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Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Respect and dignity" is a two-way street

Last night I attempted to engage a TTC bus operator in a conversation that could have the potential of saving not only his life, but that of his colleagues, as well as the productive lives of commuters.

As so oft happens, mid-way along a bus route, the operator stopped the vehicle and sat. He didn’t jump out to “get a coffee” or anything like that – he just sat there. One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. People started to get restless. Four minutes. Five minutes. People start to grumble out loud. Six minutes…people start swearing out loud…

Finally, I got up and walked up to the operator’s side and, quietly and politely, began the following conversation:

TorontoyMyWay: “Do you mind if I ask the reason for the delay?”

TTC Operator: “I’ve been told to wait in order to get back on schedule.”

TorontoMyWay: “Would you consider it discourteous not to tell us that?” (and I admit, I can see how this may have come across as confrontational, even though that wasn’t the intention).

TTC Operator: (tersely) “I’m obligated to follow the rules. I’m not obligated to tell you about it.”

TorontoMyWay: (firmly, yet still calmly) “I didn’t ask you about your obligations. I asked you if you consider letting us know a courteous thing to do?”

TTC Operator: (escalating the tension) “It’s not my obligation to tell you. It’s your obligation to ask. You asked, I answered.”

TorontoMyWay: (looking to dissipate tension) “I’m confused, help me understand. I pay my fare to enter the TTC and I get on a…train. Or, for the same fare, I get on a streetcar. Or a bus. Or a LRT vehicle…whatever the case, the fare is the same. And if a train stops in the tunnel, they tell us why. Should a commuter not expect to know why a service interruption on a bus not support the same courtesy of some information without having to ask?”

TTC Operator: (pauses to think) “Look, I don’t make the policies, I just follow them.”

TorontoMyWay: “I’ve written to policy makers my suggestions for changing things, but you shouldn’t be the one in harms way while they....”

TTC Operator: (cutting me off) “Well, go ahead and continue to log your complaints to the TTC.”

TorontoMyWay: “Perhaps I’m not making myself clear. Right here, right now, I’m not interested in the stupid policy of stupid policymakers who are far away from the two of us on this bus in the corner of the city in the dark of night. I’m talking about your personal safety as a person. I’ve written that the TTC should adopt thehonour system and stop putting TTC Operators in unsafe situations.  Go Transit does it. Viva Transit does it. It ain’t rocket science. Operators have enough to worry about just safely operating the vehicle without also having to end up in fare disputes or other altercations with frustrated commuters that could end up with you not getting home to your family.

“Too often we, as commuters, don’t see TTC Operators as human beings. And at the same time, commuters are made to feel like cattle on rail car when TTC Operators do things like sit without letting us know what’s going on. Right now, I’m talking to you, one human being to another. I’ve had a long day. You’ve had whatever kind of day you’ve had, you’re a person, too, and you’ve got to act on behalf of your own safety above defending some policy that bears no personal risk. It would have cost you nothing to simply announce “hey folks, I’ve been directed to sit for a few minutes to get back on schedule. We’ll get rolling as soon as I get the green light from Central Command Centre. Sorry for the delay” and, had you done that, people would be quite patient, we all understand instructions from a boss.

“But, if I was the wrong kind of person, and you answered that wrong kind of person the way you answered me a few minutes ago, you might already be dead. Why is TTC policy worth your life and the ruined lives of your family as well as whoever was now going to prison for stabbing you to death out of sheer and utter frustration?”

TTC Operator: (nods) Look, I hear you. I know this route. There are times I try to connect a passenger with the Go Station in time to catch her train. I can do it if I’m two minutes ahead. If I’m on schedule, she’s got to wait, what, a half hour or whatever it is? But when I do that, I get [in trouble] for it. You’d think two interacting transit systems could coordinate schedules, but whatever. Meantime, I’m told to stay on schedule.”

TorontoMyWay: “I appreciate your efforts. And it is a double-edged sword. Being ahead of schedule sucks when I get to the stop on time and see the tail lights of the bus that was ahead of schedule. There is no perfect way to be, there are issues either way. The message I’m trying to convey to you, and to all TTC Operators, and all commuters, is that, above and beyond all this policy and public transit logistics and politics between commuters, Operators and the TTC – this is the biggest, most diverse city in the country, with unique challenges to face – but above and beyond all that it’s got to be remembered that we’re all human beings, people, and I will continue to maintain that not a few assaults on TTC Operators could have been avoided by simple courtesy being extended from the position of power (which you really are, as a bus driver, relative to the passengers) in the situation. There will always be idiot commuters and idiot operators; but I don’t have to be an idiot commuter, and you don’t have to be an idiot Operator. If you extend a little courtesy, you never know when it will have made the difference and saved your own life.”

I don’t know if it will resonate with him, or if it made any difference at all. But, it could have. And by posting on the internet, I hope the message can get out to more people – policy makers, union members, vehicle operators, fare collectors, maintenance crews, vendors…and consumers, the paying customers in this marketplace – that we’re all in this together, making the TTC better is a never-ending burden of responsibility on all stakeholders.

I’m pretty sure that I didn’t invent this line of reasoning. I’m sure there are other civic activists as well as TTC and Union personnel that understand the cause and effect relationship that makes situations go from bad-to-worse to irreversible in far too short a time.

It really bugs me when I see the above posters. Not because it's not the law, nor is it because I don't think TTC workers should not be protected from assault. Of course, they should.

What bugs me is, TTC seems to forget that "respect and dignity" goes both ways. Who enforces a "zero tolerance policy" for how TTC personnel treat paying commuters? 

Impatience, rudeness and disrespect that spews from the mouths of TTC personnel are too often at the genesis of situations that could have spiraled out of control had commuters had the control to walk away. spiral out of control and result in a worker being assaulted.

Consider again how people can feel trapped on a vehicle with no sense of control of when they might get moving again. Why must it be deemed exceptional to offer a word of explanation about what's going on? Why should commuters be expected to sit there quietly with no clue as to what's happening? This can be argued as a form of abuse. And if someone, at the end of a long day, is having difficulty coping, this could be a tipping point, and assault is the result.

Thus, the problem is not the assault. Assault is the symptom of a problem - the lack of respect and dignity being expressed towards the commuter, which is then expressed disrespectfully in lashing out - verbally, or physically.

Am I suggesting that a vehicle operator who asks to see a student card before accepting a discounted fare should expect to be assaulted? Of course not. 

However, it is well-recognized that properly-attired specialized personnel are better fare-collectors than bus drivers (I'd love to see the statistics on how many times a Viva or GO fare-checker, with their Kevlar vests, are attacked after writing a ticket for lack of proof of payment? I'll bet the answer is 0). 

And I have previously written that TTC adopt a similar approach, and alleviate vehicle operators from having to engage fare disputes, to further protect vehicle operators from being assaulted.

In the meantime, the conversation I had with this bus driver was an attempt to convert my utter frustration for his lack of courtesy with a constructive, proactive challenge to him to be an active part of demonstrating that TTC actually cares about the people who pay to get where they are going by public transit. If more operators did that, there would be fewer assaults against them.

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