PoP Ed. – DC Circulator Drivers Behaving Badly By Jenn Bussell

Photo by PoPville flickr user fromcaliw/love

Jenn lives in SE DC in the Capitol Riverfront area. PoP-Ed. posts may be submitted via email to princeofpetworth(at)gmail please include PoP-Ed. in the subject line.

If you’ve lived in or traveled to Washington DC at some point since 2005, you have most likely seen or hopped a ride on a bright red DC Circulator bus.

Having lived on and off in DC circa 1991, I quickly became a Circulator Super Fan when I returned to the District in 2008…the Georgetown and Columbia Heights/14th Street routes becoming my de facto daily transit. When I moved to the still-in-progress Capitol Riverfront/Navy Yard area in 2009, I was ecstatic that the Circulator had made its way here as well.

Fast forward to today and the honeymoon is definitely over, a separation in place, and a potential divorce on the horizon. What went wrong, you ask?

For starters, the friendly and very customer service-oriented drivers on the Navy Yard route are being replaced by rude, entitled, belligerent bullies in uniform. Over the last few months month I’ve personally experienced the following DC Circulator Drivers Behaving Badly scenarios.

In June a DC Circulator bus driver pulled our bus over at the Navy Yard Metro station stop (northside of M Street SE) and walked off the bus with riders still on it so she could chat up her two friends who happened to be walking by.

Then in July another DC Circulator bus driver on this exact same route pulled our bus over at the same Navy Yard Metro stop and exited the bus with riders still on board so she could make a cell phone call.

What’s the problem you ask? Well, the last stop on this route is at First and K Streets SE – not Navy Yard Metro – and many Circulator customers who live north of M Street SE ride it to the end of the line. I’m pretty sure these drivers are aware of the end of their driving route. In these particular cases the Circulator drivers in question actually acknowledged passengers still on board their buses, but then made a conscious decision to abandon their buses and strand riders – though only for five minutes or so – while they took care of their personal business. My words to the driver in June were along the lines of, “Hi, excuse me. There is still one more stop around the corner on First.”

She looked at me and said, “Yeah, I’ll be right back.”

But, alas. It gets better.

This past Saturday I was out walking my leashed dog eastbound on M Street SE. As we were passing by the new Gordon Biersch restaurant, saying hello to an employee who had come outside with a large paper bag of take-out food, a DC Circulator bus pulled up along side of us. The bus driver parked her bus in a clearly-marked ‘no parking’ zone, exited her bus, and headed over to the GB patio to collect what was apparently her bag of take-out. Even though my dog and I were about three to five feet down M Street at this point, this driver started screaming at us at the top of her lungs, “Hey that’s my food. Get away from my food! Get your dog away from my food! I paid for that food! Get your damn dog outta here!” Her tirade went on for a good two to three minutes.

I was completely taken aback and yelled back that she please stop and that my dog didn’t touch her food. My response only fueled her unwarranted rage. She continued to berate me for the sole reason that I and my dog were walking on a public city sidewalk in her general vicinity and that apparently did not please her.

Having the where with all to seek out a supervisor always parked on K Street SE I hustled myself over there to complain about this insane encounter. And there she was, the badly behaving driver, who saw me and starting coming after me, screaming and waving one arm in the air, the other hand firmly gripping her Gordon Biersch lunch. Her supervisor had to intervene and repeatedly gesture for her to get back. Walking away, the driver continued screaming and pointing at me. Her professionalism and commitment to espousing her employer’s “core values of safety and customer service are at the heart of everything we do” [http://www.firsttransit.com/About-Us] were truly heartwarming.

The supervisor, also with Gordon Biersch take-out in hand (guess that pit stop was as much for her as it was for the driver), asked me if I wanted to file a report (to which I gave a resounding “YES!”), and then she produced from the trunk of her car a nearly plain piece of paper with the words “First Transit” printed across the top.

