City of Huntsville public transit operators keep the wheels turning

single-meta-cal September 15, 2021

While some adults haven’t traveled by bus since high school, public transit is a primary mode of travel for many residents who don’t have transportation or can’t drive for health reasons.

Orbit, Huntsville Transit’s fixed-route service, helps thousands of passengers get to grocery stores, shopping centers and workplaces each day. Access, the City’s paratransit, appointment-only service, ferries dozens of people daily to critical medical appointments.

Huntsville Transit’s system, which dates back to the early 1990s, is relatively young. Its fixed-route buses are on the road about 15 hours per day, and expansion is a priority.

A short-term goal is to improve service frequency from 60 minutes to 30 minutes on fixed routes, starting with the ones our riders utilize the most. Quisha Bryant, director of Parking and Public Transportation, said Huntsville Transit is about half-way there.

A re-evaluation of the overall transit plan, which includes areas where buses still operate on 60-minute intervals, will be reviewed in the spring. Simultaneously, a team will survey residents to learn their ideas and see where improvements are needed. The goal is to look at areas where service is not offered, including South Huntsville, south of Logan Drive; Northeast Huntsville, along Moores Mill Road; and University Drive, west of MidCity District, where employment and residential density are increasing.

“We will also explore improvements that will motivate nonriders to utilize service,” Bryant said.

No matter where the buses go, there will always be a friendly, smiling face at the wheel ready to help. For Dana Jewell-Taylor and Alvin Franklin, being a bus operator is as much about the passengers as the destination.

All walks of life

Bus operators consider many of their passengers to be “regulars,” and have formed strong bonds with them. Passengers often share tales of good days and bad, mishaps, and what’s going on with their families.

“Some of them don’t have anybody to talk to,” said Jewell-Taylor, the second-most senior paratransit operator with 25 years of experience. “You definitely have to be a people person to do this job.”

A portrait of Orbit bus operator Alvin Franklin. He's wearing a dark blue cap, a light-blue Huntsville Transit uniform top and he's standing in front of an Orbit bus at the Huntsville Transit station in Huntsville.

Orbit bus operator Alvin Franklin drove charter buses before coming to work for Huntsville Transit. Earlier this year, he placed first in the Large Bus division in the 2021 Alabama RTAP Bus & Paratransit Roadeo competition at Lakepoint State Park in Eufaula.

Because Jewell-Taylor is a paratransit operator, most of her passengers are older or have health problems. She generally has four to five riders at a time, all going to doctor’s offices or dialysis centers.

Franklin, an Orbit bus operator, said his passengers come from all walks of life. On any given day, he may have low-income riders trying to get ahead, former inmates looking for a new lease on life or someone with mental or physical health struggles.

“It’s all sectors of society,” he said. “When you’re driving, you see a lot of different people, and sometimes you have to look deeper to understand their situation.”

Those with reliable transportation may struggle to comprehend the importance of public transit for people who need food or toiletries. Franklin understands, however.

“We always have to go the extra step because some people wait 30 days to get a check just so they can put something in their fridge,” he said. “They wait on us to get them there. Sometimes, I help them with their groceries. … You never know whose life you’re going to change.”

When you’re driving, you see a lot of different people, and sometimes you have to look deeper to understand their situation.”

Benefits and challenges

Franklin, a nine-year City employee and former charter bus driver in Michigan, loves giving back to the Huntsville community.

“I enjoy doing it and helping people,” he said. “It’s nice to have somewhere to retire from.”

A portrait of Dana Jewell-Taylor, a paratransit operator. She is standing on an Access bus in her Huntsville Transit uniform. She has an Access face covering attached to her light blue uniform top.

Dana Jewell-Taylor has 25 years of experience as a paratransit bus operator. She says being a bus operator is as much about the passengers as the destination.

When it comes to being a successful operator, interpersonal skills are key. Well, that and top-notch defensive driving skills.

Franklin has his share of both. In March, he placed first in the Large Bus division in the 2021 Alabama RTAP Bus & Paratransit Roadeo at Lakepoint State Park in Eufaula.

“That’s the biggest challenge – the traffic and drivers,” Franklin said. “The customers aren’t a challenge. They get on and respect you as long as you respect them.”

Jewell-Taylor, who consistently ranks among Huntsville Transit’s top paratransit operators, said her job is often physically challenging. Access operators help riders with their wheelchairs as well as any carry-on items.

“It can be stressful, but some people treat me like family,” she said. “That makes it worth it.”

Passenger praise

One of Franklin’s regular riders, Nicholas Konovodoff, recently emailed Public Transit Manager John Autry to praise Franklin’s generosity. Konovodoff shared a story in which Franklin assisted an elderly woman who was struggling with her belongings while exiting a bus.

“Alvin told her not to take her packages and bags, and he then carried them to her building entrance and placed them on a bench near the doors,” Konovodoff said. “This was an act of a true gentleman. I was awed and inspired.”

Konovodoff added he considers Franklin a “goodwill ambassador” for the City because of his “charming personality, happy disposition and care for customers.”

“When I first began riding Huntsville buses, Alvin gave me good directions when I debussed to get me to where I was going, and he would remind me when approaching a stop at which I frequently debussed,” Konovodoff said. “These are just a few examples of Alvin’s many courtesies to me. Alvin is an outstanding example of gentility, dedication, and positive attitude.”