A Day at the Track, Driving a Bus

A 45-ft Metro bus takes on the obstacle course at Santa Anita Race Track. Photo: Fred Camino/Metro

I’m a transit rider for a variety of reasons, but if I was to pick a single reason that encompasses all the rest, it would be this: I’d just rather not drive on the mean streets of Los Angeles.

However, I still need to get around and that means someone else has to do the driving.  Most of the time that someone else is a Metro bus operator.  I’ve always put these guys and gals up on a pedestal for the very fact that they do for me what I won’t do for myself.  The bus operator, for all practical purposes, is my chauffeur and braves potholes and traffic jams while I mindlessly doze off like a spoiled child without a responsibility in the world.

Well, last month Metro gave me the chance to grow up and take on some responsibility – in the form of a 60-foot articulated Metro bus.

The Metro Bus Roadeo is an event Metro holds every year to test and showcase the talents of its very best bus operators and mechanics.  Before this event they invite media types — including bloggers — to get behind the wheel of a Metro bus and navigate the obstacle course themselves.  I think I was meant to react to this opportunity with glee, as if the reason I ride transit is for the chance to one day drive transit, but my internal response was something more akin to dread.

What did I know about driving a bus? Heck, I think compact SUV’s are unwieldily and difficult to maneuver; how was I supposed to drive a 60-foot bus with a bendy thing in the middle?

Reluctantly, I agreed to go through with it.  The event is held at the Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, about 20 miles away from my urban bunker in Downtown Los Angeles, much too far to walk or bike.  So I walked to the corner of 8th/Olive, waved down my chauffeur, the operator of Metro Local Line 79, and was escorted on an hour and ten minute journey through the San Gabriel Valley.

Mini Ride Report: I had never ridden the 79 before, and I found it to be a rather pleasant ride.  It’s undoubtedly a local, the frequent stops making the trip a long one, but it’s never so full you’re uncomfortable and never so empty you question its existence.  You pass through some great neighborhoods, from the working class areas of Lincoln Heights along Mission St. to the lush lawns and mansions that rival Beverly Hills’ finest in San Marino along Huntington Drive.

My bus dropped me off at Huntington and Santa Clara, a short walk from the race track.  As I crossed the massive parking lot, I saw ahead of me the winding obstacle course of traffic cones and beyond them, the hulking buses waiting to be driven.  Metro staff introduced me to the buses: a standard 40-foot bus (a NABI 40-LFW for the über transit nerds out there); a 60-foot articulated bus (NABI 60-BRT); a not-yet-in-service 42-foot futuristic looking hybrid bus (NABI 42-BRT); and a 1958 General Motors bus beautifully restored by the Rapid Transit District (RTD).

As I was psyching myself up to take on the 60-footer, Metro’s CEO and former RTD bus operator Art Leahy arrived with the intention of proving that driving a bus is like riding a bike.  Eager to delay my own drive, I joined Art as he took the wheel of the classic 1958 bus and maneuvered with ease around the curving track, stopping at simulated curbs to pick up imaginary passengers, and racing through a lane of barrels barely wider than the bus itself.  He didn’t so much as bump a single barrel.  Apparently driving a bus is like riding a bike, and after 35 years, Metro’s CEO still had it.

I’ve ridden a bike before, but never driven a bus, and as I found myself in the surprisingly plush seat of the mighty articulated vehicle, I knew my bicycling skills would do me no good.  My sweaty palms gripped the steering wheel a little tighter than necessary and the bus operator who was riding with me told me the number one rule: if your foot isn’t on the accelerator, it’s on the brake.  I recited this mantra in my head as I lifted my foot from the brake and ever so gently applied pressure to the accelerator.  The bus moved forward imperceptibly. I pressed with more confidence. The bus smoothly ramped up to speed as I chauffeured the bus operator around the cones.

The bus was far more nimble than I ever imagined, especially for its size.  It got up to speed quickly, came to a stop with equal quickness and had a turning radius that would make some cars envious.  Although I was pleasantly surprised at the ease of commanding the vehicle, I opted not to take on the whole course; mostly because I didn’t want to make more work for the organizers since I would have inevitably knocked down every barrel in the narrow lane challenge.

I appreciated experiencing first-hand what it feels like to drive a Metro bus, but doing laps on a fixed course free of Los Angeles traffic, pedestrians, and customers feels like cheating.  I think bus operators are lucky to be in control of what are obviously precision vehicles, built for maximum control and ease of use in the difficult L.A. driving environment, but as long as they’re willing to do the driving, I’m more than happy to sit back and be chauffeured around like the spoiled 28-year old child that I am.