I headed home, stopping two DC Metro police officers in my neighborhood to inquire about the feasibility of filing an incident report, then returned about an hour and a half later to hand over the detailed complaint form to the DC Circulator supervisor still camped out on K Street SE. The kicker to this already delightful day was what the supervisor said next: “Maybe she [the driver] reacted the way she did because of the size of your dog. Maybe she just doesn’t like dogs.”

She went on to say the driver told her she never left her bus and that the Gordon Biersch employee delivered the food to her [on the bus]. Hmmm…if she never left the bus, why the four-letter-word-littered outburst on the sidewalk?

That’s right, DC Circulator, blame the victim. I must have been asking for it. I must have have done something to compel this driver to call in a take-out order using a fake name (confirmed by Gordon Biersch), then park her bus and leave it like it was her own personal vehicle, and saunter across a public sidewalk to a dog-friendly establishment to pick up her parcel. Clearly, according to this DC public transportation employee’s supervisor, I did something wrong to justify such abhorrent behavior. I obviously chose the wrong size dog.

Monday morning, still reeling from this experience, I headed out with my first dog walking client of the day, a happy-go-lucky 10-lb Miniature Australian Shepherd. Tiny is a good way to describe her. On our walk we encountered another DC Circulator driver chatting up her supervisor about 200 feet away from where her bus was parked. This driver panicked when we crossed the street in her general vicinity. “I don’t like dogs. I’m afraid of dogs,” she commented as she took steps backwards. I asked her if she’d be more comfortable I picked up and carried the dog. Her response? “Yes.”

These last two incidents make me wonder what would happen if someone with a disability and a service dog attempted to board a DC Circulator bus with a fear-aggressive bus driver. Well, that’s a story for another day.

So it seems that if you ride a DC Circulator bus, you should allocate a bit more travel time as there’s a decent chance you will be left stranded for a few minutes while your driver takes a cigarette break, or makes their evening plans, or grabs a grande iced mocha from Starbucks. And if you’re a pedestrian – God forbid with a dog – who happens to cross paths with a dog-fearing DC Circulator driver on a city sidewalk, best you run as apparently you have no right to be there.

As I continue to pursue these issues directly with WMATA, DDOT, and First Transit (the company hired to run DC Circulator and from whom I have yet to receive a response about last Saturday’s incident), I’m left pondering, “What’s the lesson in all this?”

And then it came to me.

This is what you get for a dollar.

50 Comment

  • For what it’s worth, I take the Navy Yard-Union Station Circulator often and have never experienced anything but excellent customer service. I’m pretty sure the Navy Yard metro is a designated stop where the driver is allowed to get out and take a short break, with a couple minutes built into the schedule for this purpose.

  • I also take this route often as I work at the USDOT building across the street from the Navy Yard metro. I also thought that the Navy Yard stop was the final stop on the Circulator route, but I know they often wait around the corner for the next route to start – so maybe that is where the OP is referring to. I will say that I have often experienced drivers changing shifts mid-route, usually by the Eastern Market metro. This can take up to 15 minutes, as the new driver must complete their inspection of the bus before continuing to drive the route. While I want them to be safe, since the entire route doesn’t take much more than 15 minutes, it can be quite frustrating to sit and wait for this ritual.

  • That’s a pretty hilarious mental image if you think about it. In any case I’ve been using the Circulator for years and can’t recall a single problem with any of the drivers.

  • None of this surprises me. I’ve had similar experiences on the metro buses and First Transit hires from the same candidate pool.

  • I don’t dispute the OP’s account of her experiences, but as to the conclusion of the op-ed, I’m not sure there’s any real correlation between the $1 fare and the customer service (or lack thereof) of Circulator drivers. I’ve been on the Union-Georgetown and the Woodley-McPherson routes a number of times, and never experienced any problem drivers. Metrobus fare is higher, but there are plenty of complaints about its drivers (again, I’ve never had a terrible Metrobus driver, but I’ve heard from others who did). There could be a connection between driver wages and the quality of drivers the Circulator is able to attract–but honestly, I suspect that even if First Transit charged higher fares, the vast majority of that money would go toward profit and not toward higher wages.

  • At least none of their drivers have assaulted MacRuff. Yet.

