It takes a special sort of person to be a King County Metro bus driver. Cherry Gilbert — patient, tolerant and friendly — is one of them.
Cherry Gilbert is so well suited to her job behind the wheel that she’s never caused an accident or gotten a complaint. In fact, she’s never even lost her cool.
She’s so good-natured that she’s completely unfazed by drivers who honk or cut her off, bicyclists who flip her off, or passengers who ramble, yell or curse.
Does she ever get mad? “Oh, no,” she says. “I always think someone could be having a terrible day and I don’t ever want to make it worse,” said Gilbert.
Gilbert, 49, of Fircrest, Pierce County, has been driving a bus for nearly 20 years and has been with King County Metro Transit for three. She insists she’s the norm among the agency’s 2,650 full- and part-time operators.
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“Everyone I work with is so nice,” she said.
But people like Gilbert are tough to find among the general population, says Rochelle Ogershok, a spokeswoman for King County Metro Transit. The agency has a rigorous hiring process that includes a background check and multiple interviews that seek to identify job candidates with patience, tolerance and a genuine affection for people, as well as good driving skills.
Of 3,388 applicants last year, only 514 — or 15 percent — were hired, she said.
Gilbert’s supervisor, Berneta Walraven, said Gilbert exemplifies the qualities Metro looks for, especially as the demand for bus transportation increases.
“She has a safe driving record, she provides excellent customer service, and she carries out her work with a big smile and an attitude of friendliness and helpfulness,” Walraven said.
For her part, Gilbert said, “It’s not easy to get on here, but it’s very rewarding.”
Making of a Metro driver
Gilbert, the youngest of 12 children, moved to the Pacific Northwest from New Orleans when her brother was stationed at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord about 26 years ago.
Her first job was in customer service at a department store, but she applied to be a bus driver after reading that Pierce Transit was hiring.
Driving a bus was intimidating at first, she said.
The first time she was on Interstate 5, her trainer told her to make her way over to the High Occupancy Vehicle lane on the left.
“I couldn’t do it, so I took the next exit without permission,” she said laughing.
The trainer got her back on the freeway, talked her through the lane changes and got her into the HOV lane.
Despite an intensive, 28-day training period, it took her about three years to fully acclimate, she said, but she now feels more comfortable driving a bus on the freeway than she does her car.
After driving in Pierce County for more than a decade, she took a position at the University of Washington training transit drivers, but she missed being on the road and when a full-time position opened at Metro, she jumped on it.
Even though she had been handling buses for years at that point, there was still a learning curve.
Metro operates 214 routes, covering more than 2,000 square miles, and serves nearly 2 million residents.
During her tenure at Metro, Gilbert — who is an “extra board,” or backup, driver — has driven many of Metro’s vehicles, which include 40-foot buses, 60-foot articulated buses, electric buses, Rapid Rides and trolleys. She has also driven many of the agency’s routes and become intimately familiar with the county, from its jammed city streets to scenic rural roads.
Just the other day, she said, she was marveling at how she gets to drive among mountains one day and along the sea the next. She enjoys Route 11, which runs from Madison Park through Capitol Hill to downtown Seattle, because “it’s busy and has lots of people”; Route 8, which runs from Rainier Beach to Queen Anne, because “it’s diverse and has a nice range of people”; and Route 37, which runs along Alki Beach, because it’s beautiful.”
“I just love getting to see the county,” she said.
The toughest drive, she said, is Route 26 through Green Lake because of the tight twists and turns on Latona Avenue Northeast; the busiest (in her experience) is Route 124 that runs from Seattle to Tukwila.
Helping people in trouble
On a recent lap of Route 99 from the Chinatown International District to Belltown, she chatted with a man who couldn’t quite figure out how to get where he wanted to go.
She explained that he could wait for another bus or ride with her for one stop and then make a transfer. He hopped on and cheerfully thanked her when he got off, a little closer to his destination.
Because the region has been late to develop alternative public-transit options, Metro drivers for years have acted as the eyes and ears for the community, said Ogershok, the Metro Transit spokeswoman.
“For many years buses were the main mode of public transportation, and for many people they are the way to get around,” she said. “As a result, our drivers are often the first to have contact with people who are in trouble.”
Several years ago, the agency designated every bus a Safe Place, where any young person can ask for help and be connected to social services, Ogershok said.
In addition, drivers are often asked to be on watch for runaways, older people who have wandered off, or even suspects wanted by the law.
Once Gilbert’s bus served as a getaway for a victim of domestic violence, she said.
One night she saw a woman running for the bus, with a man running right behind her. As the woman clambered onto the bus, Gilbert could see that “she was badly beaten” and immediately shut the door behind the woman and took off.
As she did so, she radioed dispatch for help and was told to deliver the woman to a location where a victim’s advocate could meet them.
Gilbert also recalled picking up her mother at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport when she came to visit the Pacific Northwest.
“She got her picture taken with me in my uniform and she hung it up at church. She’s very proud,” said Gilbert. “I’m the only bus driver in the family.”
“I never in a million years guessed that this is what I would be doing, but this is a wonderful job. I get to meet a lot of people, I get to help a lot of people, and I’m proud to wear this uniform.”