t want that.

Brendan: Yeah. I mean, it could be a real nightmare and open up quite a can of worms if you ever had an SFMTA employee using pepper spray on somebody for the wrong reasons, you know?

Zach: Right. Yeah, and then the person might have a heart attack or who knows, or they have something and then they’re at fault. Yeah. When you had mentioned scooters a second ago, that made me think I hadn’t really thought about scooters. Those being all over the streets, has that really impacted and made you more nervous on the streets because there’s so many people flying around scooters?

Brendan: Oh, yeah, very much. Those electronic scooters are definitely a problem. A lot of them, people ride them in bike lanes, and people using those devices don’t really pay attention to any of the rules of the road. So it’s very common to have a scooter user suddenly swerve across the path of a bus. There’s this concept of the Idaho Stop, which is the idea that if you’re riding a bicycle, it’s not reasonable to force you to stop for every red light and every stop sign, because then you’ll lose all of your momentum and since your bicycle is not dangerous to other people in the way that a car is. It’s called the Idaho Stop because I believe that was probably one of the first places where it was legalized for a cyclist to go through a stop sign or a red light when it’s safe to do so. The thing about these people with these little electronic sharing economy scooter things is that the existence of an Idaho Stop as a concept has contributed to users of these devices believing that they don’t have to stop for any red light or any stop sign ever. So it’s like when you think in terms of reading people, on the one hand, you might think, “Oh, it’s good to be able to read the body language or the intent of that scooter user and make a prediction about whether or not they’re going to run through that red light.” But the reality is you have to be prepared for every single one of them to do that, no matter what.

Zach: Right. Yeah, because you definitely don’t want to guess wrong.

Brendan: Yeah.

Zach: How often do you have people that start trouble on the bus or scare people on the bus? Is that a fairly frequent thing?

Brendan: It varies depending on which route you’re driving. You know, some routes go through rougher neighborhoods than others. My feeling is the sooner you intervene, the better. It’s interesting you talk about scaring people because there’s a lot of people who get on the bus who will say things that are really scary and that sound quite scary. And if I stopped the bus and tell him something along the lines of, “Hey, listen, I really need you to stop saying those things. I can’t move this bus if you’re saying things that sound threatening,” oftentimes, some people will calm down. And in many cases, mental illness plays a role in this. I’ve noticed San Francisco has a tremendous amount of people that do not have shelter and are out there living with mental illness while also living on the streets, and some of them can be going through a bad spot or a bad patch. I don’t know how to put it, but some of them can be having a crisis or having a bad day and it’ll cause them to say things that sound really scary, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience with mentally ill people. But oftentimes, that’s as far as it goes. It’s just, “Oh, this person is saying stuff that sounds really terrifying, but they have no intention of hurting anybody.” You know? I have a lot of friends on Facebook who are very transparent about their own experience of living with mental illness, and hearing from them has been tremendously helpful for me and guided me a lot in terms of my approach to my mentally ill passengers. At some point, one or more friends have clued me into the fact that a person who’s having what looks like a psychotic episode, if you’re a layperson who doesn’t understand what all of this means, you might think, “Oh, that person is having a psychotic episode. They’re completely irrational and dangerous. There’s nothing you can say to them.” But in terms of having friends with mental illness who have talked to me about this a lot on Facebook, what I’ve learned is that a person might be on my bus saying really lewd whatever, throwing out a bunch of four-letter words, yelling and whatever. And if I go back and talk to them and say, “Hey, I need you to stop saying these things that are threatening or obscene and stop yelling,” sometimes they’ll calm down. They’re not as out of touch with reality as we who are not mentally ill might think they are. They’ll notice, if you’re speaking to them in a way that is respectful. And for a lot of them, they are so marginalized that it has become unusual for them to have somebody with a home and a job address them in a way that is compassionate. Yeah.

Zach: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. I like to ask people when I do rideshare things or taxis, I like to ask them like, “What’s your craziest, wildest experience?” And somebody recently told me their experience of picking somebody up and the passenger started talking about, “Oh, I killed my cat. I did this. I did this,” and I realized he didn’t really know a lot of people with mental illness have these obsessions around death. It doesn’t mean that they actually killed their cat, they probably didn’t. But they like to talk about death and killing and stuff. I think a lot of people just don’t know that so it makes them… You know, people are obviously much more scared than they should be when people say scary things because they don’t realize a lot of times it just goes with the territory of some psychosis and obsession stuff.

Brendan: Yeah.

Zach: Yeah, you must really get good at dealing with people with mental illness.

Brendan: Yeah. And then of course, there’s also a lot of people that are homeless in San Francisco that were not mentally ill when they became homeless. And living on the streets exacerbated things and maybe caused them to either develop mental illness or get into a worse place mentally.