  • I keep picturing this as a Chappelle’s Show “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong” sketch.

  • I used to be a huge fan of the Circulator. However, over the past two years I have noticed a significant decrease in quality of drivers and the service in general. The buses often run 20-30 minutes late on the McPherson/Woodley Park line. I have had drivers delay the bus so that they can continue conversations, either on cell or in person. I have had drivers forget to stop (hard when there are so few). I have filed complaints but figure the WMATA driver pool is now the Circulator’s pool so I expect it only to get worse.

  • I, too, was an early Circulator fan, and I’ve used the 14th Street/Woodley Park line almost daily. While I would say most of the time things are fine, I experience rude or alarming driver behavior at least a few times a month, and it certainly feels like drivers aren’t as courteous as they once were.

    As riders, the best course of action is to note our experiences and write DDOT so they’re aware of the situation (that goes for positive feedback, as well). I try to give the drivers some slack, as I imagine that it can be a stressful job, but they still should not take out aggression on passengers.

    Recent incidents I’ve experienced:
    -Circulator on 14th street weaving in and out of the bike lane.
    -Circulator on 14th forgot to stop at P Street, finally stopped at N Street after several riders had to yell to please stop.
    -Circulator driver yelled at me for several minutes when I entered the bus and realized my SmartTrip was empty and I had no cash and the bus had already started moving (honest mistake, and yes my fault). I apologized and offered to get off the bus at the next light, but the driver just continued to yell at me all the way to the next stop. Thankfully I won’t have that problem again with the advent of the auto-loading SmartTrip option!

  • Is it that wrong for someone with a dog phobia to be employed in a job where she rarely has to deal with dogs? I’d be concerned if she had a fear of driving, but not dogs.

  • I’ve been using the Woodley-McPherson one for a while and agree it has gotten worse. The drivers are always late leaving 14th and I because they are standing outside talking to other drivers. For some reason there is a 20 minute gap in buses from 5:15-5:35 even though a bus is at the 14th and I stop. It will just sit there until 5:35 before leaving, which then means it is filled to the brim by the time it gets to 14th and K.

  • This is a long and rambling complaint, I couldn’t finish reading it. If you want people to take you seriously, be concise! I get the point, but I wouldn’t be so quick to judge bus drivers when you haven’t been one yourself. I was for a couple years and it is a miserable job. I’m not condoning the behavior described here, but this letter comes off as demanding and entitled.

    • You should work on your goldfish-esque attention span. I, for one, think this is a really well thought out piece.

  • Hi Eastern Market. While that would seen logical with this being called the Navy Yard route, that Metro stop is not the final stop on the route and the bus operators are not allowed to take breaks there, as confirmed with WMATA. They need to turn right on First St, and park in that last stop and wait until the next bus rounds the corner.

    I also confirmed with DC Circulator supervisors and WMATA that no DC Metro or Circulator bus operator can park and leave their bus with passengers on it unless it is an emergency and they clearly state the emergency situation to the people on board.

  • @bmoredc – Thanks for commenting. My closing statement was 100% sarcastic, as was my comment about the driver espousing her employer’s core values of customer service which clearly she was not.

    I am very thankful we have a clean, modern, low-fare, and usually high quality public transit option in DC. The point if this piece is to highlight bad behavior by city workers.

  • @Anonymous August 6, 2013 at 3:40 pm – I apologize that I could not squeeze three month’s worth of experience and research into 140 characters. I’ll definitely work on that.

  • Yes but I think they park at the metro instead of First Street because they’re not blocking traffic as much there.

  • I’ve largely given up riding this route to Union Station. The posted times on WMATA and teh DC Circulator app are a total joke. Sometimes 3 buses will come in rapid succession and then none for 1/2 hour. It’s useless because it’s incompetantly run.

