A one-of-a-kind look inside graduation for San Francisco bus drivers at the SFMTA

Group photo of graduates at Operator Graduation 04TM22 on June 8, 2022.

Group photo of graduates at Operator Graduation 04TM22 on June 8, 2022.

SFMTA Photo | SFMTA.com/Photo

Classroom C inside the eggshell white building at the corner of Masonic and Geary in San Francisco is where the SF Municipal Transportation Agency runs its training and development for new bus operators. On a recent Wednesday morning, there was barely an empty chair as the room buzzed with anticipation. 

For the first time ever, an operator graduation was open to press, and SFGATE took one of the last seats in the back.  

The classroom's furnishing was basically barren. A poster on the wall states, "Is marijuana legal for you? No,'' and besides the doors painted burgundy, there isn’t much for the fluorescent lights to shine on. But what’s keeping this room aglow are the 37 sharply dressed operators gearing up for graduation.  

“This is the biggest class since COVID,” said Julie Kirschbaum, the director of transit, during her remarks. “This is vital to the recovery of our region. If Muni doesn’t work, the city doesn’t work.”

The new operators had just completed their 10-week course but were reminded that their education wasn’t going to end today. “This is your biggest enemy,” Roger Marenco said while holding up an iPhone for all to see. Marenco is the president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250A, and he kept his comments short, reminding the graduates to prioritize safety and that they’re in a “culture of awareness.”

Some of these operators were commercial drivers before who were accustomed to moving materials and other inanimate objects. Now their load talks to them as they’re transported to schools, hospitals and jobs. 

The operators each wore crisp jackets and pants with pleated lines. (Muni offers them a uniform allotment of four pants and five shirts.) They’re required to wear either a red or black tie. Bow ties permitted. They’re told that they’re ambassadors of the city and they need to look the part.

“Stay this sharp and go that extra mile,” Kirschbaum said.

The class representative is a new operator from Vallejo named Steffan Shortridge. He read a poem about education to his peers and offered some fellow words of celebration.

“When I was a kid and saw those 60-foot articulated buses, I used to call them ‘slinky buses,’” he said to a room of chuckles. “We’ve now learned ‘the Muni way.’”

Class representative Steffan Shortridge addresses his peers.

Class representative Steffan Shortridge addresses his peers.

SFMTA Photo | SFMTA.com/Photo

As he spoke, a small spiral notebook was passed around from graduate to graduate in which each person wrote down their contact information. The group excitedly shared how they planned to remain in touch. 

For the ceremony, SFMTA officials formed a handshake line at the top of the class as the names in the Operator Graduation 04TM22 were called. 

Name by name, they came up to receive their certificates and handshakes. When names were called, cheers and applause ensued as if a bandleader were calling out each musician on the stage. Upon returning to their chairs, some of the graduates took a pause to study their certificates, holding it out in their arms and inspecting it with great care. 

“They spelled my name wrong!” someone yelled, garnering some laughs. 

The operators come from all over the Bay Area — Antioch, Oakland or from the city itself — and they took the job for a variety of reasons. Muni is on a hiring spree at the moment and looking to fill out its operators budget. The compensation ranges from $28 hourly at the start up to $40.

Sheila Robson, operator 6531, receives her certificate.

Sheila Robson, operator 6531, receives her certificate.

SFMTA Photo | SFMTA.com/Photo

Sheila Robson is from Sausalito and said the job was an opportunity to continue working. “They didn’t discriminate against my age,” she said, noting that she’s 63. 

Tomika Brown from Oakland will drive the 60-foot bus. “I was afraid of it at first but grew to love it,” she said. The big turns are easy on the long buses, but she said the tight turns are the hardest. She credits the training for helping her determine the reference points to easily make the sharp turns.

Born in San Francisco, Edward Samonte has used Muni for 68 years and calls himself a “late bloomer” for finally getting behind its wheel. 

“After learning how to operate a bus, I’ve become better at driving my personal vehicle because I’m more aware of what’s around me,” he said. “If you use the Five Keys, you’ll be OK.”

The Five Keys came up frequently throughout the graduation ceremony. It refers to a five-point verbal system started by Harold L. Smith, who founded an influential driving school in the 1950s that stressed the importance of driver safety and avoiding accidents.

Each Muni driver walked away from their graduation with the Five Keys memorized: aim high in steering, get the big picture, keep your eyes moving, leave yourself an out and make sure they see you. 

Training manager Omozele Biggins speaking at operator graduation on June 8, 2022.

Training manager Omozele Biggins speaking at operator graduation on June 8, 2022.

SFMTA Photo | SFMTA.com/Photo

The Muni fleet is split into 11 divisions that span a century of city transit technology. There's the Presidio Division (first opened in 1912) that oversees the 40-foot trolley buses, and the more recent Islais Creek Division that opened in 2013 to tend to the 60-foot hybrid buses. Each of these graduating operators will work out of one of these divisions. 

One of the most difficult routes is near Lake Merced along Sloat Boulevard, where a long line of parked RVs create a tight squeeze for the buses. And the tightest turn is on 6th Street and Harrison. For popular lunch spots among operators, Shortridge said that Working Girls' Cafe on Mission Street or the nearby Super Duper Burgers are favorites.

Omozele Biggins started as a Muni operator 26 years ago and is now a training manager. She said that the 10-week course is split between classroom time for learning about the equipment and weeks in the field for training. She takes three students at a time for driving lessons out at the Cow Palace, where there’s a lot of space to practice. 

It’s an active job, there’s a new class starting every five weeks, and Biggins is already underway with her next class of operators.