Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Interview with Jairo Naranjo, CTA bus driver
by John Greenfield
Jairo Naranjo’s piloted CTA buses for a decade, currently driving the #80 Irving Park Express from Harlem Avenue to the lake. He recently won first place in the Customer Service Challenge at the international Bus Roadeo and he’s got tips for how to become a black belt in using the CTA effectively.
What does customer service mean to you?
Respect. Dealing with the general public you’re getting different attitudes at all times. Some people are not going to be nice and some of them are going to be really nice. It means keeping a clear mind and making sure you’re always smiling, always saying hello. The minute I open my doors, the first thing I do is acknowledge my customers. It’s like, “Welcome aboard to my bus.”
We as operators get a bad rap for being mean. We’re not mean. We enjoy what we do. Traffic can make things a little hectic for us some times and safety is always our first priority but we always try to acknowledge the customer as a person.
What do you do if someone tries to get on without paying, like sneaking in through the back door?
First stop that passenger and let them know the entrance is through the front door. Then you request the fare. We’re required to ask for payment three times. If they still refuse to pay, our procedure is to notify our control center and go from there. They might call the police to the scene, or they just might let it go.
It can get kind of scary sometimes because customers can get irate and out of hand. You want to request the fare but you want to do it kindly and not just demand it. You don’t want to say, “Hey! You need to come over here and pay your fare.” You need to say, “Sir or ma’am, the fare’s $2.25.” If you treat ‘em with respect you’re going to get the respect right back.
What are some of the highlights of the Irving Park route?
What I like best about Irving Park is it’s a double-lane street so the traffic moves very well. If there’s a little bit of congestion you can kind of get out of it. Not at all times – when you get Cubs traffic you’re pretty much stuck.
Do you ever get rowdy or drunk Cubs fans on your bus?
You can get rowdy people on your bus some times and it’s your job as the driver to try to maintain control. But we’re good at maintaining control of our buses – we have a little bit of an edge at crowd control. After ten years as a bus driver you can identify the people who are going to get on and be a little rowdy, and there’s ways of handling it.
What’s the best way to become a more effective CTA customer?
The best new tool is the bus tracker, which you can get through the CTA website. It’s the most efficient way to get from point A to point B. For us, as operators, we appreciate it when people have their fares ready when they board the bus – it makes things run more efficiently. The Chicago Card Plus is a quick way to pay - you can have it linked up to your credit card so it’s easy to keep it loaded.”
Do you ever have problems with customers talking your ear off when you’re trying to drive the bus?
There’s nothing wrong with having a small conversation with a bus driver. But you have to remember that safety’s our biggest concern. If you’re talking to an operator you’re distracting them. So, for instance if you want to ask the driver a question, it’s a good idea to wait until the bus is stopped at a light.
Do you have any interesting characters who ride your bus?
I get this one customer all the time. He’s an elderly gentleman named Stanley. He’s always talking and he’s always complaining about his meals and his nursing home, stuff like that. But he knows my name and he’s always a friendly face. Every time I see him I start to chuckle cause I already know he’s gonna talk my ear off to the end of the line.
Where’s he going on the bus?
I always pick him up at Kimball and he gets off at Clark at that nursing home near Graceland Cemetery. He takes his meals over at Kimball. It’s the weirdest thing – he always catches my bus, no matter what my schedule is. It’s like he knows my schedule – he’ll be there at that certain time.
Driving a route for so many years, these passengers get to know you on a first-name basis and I know a lot of my customers’ names as well. It becomes a relationship. It’s a good thing because if you get to a stop and that person’s not there you kind of look to the side and they might be running for the bus. You stop and wait for them and they appreciate that common courtesy.
So if you become a regular on a CTA bus the driver may pick up on your habits. The driver can’t delay the bus or make unofficial stops, but they can nudge the timing a little bit to make sure regulars don’t miss the bus?
Sure, any time we see anybody running for the bus we try to accommodate them. We don’t want anybody to miss the bus and be late for work. There are times we might not see someone and we might drive away, and that might be reported as a “pass-up” [deliberately not picking up a passenger]. But that’s not a pass-up. We’re not doing that intentionally. If we see them we’ll go out of our way to accommodate them.
I’ve been told there’s a poster up in the break rooms for CTA drivers that helps educate them about how to drive safely around bicyclists. On the other side of the coin, do you have any tips for bicyclists about how they can avoid conflicts with buses?
I did a video for the Chicago Department of Transportation called “Share the Road,” teaching bus drivers and cyclists how to operate safely around each other. We don’t mind sharing the road but what bicyclists have to realize is a bus is a big vehicle and it’s hard for us to stop it at times. When they’re dodging in front of us and breaking the rule of the road it doesn’t make things any easier on anyone.
I don’t know if you noticed this but we operators tend to pump our brakes – you ever hear that “hiss hiss” sound? – to notify you that we’re coming. It’s hard for you as bicyclists to hear if we’re coming since our newer buses are pretty quiet and some of you ride with earphones on.
Sometimes you get “leapfrogging” where a bus will pull up to a stop, a cyclist will pass them, and then the bus will pass the cyclist again. Is there a strategy you have to keep from trapping cyclists between the bus and the curb?
As a bicyclist you don’t want to get trapped in that triangle. The best thing to do is stay behind the back bumper and wait ‘til the bus makes his move. Sometimes it’s hard for us to see bicyclists behind us in our mirrors, especially on our right-hand side.
We try our hardest not to cause injury to anybody. Believe me, we don’t want that type of stuff in our head or on our records. It’s not a nice thing to live with.