Zach: Let’s talk about traffic patterns. Do you have any examples that come to mind of how you’ve gotten better at reading how cars are moving or having to adjust to how cars are moving and that kind of stuff?

Brendan: Yeah. Definitely a car will have a body language to it. And I don’t know if I can really articulate it. I’m not sure how to put it into words, but cars definitely have body language depending on what the person driving the car is planning to do. An Uber or Lyft sticker in the car’s window oftentimes is a big clue that they might be about to slow down in the middle of the traffic lane and block your bus because they’re waiting for a passenger. Or they might block a bike lane and thus force cyclists to swerve around them into the traffic lane. Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve noticed, there are people in San Francisco who think they can run red lights with impunity. And oftentimes, I can tell when somebody’s going to run a red light long before they do it. Obviously, the speed at which the car is moving is a big indicator. But it’s like sometimes you can just tell, even if they’re not necessarily speeding. And I don’t know how to explain how you can tell, but it happens.

Zach: Right, some sort of unconscious things you’re picking up.

Brendan: Yeah. Another thing that occurs to me that I wanted to mention is sometimes I feel like there’s a certain ‘feng shui’ to the way streets and roads are designed that in some almost intangible way, set people up for failure. For example, when I drive the 10 Townsend and or the 12 Folsom bus, both of those buses when they’re going towards downtown, they travel on a street called Pacific. On the Pacific, you’re in the North Beach Chinatown neighborhood. And Pacific crosses of Kearney Street, which is this major thoroughfare that goes up towards Broadway. And on Pacific when you’re crossing Kearney, it is almost inevitable that some pedestrians at the far side of that intersection are going to attempt to cross against the light and walk into the path of your bus. It happens so often at that intersection. I would love to see somebody with a lot more education than I possess really study that and figure out what is it about that intersection that is setting pedestrians up for this situation. And it’s usually they’re walking uphill. Usually they’re in groups with their friends and they’re laughing and joking and they don’t look at the cross traffic at all. It predictably happens at that intersection.

Zach: Right. It’s like you look at some… There’s definitely places that have more accidents and others and it’s like you could… I know sometimes they do study what is it exactly about this that’s not obvious that’s causing people to get in an accident?

Brendan: Yeah.

Zach: Interesting area of study. You had mentioned the body language of cars, and I was actually talking to another bus driver who I almost interviewed and he was talking about how he could tell patterns with the type of cars. Like, expensive cars behaved in a certain way. And I think he was saying the more expensive high-end cars would behave more aggressively and rudely to the bus, versus less expensive cars following the rules more. I don’t know if you notice anything like that.

Brendan: Well, yes and no. Because I feel like when you think about something like that, you have to really be on guard against your own confirmation bias. Meaning if you resent this guy because he has a $120,000 BMW and he violates your right of way, that’s going to stick out in your mind and you’re going to remember it more than the person in the Toyota Camry who behaved exactly the same way. But of course, as you might know, there are actually studies out there and think pieces about them on the internet about the idea that BMW drivers do actually habitually drive worse than owners of other cars.

Zach: Haven’t heard that.

Brendan: Yeah, BMW and Prius drivers are kind of notorious. [laughs]

Zach: Interesting. I was getting a ride from a Lyft/Uber driver and he was saying how he thought that Toyota drivers, for some reason, were the worst drivers on the road. And it was funny when he said that. Literally like a second after he said that, a car went zooming by us on the shoulder and sure enough, it was a Toyota. [crosstalk] It was strange that he happened to tell us that and we saw it firsthand. Do you have any opinion on Toyota drivers?

Brendan: No, not at all. Prius drivers have acquired a reputation for themselves, I think, because early on when hybrids were kind of new, there was this phenomenon of hybrid owners would be staring at their dashboard because they’re hypermiling and they’re watching that little gauge that shows exactly how many miles per gallon they’re getting. So Prius drivers kind of became notorious for going slower than the flow of traffic. And people that gravitate towards Priuses tend to be people that are not interested in driving because it’s not a fun driver’s car. So I think Prius drivers acquired a reputation. But no, I don’t have any kind of opinion about Toyota owners in particular.

Zach: Got you. Okay. Maybe it’s a Portland thing, if it is a thing at all.

Brendan: If you’re in the car enthusiast community, there are always car enthusiasts who have opinions, you know? Like, “Oh, Nissan guys are like this,” or, “Ford owners are like that.” But I think that’s just a lot of silliness really.

Zach: Right, it’s like sports teams kind of stuff. Can you think of any other things that come to mind as far as predicting car patterns or traffic patterns?

