There have been a number of recent and ongoing developments that limit the amount of customer service a Metro driver is able to offer. First it was the introduction of the low-floor coach, insisted upon by the ADA, which puts the customer seating further away from the driver. The front right wheel of the bus is in the way, and although low-floor vehicles in other countries put seats on top of the wheelwell, that is just not done here, perhaps because of safety standards.
For many reasons, the low-floor coach is a great idea, most obviously because disabled customers can use the bus considerably faster and with less hassle. People can get on and off the bus more quickly. There are pros and cons to everything, of course; there are also the negatives of less seats, higher possibility of passenger injuries during an accident (because the passengers are now at ground-level, alongside the cars), and so on. And sometimes, to be honest, it's nice to have the chat seat a little further back, such as when you have a stalker or someone who talks loudly about knitting.
For me, the big con is not getting to talk to people. You just don't have as much interaction when you're driving a low-floor. Why is that? Firstly, there's the aspect that the "chat seat" is now ten feet away from you, rather than an arms-length. There are certain conversations you just can't have when you're yelling (ever tried talking philosophy at a loud bar?). You also can't casually ask someone how there day is when you have to turn all the away around to see them. It's awkward and unnecessary.
There's also the "driver in the throne" aspect. On a low floor, the driver's way up there somewhere, in the high heavens, busy sitting on his throne. He's elevated. He's above you, remote and untouchable. In life, you generally don't talk to people on untouchable thrones. Compare that to a high-floor coach, where the chat seat is right there, the driver is right next you, and the two of you are sitting at the same level. Just a couple of guys sitting next to each other, taking up space. Often on the 3/4 the front of the bus- the driver and the passengers lounging around in the front area- will get into conversation together, and there's something intensely rejuvenating about that for me. It's fairly specific to that route, and it's great. A temporary living room of strangers, people who'd never otherwise talk to each other, laughing in each others' soft glow.
Is the bus driver supposed to be a bartender, having animated conversations while running over telephone poles and small children all over the city? No. I don't mean to suggest that. I hear it's frowned upon. But I will say that if I couldn't talk to the people, I wouldn't have too much interest in keeping the gig.
A couple years ago Metro tested The Shield- a plate of bulletproof glass separating the driver from the passengers. Some other cities use it. A test bus (#4186) was outfitted with it for a couple of months, and drivers gave feedback. The Shield was met with such overwhelming resistance on the part of drivers that it was abandoned altogether. Thank goodness. "It'd be great if I hated the people," grumbled one operator. "But I don't. This job lets me do the last two of the three things I love most in life: make love to beautiful women, drive, and bullshit with people!"
As for myself, I actually dismantled the shield and removed it from sight whenever I got that test coach. I couldn't stand the thing. Aside from the fact that it's actually not safe (driver is trapped; shield creates glare that interferes with driving visibility; glass doesn't discourage assaults so much as change how people assault drivers- out with punches, in with pouring hot coffee over the top of the glass), think about the message the shield sends to passengers.
You're getting on the bus. You notice that the driver is encased in a gigantic bulletproof cocoon. What does that tell you about your safety? He may as well be holding up a sign that says, "I'm not going to get shot in here, but you might!" Not necessary. In my opinion, stellar customer service is a much more powerful tool than the shield. If they can get by without shields in South Central LA, where I used to ride the 210 up and down Crenshaw Boulevard, we don't need them here. I was proud and thrilled at the Metro driver populace's response to the idea. I don't want to have to look for another job!
The other element that threatened to eliminate customer service opportunities was OBS- the automated stop announcement system. I spent years worrying about this, but it ended up being a non-issue. You, the driver, can still make your own announcements and be there with the people. Walter does it. Nancy does it. I learn from these guys. Thankfully, I've discovered most passengers prefer this to hearing "Kate" (the robot voice actually has a designated name) go on and on about Orca Card Vending Machines. I know I definitely get tired of hearing her blather on. It is enjoyable, however, to hear her completely mangle the names of certain streets (Okanagan Lane, Pend Oreille Road). She does her best, that poor girl.
I was at North in the bullpen talking with Report Operator Dennis, who's been around since the dinosaurs and still has a good attitude, and he had something interesting to say about it all: people don't change. Despite all this technology, or different seat configurations or automated systems, all this new stuff, there will always be people who talk to each other. We might complain about people zoning out because of their iPods and smartphones- but aren't those the same folks who in earlier times just stared into space? "There's always gonna be the guy who wants to tell you how it is; the guy who wants to marry you; the guy who's having the worst day of his life..." he went on naming the classic archetypes.
I actually find this comforting. There's a constancy to the human condition that exists underneath all the shifting surfaces. The thing that stood out to me in my visits to Asian countries is that beneath the vast cultural and attitudinal differences, you still saw everyone happy, angry, spoiled, kind, greedy, selfish, loving, bored, or stressed: they were all simply people, like ourselves. In the realm of universals, cultural differences are not so significant.* It ultimately doesn't matter if there's a wheelwell at the front of the bus, or an automated grocery checkout. If you want to talk to people, you'll always be able to.
It's not as easy as it used to be, but people are still human, with that ever-reaching need to make contact, to know and be known. I'm thrilled when someone is bold enough to come up and stand by the wheelwell and chat it up. I had the 73 early one morning, low-floor, with OBS, and that didn't stop an enterprising young homeless man coming all the way up from the back to talk. He was coming from Texas, on his way to Alaska (the 73 only goes so far north; I did the best I could). We had a great conversation. Later that morning a young lady introduced herself and we had a gem of an interaction. Such days are not over.
*Read Irshad Manji's book Allah, Liberty, and Love for more on this. She argues that cultures do not necessarily deserve respect; humans, however, do. The most obvious example is when a culture actively encourages the disrespect of certain humans (like women, for instance).