Public Transportation Operator Career

Public transportation operators include drivers of school buses, intercity buses, local commuter buses, and local transit railway systems, such as subways and streetcars. Many drivers run a predetermined route within a city or metropolitan area, transporting passengers from one designated place to another. Intercity drivers travel between cities and states, transporting passengers and luggage on more lengthy trips. Some public transportation operators are required to handle additional special duties, such as transporting disabled passengers. There are approximately 669,000 public transportation operators employed in the United States.

Public Transportation Operator Career History

Public Transportation Operator CareerIn both the United States and Europe, public transportation systems were first developed in the 19th century. As early as 1819, there was a successful horse-drawn bus service in Paris. The idea was subsequently adopted in other major cities, such as New York and London.

The first subway system, initially four miles long, was opened in London in the 1860s. The railcars were powered by steam until 1890, when the system was converted to electricity. New York, Chicago, Paris, Budapest, and many other cities followed with their own subway systems. Streetcar, or trolley, lines and elevated tracks were also built around this time. The first electric- powered elevated train system opened in Chicago in 1895.

The 20th century began with a new vehicle for public transportation: the gasoline-powered bus. Various cities throughout the United States established bus services in the first decade of the century. Trucks fitted with seats and automobiles lengthened for increased seating capacity were among the first buses. As roads improved and better equipment became available, bus systems expanded.

Toward the middle of the 20th century, some transit systems came under the ownership of automotive- or oil-related businesses that had little interest in maintaining trolley lines. Around the same time, bus systems began to receive government assistance because of greater routing flexibility and other advantages. By the 1950s, buses had largely replaced the country’s trolley lines, as increased ownership of private automobiles also reduced the demand for trolleys. Subways and elevated tracks, however, stayed in service, as did a few of the trolley systems, notably in San Francisco. In the latter half of the 20th century, some American cities, such as Washington, DC, and San Francisco, built new subway systems, while others expanded their existing underground lines.

The Job of Public Transportation Operator Career

The work of an intercity bus driver commonly begins at the terminal, where he or she prepares a trip report form and inspects the bus. Safety equipment, such as a fire extinguisher and a first-aid kit, as well as the vehicle’s brakes, lights, steering, oil, gas, water, and tires are checked. The driver then supervises the loading of baggage, picks up the passengers, collects fares or tickets, and answers questions about schedules and routes.

At the final destination, the intercity driver oversees the unloading of passengers and baggage and then prepares a report on the trip’s mileage, fares, and time, as required by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Another report must be completed if an accident or unusual delay occurs.

Intercity bus drivers may make only a single one-way trip to a distant city or a round trip each day, stopping at towns and cities along the route. Drivers who operate chartered buses typically pick up groups, drive them to their destination, and remain with them until it is time for the return trip.

Within a town, city, or extended urban area, local commuter bus drivers run routes with scheduled stops every few blocks. As passengers board the bus, the driver notes passes and discount cards; collects fares, transfers, tokens, or tickets; and issues transfers. At the end of the day, drivers of local transit buses turn in trip sheets, which might include records of fares received, the trips made, and any delays or accidents during their shift.

To aid the driver and discourage robbery, local bus drivers in most major cities do not give change. Passengers instead deposit their exact fare or token in a tamper- resistant box; electronic equipment in the box then counts the bills and coins and displays the transaction total.

School bus drivers run a predetermined route in the mornings and in the afternoons, transporting students to and from school. Occasionally, they drive students and faculty to other events, such as sports competitions or field trips. Though they do not have to collect fares from their passengers, school bus drivers are responsible for maintaining order on the bus. They must be aware of school policies and standards and enforce these rules during the ride.

All bus drivers must operate their vehicles carefully during trips. They are required to follow established schedules, but they must do so within the legal speed limits. Bus drivers are also responsible for regulating the interior lights and the heating and air-conditioning systems.

Drivers of subway, streetcar, and other local railway systems have many of the same duties as bus drivers. Subway/ elevated train drivers control trains that transport passengers throughout cities and suburbs. They usually sit in special compartments at the front of the first car, from which they start, slow, and stop the train. Drivers obey traffic signals along routes that run underground, at surface levels, or elevated above ground.

Operators announce stops over the loudspeaker, open and close doors, and make sure passengers get on and off safely. In order to remain on schedule, they control the speed and the amount of time spent at each station. When the train malfunctions or emergencies occur, drivers contact dispatchers for help and may have to instruct passengers how to evacuate the train cars.

In general, all public transportation operators must make announcements and answer questions from passengers concerning schedules, routes, transfer points, and addresses. They are also required to enforce safety regulations established by the transit company or the government.

Public Transportation Operator Career Requirements

High School

While still in high school, take English and speech classes to improve your communication skills. Math skills may also be needed to calculate fares and make change. Finally, sign up for a driver’s education class to learn the rules of the road.

Postsecondary Training

Qualifications and standards for bus drivers are established by state and federal regulations. Federal regulations require drivers who operate vehicles designed to transport 16 or more passengers to obtain a commercial license (CDL). In order to receive a CDL, applicants must pass a written exam and a driving test in the type of vehicle they will be operating.

