The Most Stressful Job on the Planet?
For bus drivers, streets are crowded. Passengers are cranky. And there's always the chance you might get punched.
Also see a Magnum Photos gallery of bus drivers.
Last month, in a grossly egregious case of backseat driving, a woman was arrested after she attacked a New York City bus driver for, as she claimed, "driving too slow." It's hardly the first time a passenger has taken out their frustration with Gotham's traffic on the driver; indeed, a December 2008 MTA study found nearly 60 physical assaults that year, not to mention dozens of cases of being spat on—and heaps of verbal abuse.
It's not just New York: Research in the United Kingdom has found that bus drivers report fear of physical assault as their job's biggest stressor. With good reason: In 1993, for example, more than 1,500 assaults were reported. A 2000 survey found that British transport workers had the highest fear of assault of any occupation, with an actual risk more than four times that of any other job.
That's hardly the end of bus drivers' concerns. Spending hours driving in congested traffic, subject to time pressures (and passenger complaints) made worse by that same traffic, is a potent stress cocktail. Drivers face many external pressures but often have relatively little control over their environment, a combination that makes bus driving, as The Journal of Occupational Health Psychologywrites, "a classic example of a high-stress occupation." One Dutch psychologist, noting the competing demands for staying on schedule, driving safely, and accommodating passengers (for whom the ideal bus journey has been wonderfully classified as "pleasurable without being ecstatic"), has described a kind of Sartrean dilemma: Make the schedule by driving more recklessly, or drive safely and irritate the passengers. "Whichever alternative the driver adopts, he or she will constantly have a conscious or subconscious feeling of inadequacy."
This mental toll, combined with the physical rigors of driving itself, leaves bus drivers suffering from elevated levels of blood pressure, adrenaline and salivary cortisol (as do most people with an unpredictable commute), and hypertension. As Cornell University's Gary Evans, who has conducted many studies on the occupational health of bus drivers, notes, "over twenty epidemiological studies of city bus drivers reveal excess rates of mortality and morbidity for heart disease and gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal disorders." Add to that any injuries sustained in crashes—roughly half of which, research has found, involve the bus being struck from behind (by confused or impatient drivers). Perhaps understandably, bus drivers take more sick leave than people in other occupations (and two to three times the population average, by one finding).
Given this litany of challenges and poor outcomes, I was curious to talk with an actual driver and find out: Is it really all that bad? I was also curious to see how bus drivers—for whom the road is a workplace—view the wider world of traffic. That's when fate waded into my Twitter stream, in the form of Matt Leber, otherwise known as Velobusdriver, who describes himself as a "former techie turned Metro bus driver, bike commuter, and renewable energy enthusiast." Leber, who spent a decade working for Microsoft, among other things, is a part-time driver for King County Metro Transit (serving Seattle and environs). As his Twitter handle indicates, he's also a cycling enthusiast. I figured the rather unusual cyclist/bus driver/car driver combo would give him special insight into intra-modal relations.
Leber, a bus commuter when he worked at Microsoft, says a longtime curiosity about bus driving, as well as knowing a Metro driver at his church, led him to respond in 2005 to an ad for part-time drivers. "I've enjoyed bus driving," he says, "because it offers a lot of variety of work assignments, areas to drive in, and people to interact with." He currently works afternoons—three-and-a-half hours a day. This, plus the fact that he works in Seattle, a region known for its friendly drivers, might not make him Everydriver—his job may be less stressful than that of a full-time New York City driver. But his stories reflect in certain ways the research that's been done on bus drivers in other cities and illuminate small truths that have not been studied.
On time and traffic pressure, for example, Leber says that while Metro is "constantly urging us to be safe and not rush for time," and that his employer applies "absolutely no pressure" for drivers to meet schedules, there are nonetheless pressures to stay punctual. "Passengers can be grumpy, or you may arrive late to a layover"—that pause between the driver reaching the end of line and restarting the route—"putting buses out of sequence," he says. "I've had to circle the block when another bus was in my layover spot." And there are physical ailments brought on by extended driving. (Conversations with fellow drivers, he says, reveal a litany of knee replacements and back troubles.) Leber notes, however, that things are looking up on this front; Metro provides physical therapy in its health benefits (yoga classes were cut for budgetary reasons), and newer buses are more ergonomically forgiving. "I hear stories from drivers who have been around 20 or 30 years about driving the old buses and what they would do to your body."
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.