‘A meaningful service’: KU bus driver never tires of the scenery
photo by: Kathy Hanks
Kait McNeely steered the 40-foot bus alongside the curb and pressed her foot on the air brake, quickly opening the door.
“Thank you,” called out several college students as they stepped off Bus 38, like appreciative passengers to an airplane pilot after a smooth flight.
McNeely, who keeps her bluish-green haired tucked under a cap, appeared young enough to be hopping off the bus with the students, but at 29 she has been a driver for the University of Kansas transit system for the past seven years.
After she was hired, there was classroom time and then a month of training behind the wheel as a cadet with a senior operator. Finally, she was ready to go solo.
McNeely feels comfortable driving a bus. After all, there was a time in her life when she lived in an 88 Bluebird. She and a friend drove that bus along the West Coast and throughout the Southwest.
“It was just 5 feet shorter than this,” McNeely said, turning the crimson and blue bus, with KU’s logo, onto 13th Street.
Then she headed east down the hill, where she noticed a line of cars all with parking tickets tucked under the windshield wipers.
“I’ve never seen that many tickets at once,” McNeely said, with surprise, as she made a tight turn onto Louisiana Street. Driving the same streets 10 times a day, she’s alert to her surroundings.
Scott Forman, general manager of MV Transportation, which oversees the transit system for both KU and the city of Lawrence, makes a point to talk often with the drivers.
“I can tell when we’re talking Kait is listening and absorbing things,” Forman said.
She stands out, Forman said, because she is always at work ready to do the job.
The bus cruises for a few minutes before making a sharp left onto 11th Street and then turns up Indiana.
If ever there were a bad day to drive a bus, McNeely said it would be when the streets are icy. However, even ice doesn’t usually shake her calm demeanor.
“The buses are so heavy it’s usually not a problem,” she said.
However, there was a day last year when all buses were shut down because of an ice storm.
“You do this job long enough and you are probably more concerned with the other drivers,” Forman said. “Safety is our No. 1 priority. We don’t put the drivers in danger. If they can’t make it up the hill, they don’t need to go up the hill.”
Jaylin Jackson, a senior from Newton, hopped on the bus at the stop on Indiana Street. Running late for a study group before an exam, Jackson said the bus would get her close to the physics lab more quickly than walking.
“I’m majoring in exercise science,” she said. “That’s why I hardly take the bus.”
Others, like freshmen Livia Lambrecht and Sophia Markowsky, agreed they probably should walk more often to class, but it’s handy jumping on the bus that pulls up in front of the residence hall where they live.
Certain times of the day the buses have standing room only, McNeely said. The bus seats about 35 people, but she’ll pack in more standing.
According to KU Parking and Transit statistics, peak riding times on campus are between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.
The bus moves back on campus and heads south as McNeely stops at a crosswalk. She waits patiently while a gaggle of college students moves across the street, all staring at their phones. While riding the bus, too, most passengers are glued to their phones.
“I always carry a book,” McNeely said. She pulls it out when she is parked by the Kansas Union for a brief break. Currently, she is re-reading “1984” by George Orwell.
An aspect of the job McNeely enjoys is interacting with people from all over the world, such as Mohid Prashanth, 25, and Pratik Mishra, 24, graduate students from India who are frequent passengers on her line.
Public transportation saves them a 30-minute walk from their apartment to the campus. However, they walk on Sundays when the buses aren’t in operation.
“It’s awesome that it’s free,” Mishra said, but Prashanth interjects that it’s not free because it comes out of student fees.
McNeely prefers the morning shift, arriving at 7 a.m. She works through the school year, but summers are her time to work on her art: glassblowing, jewelry making, photography.
At 25th and Melrose, the bus turns back toward campus. Even with 10 loops a day, McNeely never tires of the view as the bus heads north up Daisy Hill.
“I like my job. It may seem simple,” McNeely said. “I know I’m just driving a bus, but it’s a meaningful service.”