Brendan: Well, part of operating a bus safely is you have to occupy space in such a way that it makes it impossible for motorists to do dangerous things or discourages them from doing so. For example, when you’re making a right turn in a bus, there’s this phenomenon of the squeeze play, where if you’re turning wide enough that there’s enough room for a cyclist or a motorist to squeeze in between you and the curb while you’re making that right turn, somebody will try it. And, of course, what they don’t realize is that as you’re making the right turn, the space between the bus and the curb is getting narrower and narrower. So when somebody pulls that squeeze play, it’s entirely possible that the bus is going to make contact with them. So the way we’re trained is make that right turn not so wide. You know, lock up the space so that you’re aware of what the back wheel is doing and make sure you look in your right mirror enough times that you’re not making it… I mean, I’m kind of repeating myself here. But, yeah. Another example would be if you’re driving on a street with really narrow lanes that has a lot of parked cars sticking out on the right hand side because maybe the area for parked cars is narrower than it should be, you want to keep the right side of your bus away from those parked cars. It’s especially an issue in San Francisco because our housing crisis is so insane that we have a lot of people who live in RVs and vans now so there are a lot of major thoroughfares with tons of RVs and vans that stick out kind of far from the curb. And so what you want to do is keep the right side of your bus away from those parked vehicles. That means you have to encroach on the lane to the left of the lane that you’re driving in. And one of my trainers very recently told me, “You know what? Don’t just drive with your left-hand tire on that line that divides the lanes because…” Well, I actually brought it up with my trainer. Because if I’m driving with my tire on the stripe that divides the lanes, what happens is motorists will squeeze past me in that lane that’s to my left. And that’s dangerous. So what this trainer told me was go ahead and split those two lanes so you’re occupying 50% of that lane to your left and 50% of that right lane. Because at that point, you’ve taken away the ability of a motorist to split the lane with you and so it’s a lot safer because they’re not going to sideswipe you if they can’t squeeze past you on your left.

Zach: Do you feel like when you actually start getting pretty skilled at something like this, and for a lot of things in general, it’s like you can have that curve of getting so skilled that you get too relaxed and paying attention as much and you go into autopilot. I imagine that’s got to be a risk for skilled bus drivers.

Brendan: Yeah, very much so. I used to have this regular passenger, a woman by the name of Nikki, who had a lot of experience driving buses in Las Vegas and also had a lot of experience as a big rig truck operator. And she used to get on the 19 Polk all the time. She would talk to me about things and she told me that her observation was that two years in is when you really see operators begin to have accidents that are kind of surprising. Because at that point, you know enough and you’re confident enough that you may be a little bit dangerous. [chuckles]

Zach: Right, that must be such a pattern in so many jobs. You start to know enough to get relaxed and then that’s when you’re really dangerous.

Brendan: Yeah, quite possibly. But at the same time, it’s best to not be… I feel like there’s a healthy amount of terror that you should have at all times. The analogy that I think of a lot is I’ve been told that people who fly helicopters have to always be prepared for disaster at all times. There’s this thing called auto-rotation that would allow a helicopter pilot to not have a catastrophic crash even when they lost the engine, because the rotors are still spinning. So you can use this auto-rotation technique to put the helicopter down in a way that’s not a crash when you’ve lost your engine. But the problem is you got to always have a place where the helicopter can be put down if that happens. So what I’ve been told is that helicopter pilots are always constantly scanning the terrain during every second that they’re in the air, always making sure that they are aware of where’s that flat surface that’s wide enough and unobstructed enough that I could put the helicopter down right now if I had to. And I feel like there’s a certain parallel to driving a bus. It’s like you always have to be thinking about what can go wrong right now. What is the disaster that is about to happen if I’m not vigilant? You know?

Zach: Continually scanning the horizon or the road.

Brendan: Yeah, very much so.

Zach: For a couple of summers, I worked for a plumbing company. I drove one of their bigger trucks and I still have nightmares about (bad dreams, anyway) about driving the truck of it flipping over or me hitting something randomly on the road. Did you have any of those fears going in that you had to get over?

Brendan: Oh, yeah. I mentioned that in the article I wrote. Basically, because I’d never driven a large vehicle before I entered Munis’ training program, I certainly found them kind of intimidating. During that first week when you’re doing the obstacle course in the training program, you look in that outside mirror, and there is a flat mirror but there’s also a convex mirror. The convex mirror shows more of what’s out there but it makes everything look small. And so you look in that convex mirror and it’s really kind of scary. Because you can see the sides of the bus and the right rear tire or both rear tires, depending on which mirror, but the thing is you’re looking in there and it’s kind of shocking how far away that back tire is from where you’re sitting. And it really drives home the fact that this is a really large vehicle covered with blind spots, and it’s potentially a very dangerous machine if you operate it wrong. And the first time I ever noticed that, it was legitimately terrifying. But what I eventually began to realize was that those mirrors were my best friends because they allow you to project your consciousness outwards and towards the sides and back of the bus. So in some way, it makes the bus feel smaller because you know what’s going on back there.

