The grip of Tammy McNair’s leather-gloved hands tightened as she watched the red light turn to green. Her foot eased off the brake as she spun the wide steering wheel, turning the bus onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in one smooth motion.
She cruised toward campus, keeping a careful eye on the pedestrians on the sidewalk as she pulled onto one of Chapel Hill’s many narrow streets. McNair slowed to a stop at the side of the road, greeting three passengers as they got on the T bus.
While many Chapel Hill residents were just then heading to work or class, Tammy was already on her second route of the day.
The Chapel Hill Transit system is an integral part of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community, carrying over seven million of passengers throughout the year. This system is dependent on the bus drivers that operate its fleet of 121 buses.
“It’s amazing how accommodating they are,” said Jason Evans, a marketing recruiter working with Chapel Hill Transit. “They go out of their way to accommodate you. They’re always helping people.”
For McNair, this work is in her blood. The Durham native started driving for her father's transportation company before going to work for Durham Public Schools as a bus driver for 10 years while also working at IBM. After she got laid off at IBM three years ago, she decided to work full-time for Chapel Hill Transit.
“I turned in my heels for a safety vest,” McNair said.
Some bus drivers, like McNair, have professional driving backgrounds, like operating school buses or cabs. Others come to the job without the license necessary to operate the bus. For those without professional driving experience, the Town provides training and reimburses the drivers for the cost of passing their commercial driver’s license tests, Evans said.
“They’re willing to invest in you, whether it’s for five or 20 years,” Evans said.
Chapel Hill Transit drivers change their schedules three times per year in the fall, spring and summer. Drivers choose their routes based on seniority.
This summer, McNair works four 10-hour days per week and sometimes works overtime on Thursdays. She drives three routes: the D, the T and the CPX.
McNair said she chose the T route during the school year because it allows her to drive students who are going to East Chapel Hill High School. She said that though she is not a typical school bus driver, she still built relationships with her passengers.
“When we finished in the spring, I told them today was my last day because we were starting the new schedule,” McNair said. “They just started clapping, and I thought it was cute. You get used to your driver that you have every day, and I just want you to know if you wouldn’t see me, I want you to know why I’m not here.”
Because drivers are driving the same routes for months at a time, they often get to know their regular passengers. McNair said that allows her to do little things for them, like wait at the bus stop a little longer if she thinks someone is running late for the bus.
“I say to them ‘Oh, you look nice today,’ or ‘Oh, I missed you yesterday,’ little things like that,” McNair said. “I enjoy doing that, and I guess they like it, too.”
The Chapel Hill Transit drivers not only build relationships with their customers, but with their fellow drivers, as well. In between routes, drivers hang out together at the Chapel Hill Transit office, playing dominoes and card games and watching T.V.
Some drivers take time between their routes to work out at the office’s gym.
Ernie Monroe, a driver who has been with Chapel Hill Transit for about a year, joked around with his friends in between sets lifting weights on Friday, May 31.
“I work out here every day,” Monroe said.
Driving buses may seem like a solitary job, but drivers communicate with their coworkers while on the road through hand gestures and smiles.
“There’s this camaraderie among the drivers that’s incredible,” Evans said. “They’re so in-tune with one another.”
For many bus drivers, driving doesn’t stop when their shift ends. Most drivers have to drive to their homes outside of Chapel Hill because it is too expensive to live in town, McNair said.
Drivers make close to $15 per hour, Evans said. However, that rate increases for people who drive during football and basketball games. Evans said there are also other opportunities for upward mobility within the department, like taking on managerial roles.
Chapel Hill Transit also offers some professional development opportunities for its drivers. These include classes on resume building, interview prep and public speaking.
“Even if you just start out here, you are more valuable to future employers after working here,” Evans said.
Outside of her regular shifts, McNair also serves as a Chapel Hill Transit ambassador. Her favorite part of the volunteer role, she said, is going to elementary schools and libraries to teach students about the bus system.
McNair said that she plans to retire with Chapel Hill Transit, and she isn’t alone. Many drivers retire with the department. Some even come to the job after finishing a career in an entirely different field.
Retirement is a current concern for Chapel Hill Transit, as members of the baby-boomer generation are beginning to retire. Evans said his job this summer is to help recruit around 30 drivers before the end of the season.
Evans said heavy recruitment is common every summer as the department has to make sure the buses are ready for students to return to Chapel Hill.
Summers are often harder for drivers because busy hours are concentrated in the mornings and evenings. Drivers often have to drive split shifts, meaning that they may have one route in the morning and not have another route until hours later.
McNair has a three hour break between her second and third routes of the day, so she arrives at the office at 6:25 a.m. and finishes her last route at 7:20 p.m. She said most drivers don’t care for long splits.
Despite the difficult schedule and long hours, McNair said she loves her job and the little moments that come with it.
McNair said one of her favorite memories was picking up a young family who were going out for the evening.
“They were free to go to the movies, go to the restaurants to eat, just enjoy themselves and get back on the bus and go home without the bustle of traffic,” McNair said. “It was just a nice time with the family where they could sit down and let me drive while they could interact with each other. I think that’s what’s really cool about driving here in Chapel Hill.”