UMass Transit student bus drivers discuss job experiences

By Peter Cappiello

University of Massachusetts sophomore Jen DePlanche runs out of her dorm and through the concourse of the Southwest Residential Area at 6:50 a.m. on her way across campus to get behind the wheel of a blue and orange Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus — taunts by peers fresh in her head.

“Can you even reach the pedals?” they ask the 5-foot-3 DePlanche.

“Shut up, they’re adjustable,” she replies.

One of more than 150 students who serve an on-campus community of over 12,000, DePlanche works as a driver for UMass Transit, which operates PVTA service in the Five College area.

Drivers receive a base starting rate of $9.75 per hour and $9 per hour during their training period, according to the UMass Transit website.

DePlanche, a communication and theater double major, finds bus 314 — her assigned home for the next three hours — in the UMass Transit garage. She then makes her way around the vehicle, checklist in hand, kicking each wheel to test its pressure.

Satisfied that the bus is in safe working condition, the Berlin native starts her route less than 24 hours removed from a Sigma Kappa sorority event, but shows no sign of fatigue.

It may sound like she’s busy, DePlanche said, “but last night, I didn’t have anything for four hours, so I could just chill out.”

UMass Transit Operations Manager Glenn Barrington said in an email interview that student drivers do a tremendous job and get very little recognition from the community they serve.

Senior mechanical engineering major Harnek Singh voiced a similar stance, saying that although some passengers are appreciative, others don’t even look at him.

“I feel like people see us as not really at their same level,” Singh said. “You know how some people might view a janitor as kind of a low, bottom job, sometimes I feel like people think, ‘Oh, he’s just a bus driver.’ No, I’m not a bus driver, I’m a mechanical engineer.”

Singh said that while indifference from bus riders could be annoying, he understands that some people may be tired or having a bad day, so he doesn’t take it personally.

DePlanche said she often doesn’t get thanked, but said she “didn’t know it was a thing” until she became a bus driver herself.

“A lot of people don’t thank us,” DePlanche said. “It’s only awkward when they’re the only person on the bus and we drove them across campus. They just get off and it’s like, ‘I didn’t want a thank you anyway.’”

Joking about a fictional “Bus Driving 101” class, DePlanche said that pulling the cord to stop the bus well in advance should be the first rule, followed by urging pedestrians to not walk slowly if they want to catch the bus.

“We have a policy, if someone’s walking towards the bus, we’re not going to stop for them, but if they’re running, then we’ll stop,” DePlanche said. “You run, you ride.”

With riders often showing up late or being unsure of the schedule, DePlanche said that UMass Transit maintains a social media presence to connect with potential passengers.

A Twitter account (@umasstransit) informs its current 1,064 followers of detours or of anything affecting scheduled arrival time. DePlanche said she doesn’t think a lot of people know about the service or check it regularly, but advocated that they should.

A free app called “UMass BusTrack,” available in the iTunes app store, showing bus schedules and updates, is another method that DePlanche suggested to find transportation without the frustration of waiting around for a long amount of time.

“We really try to be on time,” DePlanche said. “Everybody (rags) on the buses, but we do what we can.”

Daily passengers like Mercedes Cook, who relocated to the Pioneer Valley with her son from Los Angeles, said the resources that the University provides prove invaluable, including its transportation services.

Cook, who has had positive experiences with student drivers in the past, said she believes the opportunity for employment while in school is vital so students can keep up with their finances.

“I think that’s great,” Cook said of the student driver program. “I think it’s a good idea.”

Singh said that UMass Transit tries to help its employees even after they leave the University.

“Once you’re done with college and looking for jobs, if you can’t find one, Transit will still keep you on as an employee,” Singh said. “It’s not easy finding a job, so this is a good backup.”

The service also pays employees to receive their commercial driver’s license, according to Singh, who made about $700 obtaining his license.

DePlanche said that her bus driving experience has led to more employment opportunities. Aside from training to become a radio operator for UMass Transit, which pays slightly more than her current job, she plans on driving tour buses to Martha’s Vineyard.

DePlanche, who attends class as soon as her shift ends, said that the responsibility is easy to manage, but can get overwhelming.

She has been a bus driver since November 2011, but said that her schedule became too much last semester when she worked 20 hours.

“I was so tired all the time,” DePlanche said. “I used to get made fun of last year because I’d go to bed at 11 p.m. every night. If I stayed up till 2 a.m. and had to wake up at 5:30 — you cannot work off three and a half hours of sleep.”

At the end of her shift, having driven enough distance to have theoretically traveled to Maine, DePlanche texts her friends, only to realize that they are still sleeping.

DePlanche said she has a lot of time to think during her job, and occasionally her thoughts move from tractors and apple orchards— a mainstay in her hometown— to Justin Bieber and One Direction.

“When no one’s on my bus, I sing,” DePlanche said. “I have a lot of fun with that and sometimes people rain on my parade. I’ll be singing my favorite song and I’ll see someone at that stop, then I have to stop singing, but most of the time I enjoy people on my bus.”

Peter Cappiello can be reached at [email protected]