Piloting a land yacht no easy task

Even a magic bus couldn't have saved the BC Transit obstacle course from my ham hands.

As an exercise in appreciation for bus drivers everywhere, the provincial transit authority set up a small forest of cones at a big, open parking lot in Prince George so local media and other public stakeholders could try out these land yachts. It looked like an orange clear-cut at times. We neophytes made sure there were few florescent survivors.

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"That pylon came out of nowhere, officer, I swear," said Cougars trainer/equipment manager Chico Dhanjal in mock shock after he climbed out of the bus after his turn through the obstacle course. "Ralphie can stay in the driver's seat, I'll sit way back here," he added, throwing respect to Cougars regular bus driver Ralph Posteraro. (Some verbal salutes were given to the local pros who routinely get our city's athletes from A to B, like Posteraro, Don Witala, Zeke Fillion, Bobby Huard, etc.)

Prince George Transit spokesman Rob Ringma was on hand from Victoria head office to explain how local buses have been supporting the city safely for four decades now. It's a partnership with the City of Prince George, Pacific Western Transportation, and the riders themselves.

"It started in Prince George in November of 1978 when a one-zone fare was just 35 cents," he said. I asked him if we could go back to that price as a 40th anniversary present to the city. Crickets.

But he did add that "Prince George now has 16 routes, 27 buses in the fleet, and they transport 1.9 million passengers per year. That's an amazing story of transit success for this city."

"More and more communities are asking us to come do this bus roadeo (yes, that's a deliberate play on words invented by BC Transit)," said BC Transit supervisor of safety Kevin Rowe. "It's growing in demand, because there's a recognition that what transit operators do is a pretty special thing, a lot of important skills. People often take a bus system for granted without thinking about all that the operators have to do for people's safety."

We non-drivers getting to take the wheel was to showcase the men and women who drive these street ships. Challenge one for raw rookies like us was sitting in the pilot's seat positioned ahead of the front tires. Never has being ahead put me so far behind.

Challenge two was one tire per side in the front but dualies on the back.

Challenge three was the distance between steering wheel and rear tires.

Challenge four was taking to heart the term "tail-swing" which essentially means if you turn a bus to the right, the rear end will sweep out to the left (and vice versa) like a hip-check from hell.

Challenge five was a bike rack sticking out in front of the bumper.

There are many more challenges for actual transit operators, but we only had to make a couple of turns each way, slip through some tight spaces and come to a few controlled stops.

"OK, this whole thing is Vegas rules, right? Can we establish that now? What happens on the bus course stays on the bus course?," said Tristan Deveau, one of the City of Prince George employees who got to take a shot at it.

No such luck. Everyone's results were seen by all and spread across every possible social and traditional media platform. No one was terrible. Some people were surprisingly skilled. I was in the middle of those two extremes, when all the blood was dry and bones were set.

"I think everyone who tries this out will walk away with a new appreciation for what our operators do each and every day," said Ringma.

Furthermore, said my onboard trainer Andrew White (Ian Rowden was another of our brave guides), who supervised my every move as I lurched and lunged around the lot, "every driver has to be just as mentally sharp at hour six, hour seven of the shift as they are at minute one. There's never any room for error or things get damaged and people's lives are impacted forever. They are amazing people, when you think about it that way, eh?"

Indeed. I managed to knock over a few initial pylons when I misunderstood one of the turning instructions, then I clipped one of the eight tennis balls I had to guide three tires cleanly past. If you've seen me play tennis, despite the best instructions of my only coach Andrew Furmanczyk, I only clip about one out of eight balls on the court as well. So that's par for me. Win.

"Your mirrors are your best friends," said White, which was only true in the driving sense. The mirror has never particularly been a friend of mine. But they sure did save a lot of hypothetical lives as I negotiated the faux roads of this parking lot town. If I had 12 eyes and an owl-rotation neck, I still wouldn't likely get through cleanly.

But there were times when I did manage to get through one or two of the trials without crushing a cone. That felt good. Just revving the whale on wheels up to speed and easing the brakes back down to a stop felt good. Driving a bus has some thrill-factor. And that was without kids chattering in the background, elders trying to brace themselves for corners, nuisance passengers making mischief, foreign riders trying to get directions in another language, and all the other vehicles on the road and pedestrians on the corner (remember that tail-swing effect?) all conspiring for potential disaster.

The men and women who drive Prince George's buses are having their own roadeo this weekend, along with family celebrations. They deserve the applause and the fun. After feeling just a little of what they contend with, I think they're worth millions even if I still want the fare to be just 35 cents, a penny for every foot of that bus's length. If I were the one driving, that pittance would still be overpayment for anyone unlucky enough to be stuck on board.

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