While many states’ minimum age requirement for drivers is 18, federal regulations require that interstate bus drivers be at least 21 years old and in good general health. They must pass a physical exam every two years, checking for good hearing, vision, and reflexes. They must also be able to speak, read, and write English well enough to fill out reports, read signs, and talk to passengers. In addition to these minimum requirements, many employers prefer drivers over 24 years old with at least a high school diploma and previous truck or bus driving experience.

Bus companies and local transit systems train their drivers with two to eight weeks of classroom and on-the-road instruction. In the classroom, trainees learn federal and company work policies, state and local driving regulations, and other general safe driving practices. They also learn how to handle the public, read schedules, determine fares, and keep records.

For subway operator jobs, local transit companies prefer applicants 21 years of age or older with at least a high school diploma. As with bus drivers, good vision, hearing, and reflexes are necessary, as well as a clean driving record.

New operators are generally trained both in the classroom and on the job in programs that range from a few weeks to six months. Operators must then pass qualifying exams covering operations, troubleshooting, and emergency procedures.

Other Requirements

Bus and rail car drivers must have good reflexes and quick reaction time, and must drive safely under all circumstances. Because operators are required to deal regularly with passengers, it is also important that they be courteous and level-headed. An even temperament comes in handy when driving in heavy or fast-moving traffic or during bad weather conditions. Drivers should be able to stay alert and attentive to the task at hand. They must be dependable and responsible, because the lives of their passengers are in their hands.

Exploring Public Transportation Operator Career

Any job that requires driving can provide you with important experience for a job as a public transportation operator. Possibilities include a part-time or summer job as a delivery driver.

You may also benefit from talking personally with a bus driver or subway operator. Those already employed with bus or rail companies can give you a good, detailed description of the pros and cons of the position.


There are approximately 653,000 bus drivers currently employed in the United States. More than 75 percent are employed by a school system or a company that provides contract school bus service. The second largest group of bus drivers work for private and local transit systems, and the remainder work as intercity and charter drivers. There are approximately 9,200 subway and streetcar operators, located almost exclusively in major urban areas.

Starting Out

If you are interested in the field, you should directly contact public transportation companies as well as government and private employment agencies. Labor unions, such as the Amalgamated Transit Union, might know about available jobs. Positions for drivers can also be found in the classified section of the newspaper.

After completing the training program, new drivers often initially are given only special or temporary assignments— for example, substituting for a sick employee, driving an extra bus or rail car during commuter rush hours, or driving a charter bus to a sporting event. These new drivers may work for several years in these part-time, substitute positions before gaining enough seniority for a regular route.


Advancement is usually measured by greater pay and better assignments or routes. For example, senior drivers or rail car operators may have routes with lighter traffic, weekends off, or higher pay rates. Although opportunities for promotion are limited, one option for advancement is to move into supervisory or training positions. Experienced drivers can become dispatchers (workers who assign drivers their bus or train route, determine whether buses or trains are running on time, and send out help when there is a breakdown or accident). Other managerial positions also exist. Experienced subway or streetcar operators, for example, may become station managers.


Earnings for public local transportation operators vary by location and experience. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the 2004 median salary for local and intercity bus drivers was $29,744. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $18,010 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $48,940. School bus drivers on average made less, with a median salary of $23,250. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $12,960 and the highest 10 percent earned $34,960 or more. Subway and streetcar operators earned salaries that ranged from less than $36,730 to $56,560 or more, with a median of $49,290.

Almost all public transportation operators belong to a union, such as the Amalgamated Transit Union or the Transport Workers Union of America. Wages and benefits packages are usually determined through bargaining agreements between these unions and the management of the transit system. Benefits often include paid health and life insurance, sick leave, free transportation on their line or system, and as much as four weeks of vacation per year.

Work Environment

Public transportation operators work anywhere from 20 to 40 hours per week. The U.S. Department of Transportation restricts all drivers from working more than 10 hours per day or more than 60 hours per week. New drivers often work part-time, though they may be guaranteed a minimum number of hours.

Schedules for intercity bus drivers may require working nights, weekends, and holidays. Drivers may also have to spend nights away from home, staying in hotels at company expense. Senior drivers who have regular routes typically have regular working hours and set schedules, while others must be prepared to work on short notice.

Local transit drivers and subway operators usually have a five-day workweek, with Saturdays and Sundays considered regular workdays. Some of these employees work evenings and night shifts. In order to accommodate commuters, many work split shifts, such as four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon and evening, with time off in between.

The lack of direct supervision is one of the advantages of being a public transportation operator. Intercity bus drivers may also enjoy traveling as a benefit. Disadvantages include weekend, holiday, or night shifts, and, in some cases, being called to work on short notice. Operators with little seniority may be laid off when business declines.

Although driving a bus or rail car is usually not physically exhausting, operators are exposed to tension from maneuvering their vehicle on heavily congested streets or through crowded stations. They also may feel stressed from dealing with passengers—including those who are unruly or difficult.

Public Transportation Operator Career Outlook

Employment for public transportation operators is expected to grow as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. As the population increases, local and intercity travel will also increase. Future government efforts to reduce traffic and pollution through greater funding of public transportation could also greatly improve job opportunities. In addition, thousands of job openings are expected to occur each year because of the need to replace workers who retire or leave the occupation.

Because many of these positions offer relatively high wages and attractive benefits, however, job seekers may face heavy competition. Those who have good driving records and are willing to work in rapidly growing metropolitan areas will have the best opportunities.

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