Skip to main content

“The Bus Is Nothing Without Us.”

In May, faculty from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) presented a new research paper, “The bus is nothing without us”: Making Visible the Labor of Bus Operators amid the Ongoing Push Towards Transit Automation, at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing in Honolulu, HI. The paper is the result of an ongoing partnership between the ATU, CMU, the AFL-CIO Technology Institute, and the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), highlighting the indispensable role bus operators play in public transit. In line with the ATU’s commitment to support research that centers our members’ voices, the International Union facilitated focus group interviews with frontline transit workers that made this project possible.

In their paper, CMU researchers describe the vast array of situations that bus operators encounter daily, from intervening in serious medical situations to assisting passengers in simply finding their correct stop. Our members function in a unique role of authority that requires them to act as needed under rapidly changing, and often challenging, circumstances. Due in part to the lack of broad and accessible social care, CMU researchers posit that bus operators have also become “shock absorbers,” bearing the brunt of the consequences caused by society’s failure to care for those most in need.

Each of these unique interactions with the public highlights the work operators perform beyond simply driving the vehicle. However, none of this would be possible without a skilled human behind the wheel. Operators make real-time decisions to alter routes, call for medical attention, or otherwise maintain safety on the bus. These are human-centered behaviors that simply cannot be replaced or replicated by computers.

Bus operators also described to researchers the intense focus required to anticipate pedestrian behavior and traverse a chaotic urban environment during rush hour. The mental labor that operators put into their runs is not always understood by managers, who often focus narrowly on pull-outs and on-time performance. But there is no question that our members play a critical role in promoting a sense of safety for passengers, and we know that quick-thinking operators have saved countless lives.

Researchers conclude by pointing to the dangers of developing automated driver assistance systems without input from operators. As the end user of any on-vehicle technology, operators should be consulted every step of the way through design, testing, and implementation. The goal of driver assistance features should be to improve safety and reduce stress for our members, not burden them with more distractions and cognitive overload.

The bus is nothing without us is the first result of a series of studies that have engaged bus operators on the future of transit. Researchers from CMU recently completed a diary study with close to 2,000 daily entries collected directly from transit workers across the U.S. and Canada. That data will serve as the foundation for future publications and will play an important role in ensuring that our members’ voices are heard as the industry experiences rapid technological change. Visit to read the paper and keep track of the research partnership between the ATU, CMU, AFL-CIO, and TWU.