Written and Unwritten Rules on the CUE Bus

Written and Unwritten Rules on the CUE Bus

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Written and Unwritten Rules on the CUE Bus

I have been riding the CUE bus regularly for a period of about two years now, and through that time have learned a lot about what goes on on the bus. The thing that has stood out to me the most is the many written and unwritten rules that govern behavior for both passengers and bus drivers. There are certain things one needs to do to be a "successful" passenger, and I have learned many of them along the way through experience and observation, without even really noticing it. For the past two months I have consciously observed people and how they relate to these rules, and the patterns have become even more clear to me.

Rules for Bus Drivers

One main thing that one needs to do be a successful passenger is to understand the rules that govern how the bus drivers behave, because this will effect the choices that you make. The bus drivers have a lot of rules they have to follow that are given to them by the management. For instance, they are supposed to do everything in their power to arrive at each bus stop at the posted time on the schedule. They are also supposed to only pick up passengers or let them off at designated CUE bus stops. The bus drivers must constantly balance these rules with another, unwritten rule - that they should be friendly and considerate to the people who are riding the bus. Sometimes these two principles come into conflict, and that's when things really get interesting. Some examples of times when they come into conflict are the following:

The Bus Driver is Ahead of Schedule

It is bad for the bus driver to arrive at a bus stop late, but it is even worse for him to arrive there early, because then people who have not gotten there yet may miss the bus. I have seen bus drivers stop at Rite Aid pharmacy (on the intersection of Lee Highway and Chainbridge road) and at George Mason and sit for several minutes because they were ahead of schedule. This creates an awkward situation for the people riding on the bus, who are now just sitting stopped for no apparent reason. The longer the bus sits, the more awkward it feels. Although nobody has ever complained about it out loud, there is an unspoken pressure.

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Because of this pressure, if a bus driver does stop, he will almost always end up leaving again before the schedule says he should, because he doesn't want to make everybody wait too long. Some bus drivers will never stop no matter how ahead they are. Some will only stop at George Mason, because George Mason is one of the two main stops every bus stops at, and it's more "acceptable" for it to be sitting and waiting there.

Someone Wants the Bus to Wait for Them

It's a scene any regular bus rider sees frequently: somebody running toward the bus stop, frantically waving their arms and trying to get the bus to stop and wait for them. Whenever this happens, the bus driver has a decision to make. He wants to be considerate to the person trying not to miss the bus, but he also has a schedule to keep. Most of the time the bus drivers will stop and wait. It depends on how far away the person is from the bus stop, how frantically they are waving their arms, whether the bus driver is already late or not, the bus driver's individual personality, and also pressure from other people inside the bus.

For instance, one time a lady got on the bus who checked her watch a lot and asked the driver how long it would be until he would get to George Mason. Later, when he was near to George Mason there was someone running to catch the bus, but he did not slow down for them. He was probably feeling some pressure because of the lady. But then, a different lady on the bus said, "There's someone running to catch the bus." The bus driver said, "He'd better run fast if he wants to catch this bus," but he stopped and waited, because he would have looked terrible if he didn't. If a bus driver does stop and wait for someone to board the bus, and that person does not make any effort to hurry, this is very irritating behavior.

Another time this dilemma comes up is when people at the bus stop want to ask for directions. If there isn't a quick, simple answer to their question, it's a frustrating thing to the bus driver, who wants to be helpful, but also can't take too much time out of his schedule. They usually try to answer these questions with as little words as possible, which can lead to confusion. For instance, a person will ask "do you go to Washington DC?" and the bus driver will simply say, "no." They won't take the time to tell the person that they do go to the Vienna Metro station where the person can catch a train to Washington DC.

A slightly humorous example of this happened once when a bus driver's answers appeared to contradict themselves because she was trying to save time. A lady pulled the pull cord to stop by the courthouse. As she was getting off the bus, she said, "I thought you stopped by the courthouse back there." The bus driver said, "We do. You can catch the bus either here or at the courthouse." The lady replied, "But you don't go by the courthouse?" And the bus driver said, "No." Well, do they go to the courthouse or don't they? The answer is that there are two bus lines, the Green and the Gold. The Green bus (which we were on) doesn't stop by the courthouse, but the Gold one does.

Someone Wants the Bus Driver to Stop Where There isn't a Bus Stop

There is a sign posted in the bus that says "Buses stop at designated bus stops only." This is one of those written rules that isn't always followed, and when it is and when it isn't can be confusing. I was riding the bus once when a new bus driver was in training. As you saw from my story above, for the Green line, there isn't a "good" bus stop close to the courthouse. The closest stop is actually a metro bus stop. I remember the trainer telling the new driver, "You'll get lots of people on the bus who are going to the courthouse, and they'll harass you to stop at that metro stop, but don't do it."

New bus riders sometimes do get confused about the difference between CUE and metro bus stops. Also, sometimes people will ask to be let off somewhere between bus stops if it's more convenient for them. Most of the time the bus driver will not let them do it, unless he is stopped at a stop light. Sometimes the bus driver will even open the exit door without being asked to if he's stopped at a light that is near a stop someone pulled the bell for, because it saves them both time if the person gets off there.

A big rule bus drivers have to follow is that they cannot open their doors into a open lane of traffic. This has also created dilemmas for bus drivers, and I noticed three examples that all happened in the same day, where the different bus drivers handled it quite differently.

The first bus driver was stopped in the left turn lane at a red light near a bus stop, when the bus coming the other way drove by, and stopped at the stop across the street. She radioed over to my bus, "Hold up a minute, I've got a lady who needs to get on your bus." He replied, "But I can't open the door in an open lane of traffic." He did, however, let the lady on, who said "I am so sorry. I am sorry and very grateful." The bus driver told her that he could have lost his job for doing what he just did.

