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Image of a smiling bus driver with the text "Do you have the personality type for a career in public transit?"

Every child loves transportation. There doesn’t exist a train, trash truck, motorbike or city bus that escapes the notice of a kid in a car seat. As we get older, life gets more complicated, and most of us stop noticing the rich parade of transportation on our roads. Those lucky few who escape the inevitable may turn it into a hobby, like train, bus, or plane spotting. Even luckier are those who can turn their love of transportation into a meaningful and rewarding career.  

Here are four very different careers in public transit. Do you have the personality to be a good fit for one? 

Bus Operator

Do you convey a calm, professional attitude? Do you have an eye for detail, an ability to understand non-verbal cues, and to problem solve to ensure that things run smoothly every day? Can you dress and act to present yourself as the face of an organization?  

These are actually all qualities that make a good butler, but they are equally important for a bus operator. There aren’t many openings for butlers, but fortunately, there are many available for bus operators.  

In the past, people skills were lower on the list of qualities for a driver. But now the role is customer service oriented. Just like a butler, the bus operator is the front-facing role of a transit agency – only the door they open belongs to a bus, not a manor house. 

A bus operator needs to be a skilled driver, have excellent spatial awareness to maneuver through tight traffic, and be comfortable using new technologies that are deployed on buses. They also need a patient and composed personality in the face of traffic delays, road construction, difficult passengers, and bad weather. Punctuality is critical. Drivers work on a schedule and need to be committed to sticking to it. A driver needs to maintain a fresh focus on road conditions, traffic signs, and passenger behavior, even while following the same routine day after day. 

Transit paid my way for so many things…. I really enjoyed the work and I liked working with people and enjoyed time with my fellow drivers and my passengers.

– Kevin Mcmenemy, retired bus operator 

As the face of the transportation agency, operators have to be people-oriented: friendly, approachable, and helpful to passengers, able to build rapport, provide directions, and handle inquiries or complaints. Even though many agencies deploy voice announcement software on their buses, effective communication is still essential for announcing bus stops.

Transportation Planner

When we think of a transportation planner, often the first person to come to mind is Robert Moses. A passionate visionary, Moses was able to create, advocate for, and deliver complex projects that transformed the infrastructure of New York City during a decades-long career. Brilliant, creative, and highly driven, Moses had the qualities necessary to navigate complex government regulations and funding to see his projects through to completion. 

However, Moses was also arrogant and unsympathetic. As a result, his urban development projects came at the expense of people of color and other underrepresented groups. Today’s transit planners have to be empathetic, able to put themselves in the shoes of riders of all types to understand how to serve them best. This takes humility and patience, as they are undertaking work that may not be completed on their timeline or to their satisfaction. 

A better model of a visionary planner is Norman Krumholz, who lead a generation of planners at the Cleveland (Ohio) City Planning Commission and created the concept of equity planning. 

It is not enough for cities to be beautiful and efficient. They could, and should, be just and fair as well, and planners should work toward human betterment.

– Norman Krumholz, planner

A transportation planner needs to be highly focused and proficient in analyzing data related to ridership, travel patterns, and demographics. Yet they also need to be a “big picture” person, someone who has the farsightedness and creativity to devise innovative solutions to intractable problems. Because they must be able to work with a wide variety of people to actualize their plans, planners also have to be collaborative.  

If you like to visualize ways of creating a more sustainable and equitable community, you might consider pursuing a career as a transit planner. 

Transit Dispatcher 

If you thrive under pressure, and are good at keeping lines of communications open, a career as a transit dispatcher may be a good match for you. Dispatchers usually start out as transit operators, which gives them an insider’s understanding of what it’s like on the road. But, like planners, dispatchers need to have a holistic view of a transit system: its routes, schedules, and operational procedures. That takes a personality that embraces procedures and organization. 

Effective communication is at the core of a dispatcher’s role. They are the central hub of information and coordination, and their skills and expertise are essential for the smooth functioning of transit operations. 

A dispatcher also has to be decisive, as they’ll be making decisions under pressure. Unexpected challenges, such as traffic delays, vehicle breakdowns, or passenger issues make it crucial to be able to think on their feet and find solutions quickly. They must be able to juggle many tasks simultaneously, making real-time adjustments to routes and schedules, while remaining calm during stressful situations. Air traffic control is considered one of the most highly stressful job types, but a transit dispatcher faces many of the same working conditions, even if they don’t need to worry about a bus crashing in midair. 

Transit Mechanical Technician

Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right.

– Matthew B. Crawford

Not that long ago, a transit technician mainly needed to be good at working on diesel engines. As more agencies deploy electric vehicles and load them with technology like digital signage or passenger counters, that’s no longer the case. Transit vehicles and on-board devices are constantly evolving. Today’s transit mechanic needs to have a personality comfortable learning these new technologies. 

Vehicle maintenance is an exacting occupation. Technicians need to be able to focus on a problem, which is sometimes difficult in a hectic world. Author (and motorcycle mechanic) Matthew Crawford says in Shop Class as Soulcraft, “…in diagnosing and fixing things made by others, one … must remain constantly open to the signs by which they reveal themselves…. the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness.” 

Transit maintenance is a collaborative effort. It’s important to have a personality that can work with other technicians, and to have the patience to explain issues to supervisors and operators. And of course, problem-solving and diagnostic skills are crucial for identifying and repairing issues in transit vehicles. To be successful, a mechanical technician needs to be detail-oriented and persistent. A sense of curiosity is always helpful. If, as a child you took apart your toys, the vacuum, or the tv remote, you probably have the temperament to be a mechanic. 

If you don’t fit one of these four personality types, don’t worry. There are many more roles in the transit industry. Watch for our next blog post on other types of careers in the transit industry.