  • @ Anonymous August 6, 2013 at 3:31 pm – You are correct that these drivers’ reserve the right fear dogs, cats, birds, spiders, etc. and if I ever try to board a DC Circulator bus with one of these in tow, I would understand the reaction. My point is that they are not entitled to go ballistic on passers-by on public sidewalks especially when they chose to leave their bus to grab a snack. If she hadn’t pulled over and parked illegally and left her bus while on duty, the point I am attempting to make – and this article – would be moot.

  • @AnonymousAugust 6, 2013 at 3:59 pm Actually, there is significant traffic (cars, buses, cabs, cyclists) along M Street SE at the Navy Yard Metro stop, especially during rush hour. The end of the route (planned, approved, and managed by DC Circulator and WMATA) is on First Street SE between L and K Streets SE, a fairly quiet street with a designated ‘holding area’ for Circulator buses that doesn’t impede with any auto or cycle traffic. It’s a rather smart design.

  • @Anonymous 3:40: I thought quite the opposite. It was a well written editorial and it made me laugh. I did read any demands in the letter. Expecting *decent* customer service isn’t a demand.

  • @Anonymous August 6, 2013 at 4:02 pm – My research has yielded interesting scoop about your bad experiences with the accuracy of DC Circulator app & its GPS system.

  • I meant that First Street is much narrower compared to M. A big bus impedes the flow of traffic there, but not so much if it’s parked along M because that street is so wide. You don’t have to explain the geography of the area to me; I’ve lived and worked here since before the Circulator existed.

  • @Anonymous August 6, 2013 at 4:09 pm – Thanks for your comment. I’m glad I made you laugh!

  • @Anonymous August 6, 2013 at 3:19 pm – Love Chappelle’s Show! I’m pretty sure that’s how the GB guests on the patio saw it. I bet I would to if watching from distance. Maybe we could get ‘Rick James’ to play the role of the Circulator bus driver. Charlie Murphy would play the role of me, of course.

  • I usually just walk to wherever I need to go on the Union Station/Navy Yard route. I’ve found the Circulators to be reliable enough, but Capitol Hill is such a lovely area to walk though and it’s not a huge distance either.

  • “I am very thankful we have a clean, modern, low-fare, and usually high quality public transit option in DC. The point if this piece is to highlight bad behavior by city workers.”

    Hi, Jenn B – Just a correction, these are not city workers. This is a private company that has a contract with the city. I may be arguing semantics here but public employees get enough crap everywhere and in this case, it’s not them.

  • @ Anonymous August 6, 2013 at 4:12 pm Since you live and work close by, perhaps you should take a stroll down First Street SE where you’ll see they’ve widened it, made it four lanes (just like M Street SE), added a proper bicycle lane, and added the extra room for bus parking. The city has really done a nice job. I’ve provided a link to Google Maps for reference: http://tinyurl.com/mtb8jfw

  • I’ve been kicked off the bus because I was waiting on the step for a woman to fumble for her card. The driver was upset that I was “crowding” the woman and that I should wait politely on the curb for her to finish digging around her enormous bag.

  • @ Colhi August 6, 2013 at 4:20 pm – Thanks for your comment. You are correct that the technical employer of DC Ciculator operators and supervisors is First Transit in Cincinnati, OH. I was not intending to slight DC city workers in any way. However, since DDOT and WMATA contract this particular component of DC’s public transportation system yet remain responsible for overseeing the day-to-day management of the Customer Service channels for the entire system (Circulator, MetroBus, MetroRail), they themselves bundle and refer to these folks as city transportation workers. To complicate matters even further, DC Circulator operators and supervisors belong to a different union than the rest of DC’s public transportation operators and supervisors, making any issue that much more challenging to remedy.

  • @bmoredc – No worries! Sarcasm never seems to translate well digitally : )

  • For any readers who want to file a complaint about a Circulator bus experience, or want to praise amazing service on a Circulator bus, the following is the process prescribed by WMATA Customer Service and me:

    1) Get the bus number. They won’t investigate any issue without it. (I learned this the hard way : )

    2) If possible, get the diver’s name. Depending on the scenario at hand he/she may be reluctant to give it to you.

    3) Immediately call (202) 962-1423 (DC Circulator Customer Service managed by Metro/WMATA).