The second bus driver was also stopped at a light, not in the lane nearest to the curb. I heard a loud pounding on the outside of the bus. There was a man standing in the street by the bus, pounding on the door. The bus driver shouted "I can't open the door! The bus stop is down the street!" He pointed to the bus stop. The man looked confusedly where the bus driver was pointing. It was hard to tell if he could even hear what the bus driver was saying. The light turned green and the bus driver drove away.

The third bus driver went ahead and opened the door for somebody in an open lane of traffic, without saying anything, or acting like there was any problem at all.

All of this shows that that in order to be a successful passenger, it is helpful if you are aware of the conflicting pressures that bus drivers feel and how individual ones typically respond to those pressures.

Rules for Passengers

There are also several written and unwritten rules that are specifically for passengers. After riding the bus for awhile it is usually pretty easy to tell if someone is a new bus rider because they won't know these rules.

When to Ring the Bell

In all CUE buses there is a pull cord that passengers pull to signal the bus to stop. New bus riders may not even realize this cord is there. Sometimes they will, instead, tell the bus driver where they want to get off when they first board the bus, and sit nervously at the front of the bus hoping he remembers. If they do realize the cord is there, they often don't know where the bus stops are, and therefore when to pull the cord. The best time to pull the cord is right after the bus has passed the stop before the one you want to get off at. This gives the bus driver the maximum amount of time to get into the correct lane and begin to slow down. New passengers will often just pull the cord the instant they see the building they want to go to. This could be too close to a bus stop, causing the bus to have to come to a screeching halt, or the bus driver to not know if they mean this stop or the next one.

New passengers also don't always realize that there are places where the bus always stops, so you don't have to ring the bell. These places are George Mason and the Vienna Metro Station. The bus will always stop there even if there's on one waiting at the bus stop. If a person rings the bell for one of these stops, you know they haven't been riding very long.

Waiting at the Bus Stop

The main rule of waiting at the bus stop is that you have to make it obvious to the bus driver what you want. There are a number of situations where it isn't immediately obvious. The first is if you are at the bus stop and a bus comes by that you don't want to get on. If you stand there and do nothing, the bus will stop for you, and open the door, and when you tell the driver you didn't want this bus, he will be irritated. It is amazing how many people do this.

If someone is standing at a bus stop and doesn't want to catch the bus, they are supposed to wave their hand, and/or shake their head, then the bus driver will know he doesn't have to stop. Alternately, they can go and sit down on the bench instead of standing, but this is an iffy solution, because sometimes the bus will still stop. If they are sitting at the bus stop and the bus they want comes, they should stand up and walk forward so they are standing right by the sign. If they don't do this, they are really taking their chances, because most buses won't stop for them.

If a person is somewhere in the vicinity of the bus stop when the bus is approaching, they also need to make it obvious what they want. If they don't want to catch the bus, looking away and not changing their pace at all will usually be a sufficient signal. If they wave, the bus driver may not know if the wave means "wait for me" or "don't wait for me," although there are some distinguishing factors. A happy, contented expression, with a small wave, usually means "don't wait," whereas an unhappy, upset expression, especially if it is also accompanied by running and large waving, means "wait."

Seating on the Bus

There are signs by the seats at the very front of the bus that say "Please reserve these seats for disabled or elderly passengers." As far as I have seen, this rule is universally disobeyed, by old and new passengers alike. Those seats are treated just like every other seat on the bus. The only people who I've ever seen think twice about sitting in the seats were a group of Dutch students who were visiting Washington DC and had attended a seminar at George Mason. Two of them were about to sit down, when they noticed the sign and sat somewhere else instead. However, as the bus began to fill up and they saw other people were sitting in those seats, several other Dutch students eventually did as well.

Another interesting phenomenon with seating happens when there are a lot of passengers on the bus. Usually people sit with one or more empty seats in between each other, as is the pattern almost everywhere in our culture. Many people will set their bookbag or purse in the empty seat next to them. When the bus begins to fill up, however, it is different because now people want to sit in every seat. They would rather sit close to someone than have to stand. Most people realize this, and so will not set their bags on the seats when the bus is full. But there are a few people who still do it, and what is very interesting to me is that usually people would rather stand than ask those people to move their bags. So, it is a good way for people to preserve an empty seat next to themselves. It is a bit of a rude thing to do, but the person can always say "Nobody asked me to move it."

I thought it was rather funny one time when I got on the bus and sat next to a seat that had some stray newspaper pages in it, which I had not put there. Nobody would sit next to me because of them, even when it was the only seat left on the bus. The last guy on the bus chose to stand instead. I quietly moved the papers without saying anything, and a few seconds later when he realized they were gone, he sat down.


The main thing I learned from this project is that there are unwritten rules when it comes to riding and driving the bus successfully, that it helps to be aware of. Most of these rules are based on consideration - the bus drivers being considerate of the position the passengers are in and the passengers being considerate of the position the bus driver and the other passengers are in.

The hardest thing about doing this project was trying to tease out which behaviors of passengers and drivers are due to these unwritten rules (or cultural patterns) and which are just due to quirks in their personality. There is a wide range of responses that different bus drivers and passengers have to the same situation. Riding the bus with the same driver all the time, for example, would give one a very skewed perspective. The fact that I had been riding the bus already for a long time before starting this project helped a lot because it gave me a wider frame of reference in which to evaluate my observations over these past few months.
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