MARTA bus drivers talk jobs

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

MARTA bus operators can be as different as their routes. Jeffrey Watkins is retired from the U.S. Air Force, a former police office,r and now pastor of a small church in Douglasville. He began his driving career in the service and then took charters to casinos. Michael Majette, who referees high school football and basketball in his spare time, started driving furniture trucks in his native North Carolina. Watkins likes driving the longer MARTA routes, while Majette has been on same neighborhood-oriented route for 12 years.

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Q&A: Life of a MARTA bus operator

By Tom Sabulis

Two veteran MARTA bus operators, Michael Majette and Jeffrey Watkins, 54, offer opinions on their job, their customers, their routes and the transit agency. Majette drives the #13 route, from Five Points to Westlake MARTA rail station. Watkins usually drives the #3 route, from H.E. Holmes rail station to Candler Park station.

What’s the most challenging part about driving the bus for MARTA?

Majette: What’s challenging to me is on-time performance. That can vary because you’re dealing with weather and traffic. I’m a stickler for on-time performance. I take that at heart. I have trained the community on my route how to catch my bus by what the schedule says. When you do that, you open yourself up for not being late, always being on time. They try to have the goal of 75 percent on-time performance, and I try to be in the high 80s or 90s. That’s the most challenging, just hoping that you have a good bus, no mechanical failures, that traffic is flowing.

Watkins: The bus operation part, that’s the most simple. We do so much more. I even refer to us as customer-service experts. We have to comply with the ADA (American Disabilities Act) standards. We have to comply with the distraction policies. But at the same time we have to be customer service-friendly, because customers have questions and those questions want our total attention. At times, that’s difficult when someone is asking you a question and you’re sitting behind the wheel.

Is riding MARTA safe?

Majette: I don’t have a lot of problems (on the bus). I’ve been at MARTA 19 years and I’ve only had to call the police department twice. Some kids were on the bus at Six Flags and they were kicking the doors. Other than that, I really haven’t had any problems – no knives or guns pulled, no fights. I think the system is safe. Regardless of where you are, you’re going to have crimes. But to say that people are getting robbed and there are a lot of shootings and stabbings (on MARTA), you really don’t have that.

Watkins: I get regulars and then I get oddities. Often times you find yourself having to deal with a domestic situation, a situation on the bus between two people. A young lady got on my bus one day. And while we were waiting on the light to change a gentleman came across the street. He climbed on the bus and took exception to the young lady that had gotten on the bus ahead of him and (they) basically had a verbal altercation. She found that it was getting a little embarrassing, so before there was a need to call MARTA and ask for assistance, they both stepped off the bus. I must say, I didn’t leave not a bit concerned about her. But it’s one of those things where you can’t fix everything that’s out there. I had another 20 people on the bus that needed my attention as well.

What do you think about all the criticism of MARTA, especially by those who don’t use it?

Majette: It is what it is. You can’t duck that. MARTA has this stigma. I try to promote MARTA and try to let the patrons know, especially the ones who have vehicles and drive, how they could save money by using the system, regardless of who rides it, regardless of what ethnic group is on the bus. I know for a fact that you can save by riding MARTA, the way gas prices are.

Why it’s not a boring job

Watkins: It’s a very interesting job simply because we find ourselves being counselors, we find ourselves being friends, we find ourselves being family advocates. We even find ourselves being financial analysts. We are all of these things to our passengers. And we’re still trying to be professional and represent MARTA well, at the same time. That’s why we sort of frown on the term bus “driver,” because just navigating the bus down the street, that’s not really a big deal. But the people you’re dealing with, they expect us to know every landmark in Atlanta. We’re supposed to know every street in Atlanta, and they question you if you don’t.

What about the long waits between rides? (The interval between buses can be 30 minutes and more.)

Majette: You just have to sacrifice to do that (run more buses). If you’re on a certain route and you miss the five a.m. bus and the next one is not coming in until 5:35, that’s a long time. Then you might have to catch a train and another bus. To be honest with you, we are going to have to go back to the root of what we really want this system to do. If you want to draw more people in, you have to show them – look, we have more buses out here now. It’s a wonderful system, but just going in four directions on the train, it’s not going to get it. I believe if you work at MARTA headquarters you don’t need to drive to headquarters; I believe you need to take the train and get off at Lindbergh.

How do you feel about operating in the protective enclosures that are sometimes suggested for driver safety?

Watkins: We tried that (enclosure) with some plexi-glas and I really don’t think that it invites a friendly environment, to close myself off from the very people I’m there to provide a personal service for. Some people, they may not have been spoken to that entire day, and so for them to step on the bus and for you to say “good morning,” “good afternoon,” “good evening” to them, that may make or break their day. In a lot of ways I feel like I control my own environment. I greet everyone that comes on the bus. A lot of times that defuses what could be a volatile or hostile situation, just by speaking to people.

Majette: As far as the shield (enclosure) is concerned, personally I disagree (with using it). Sometimes I think it draws attention to some people, depending on the clientele you’re dealing with. They’re going to try to find a way….to stir up a problem. On the other hand, it’s a safe mechanism to have due to some areas you’re in. You have to look at that, too. I’m always attentive on my route; I don’t get relaxed. You always have an irate customer somewhere that’s unhappy about something. Personally, for me, no. For the whole system? It’s a good thing.

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