    4) If the matter is life-threatening or needs immediate resolution you can call the DC Circulator dispatch office directly at (202) 567-3040. They are the ones who live-track every bus, driver, and route supervisor (use with discretion).

    5) Find a route supervisor and ask to fill out an incident report. You’ll need to add your contact info as apparently First Transit doesn’t think this information is pertinent and intentionally left these fields off the form.

    6) Be diligent in your follow up. My personal experience has been WMATA and DDOT are very helpful and responsive.

  • @ ebgb August 6, 2013 at 4:32 pm – Thanks for your comment. Glad you found my opinion piece well-written!

  • All my experiences with the Circulator have been good ones. I just wish they extended the Union Station line up Maryland Avenue! They head that way to get back to their bus depot anyway, no?

  • Perhaps it’s recently changed? The Circulator website lists the stop at M & New Jersey as the beginning/end of the route and that’s always been my experience when riding this line, as well.

  • Seriously.

  • Enough already.

  • The Woodley Park/14th St. buses consistently run the red light at 18th and Columbia when they are turning left. I know it’s a bear to make that turn, but when you run that light you are driving right into pedestrians.

  • Well that story certainly took the long way around the block.

  • I live at 909 Capitol Yards. The last stop for the Navy Yard Circulator is catty-corner from my building. In fact I can see it from my window. I have had only two bad experiences with Circulator drivers- the same driver. A couple of months ago, he stopped at the Navy Yard Metro and announced that it was the last stop. Those of us going to the last stop protested as none of us had ever heard that before. He persisted and some passengers got off. I had groceries and wasn’t in the mood. Finally, the driver in the bus behind him came up to see why we were still there. He warned the driver that he would get a complaint; after a few minutes, the driver took us to the last stop. I never filed a complaint, but was tempted. Fast forward to a couple of Saturdays ago. I took the bus to go to the Sweetgreens on Pennsylvania. I got on right outside my building, not at the Navy Yard. I waited while the bus was inspected and the drivers changed. This driver got on, taking over the route. I got off on Pennsylvania and got my salad. I caught the bus back. Ironically, it was his bus. I sat in the back, in view of the driver. Instead of going down M street past the Navy Yard Metro, he turns before that and makes a loop past Canal Park and up New Jersey Ave. I thought something must have happened and he had to take an alternate route. When he turned left back unto M street and headed in the other direction, I got up and asked what was up. He said that his shift was over and that he didn’t know I was on the bus. I didn’t make a scene. I got off at the next stop and walked right over the supervisor’s car parked outside my building. I asked whether drivers were supposed to come to the last stop. She remembered me because she was inspecting the bus when I first got on and waited. She said, yes the drivers are always supposed to come to that last stop. I reported what had just happened. I told her that I wouldn’t have said anything, but this was the second incident with this same driver. She said she would talk to him. I don’t know whether she did. I haven’t been on the bus since.

  • Actually, you seem demanding. The interesting part about the piece was the storytelling. Otherwise, who cares? “Busdrivers yell.” There you go.

  • You sound insane. Your rant is unreadable. Just stop.

  • I subjected myself to the whole thing and had the same reaction. I, for one, think you may share the author’s sense of entitlement. You should work on that.

  • To EBGB above.

  • This account was too long. I got bored reading it.

  • Interesting to see this post this morning. So I was on my bike heading to work about an hour ago, and was stopped at the intersection of 14th & RI when the Circulator swooped by within about a foot or so of me, heading to the corner stop, which was quite scary. No, I probably shouldn’t have been in the crosswalk, but then again, I was there first and was easily visible to the driver.

  • Who takes a bus just to get a salad?

  • I’m very lucky. I don’t have to take public transit anymore. When I did it used to drive me insane. Drivers basically did as they pleased and in this backwards place it would be “my problem” if I raised the issue. Been here 7 years and have no idea how many times I was treated poorly by WMATA and Circulator folks. I cannot tell you how not taking transportation except once in every rare moment has saved me from LOADS of distress. Sorry you had to experience this.

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