Zach: That’s an interesting choice of words, project your consciousness. Because it must be like with driving, you start to feel like actually this is your body. So giving you that awareness of the different parts of the bus, over time, you instinctually start to understand that this bus is kind of yourself in a way. The sense of it.

Brendan: Yeah, I don’t know if I really… It’s weird because it’s like I’ll watch somebody driving one of our buses or just look at one of my co-workers going by and it’s kind of a surreal experience. Because when I’m outside the bus, I’m looking at it and it’s like that thing is larger than some studio apartments in San Francisco. And it’s crazy that I get to drive that thing! You know?

Zach: Yeah, it’s intimidating. One big problem I see with people’s driving abilities in general, not buses, is that so many people don’t know how big their vehicles are. And I’m wondering is that something they really focus on when you do the training? Because that would seem to me to be one of people’s biggest weaknesses.

Brendan: Yeah, that obstacle course during the first week, a lot of it is all about, “Can you get around these orange cones without running them over?” Because are you able to internalize an understanding of, you know, the bus is eight and a half feet wide- I think it’s 10 and a half feet tall and 40 feet long- and are you able to understand that on some kind of deep level? Alot of it is reference points. It’s like you have to use your mirrors to know what the sides of the bus are doing and what the back wheel is doing, especially as you’re going around turns. But there’s also a lot of understanding what reference points you might need to use outside the bus. You know, what part of the bus needs to be lined up with this fixed object in order for me to start turning, so that I’m not turning too soon so I don’t hit the fixed object as I’m trying to steer around it.

Zach: Right, that would be like looking at the windshield and knowing a certain place is the side of your bus kind of thing.

Brendan: Yeah, exactly.

Zach: Anything else stand out as far as really interesting times? Do you have equivalents of when you said your acquaintance seeing somebody running out of the store ahead? Do you have any things that stand out like that where you’re like, “Oh, that was really cool that I knew that.”

Brendan: Oh, yeah, definitely. But I think long and hard about my failures also. And this comes back to reading people. I had this experience a few months ago, where this woman got on the bus and she was just talking wrong. She was saying things that were bad and wrong. It was a crowded bus and it’s like there’s this mental calculus that I did where I’m thinking, “Okay, I could make a big show of the fact that I’m in charge of this environment and I have the authority to deny service to somebody. I could stop the bus right now and tell her she has to get off. Or I could stop the bus right now and tell her she has to behave herself if she wants to ride on the bus.” But my experience has been that oftentimes these situations resolve themselves on their own. And oftentimes, based on where we were, it seemed like maybe probably that person was just going to ride for a couple of blocks and get off. So I did not intervene. And I think about this event a lot because what wound up happening is she actually put her hands on another passenger in a way that was really disturbing and it was hugely dramatic. And at that point, I had to stop the bus and call the people on the radio that give me orders and tell them, “Hey, get some police over here.” She actually exited the bus because there were many passengers around her that intervened in the situation. But that was a tremendous learning experience for me because it was like, basically, I should have trusted my gut and I should have intervened sooner. You know? It’s like if I’d just set the tone a little bit sooner and said, “Hey, you know, you can’t really be saying these threatening crazy things because I can’t operate the bus whilst something like that is happening on board the bus,” I have to wonder if I’d done that much earlier in the situation, maybe she would have never put her hands on that woman, and therefore, that woman would have had a much better experience. You know?

Zach: Must be all sorts of ways to second guess yourself, though. Because who’s to say, if you did it a different way, something worse could have happened or something. But I’m sure you’re always learning about better ways to process.

Brendan: Yeah. Muni, and in their training program, they’re really clear about telling us, “Hey, you’re not the police.” I actually have a co-worker, this guy named [***]. He’s a bodybuilder. And I know from talking to him that he has, you know, he could handle himself in a fight. But he once shared with us his technique when somebody is acting wrong on the bus. His way of approaching it is they’ll stop the bus, and he’ll speak to them in a very calm tone of voice and he’ll say to them, “Look, I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t tell you to get off this bus. But I can’t move this bus as long as you’re on it.” His philosophy on that is basically that at that point, he’s giving them their power. He’s not even ordering them to do anything. He’s telling them… He’s allowing them to make the decision. And because they’re keeping some of their power, it’s a less dangerous situation.

Zach: That makes sense because for people going through mental stuff, the feeling that they’re out of control probably plays a role. So to put the control on them is probably helpful for them avoiding getting angry.

Brendan: Yeah. And my sense was that he wasn’t even necessarily talking about people with mental illness.

Zach: Just anyone.

Brendan: Yeah, sometimes people just are toxic and violent in their speech and demeanor. You know?