This Philly bus driver is also a substitute teacher and public transit activist

  • People
  • Saturday, 27 Apr 2024

McKnight drives the Navy Yard bus year round and the Philly Phlash bus April through September. Photos: Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

Marcus McKnight’s fascination with public transportation began when he was growing up on a quiet block in Philadelphia city's Logan neighbourhood in Pennsylvania, the United States. Riding Septa gave him a window to the world, or at least, to Philadelphia.

Sure, that window may have been scratched and smudged sometimes, but it never dulled McKnight’s curiosity.

"It was like an adventure: 'What can I see where we’re going to go?’” he said. "Whether it was to school or to the supermarket, the people were always different and there was always something different going on.”

Motivated by his love for public transit, McKnight, 34, who still lives in Logan, got his commercial driver’s license in 2019 and today works as a driver for the Krapf Group, which operates the Navy Yard and Philly Phlash buses.

But McKnight, a 2007 Olney High grad, has long felt called to teaching too. In a 2003 Daily News student spotlight feature, McKnight, then just 13, said he wanted to become "a teacher or the mayor”.

McKnight is now pursuing his bachelor’s degree in history online from Southern New Hampshire University and in December, he started substitute teaching at K-12 charter schools in Philly.

"I thought, 'Let me do this part-time and see how this will work out, see if my heart is still in it',” he said.

On top of working two jobs and going to school, McKnight also advocates for public transit riders and workers through the Philly Transit Riders Union, a grassroots group he co-founded that works to defend and expand public transit.

"We’re the first organisation to give viewpoints of not just bus riders but also transit employees,” he said.

McKnight often posts about his experiences as a bus driver, substitute teacher, and transit activist on X.McKnight at the start of his Navy Yard bus route at Broad Street and Pattison Avenue in South Philly.McKnight at the start of his Navy Yard bus route at Broad Street and Pattison Avenue in South Philly.

His ultimate goal is to meld his passions together and create a programme for schools that would not only teach students how to use public transit but also inform them about job opportunities in the field.

"I have to create my dream job,” he said.

The Phlash

The two buses McKnight drives vary widely in terms of ridership and route. The Philly Phlash, which runs April through September, is mainly for tourists (though some locals do hop on). It loops through Old City and Center City, stopping at sites like Independence Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"I’ve met people from across the country and around the globe,” McKnight said, of driving the Phlash. "I always ask people when they get on the bus: Where are you coming from? How long are you here for? And what do you like?”

He then dishes out advice accordingly, before seeking some of his own.

"I ask, 'If I come to your town what is one place I have to visit and one place I have to eat and drink?’” McKnight said.

And what’s the question he gets asked most?

"Everybody always asks about the Rocky stairs...People are always asking me, 'Are you going to run up the steps too?’” McKnight said. "Ma’am, I live in a three-floor house, my bedroom and office are on the third floor and my laundry is in the basement. When I do a load of laundry, it’s like running up the Rocky steps.”

'He’s on point’

On the Navy Yard bus, which runs all year, McKnight sees mostly city residents who are on their way to or going home from work.

Before starting an early-morning shift of the loop recently, McKnight draped the driver’s seat of his bus with a fuzzy pepperoni pizza blanket (he almost went with his Golden Girls blanket that reads "Thug Life”, but chose the pie instead).McKnight speaks during a rally for 'Transit For All PA!' on the steps of the capitol building in Harrisburg in June 2021. Photo: Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNSMcKnight speaks during a rally for 'Transit For All PA!' on the steps of the capitol building in Harrisburg in June 2021. Photo: Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

His first pickup was at Broad and Pattison, where he kept close watch on the clock to make sure he left at the scheduled departure time – 7.10am.

"Gotta go!” he yelled.

Over the course of the next several hours and several loops (McKnight can drive up to 32 loops on a split-shift day), he picked up riders who were still half asleep, a man heading to a job interview, a woman in from out of town on business, some stone-faced shipyard workers, and longtime passengers like Lennora White.

White, 65, of Overbrook, has worked at the Navy Yard for 40 years and said she enjoys riding with McKnight, whom she exchanges treats and snacks with from time to time.

"He’s a good guy,” White said. "He’s on point, he’s on time, and he wants to get you to work on time, which I love.”

'Impart a lesson’

McKnight’s punctuality and penchant for rising early comes in handy at his second job, with a company that places substitute teachers in K-12 charter schools in Philly.

He said his first day subbing was "laid-back, pleasant and enjoyable”, but other days, it’s been challenging.

"The most difficult part of teaching, whether you’re a substitute or you’ve been doing it for 30 years, is student behaviour,” he said. "A lot of students grow up with iPads and cell phones so their level of concentration is a lot different.”

McKnight said he has various tools and techniques to reach students, but on days when none of them work, it’s frustrating.

"You question yourself, ‘What mistakes am I making?’ I can inspire you, I can encourage you, but I can’t get anything done if there’s no borderline basic respect,” he said. "Just all day having to say 'Please sit down. Please be quiet.’ I get paid money to drive a bus, you’re not going to be running me ragged.”

On the hard days, McKnight tries to remember why he wanted to become a teacher.

"As a Black man it’s important to have Black male teachers, that’s the biggest thing I thought about when getting into teaching,” he said.

And on the good days, McKnight shares his love of public transit and talks about his job with his students.

"I get to tell them about my life and impart a lesson,” he said. "I tell them I’m a bus driver so if you have questions why something may be, ask me. I want to show them the other jobs you can do.”

Authentically Philly

It’s those conversations and his work with the Philly Transit Riders Union that inspired McKnight’s dream of bringing a transit education programme into schools.

"The first thing would be how to be a smart and savvy to read maps, how to read schedules. You should know how to use tools in case something happens or your phone dies,” he said.

"The second part would be educating about jobs in transit. In the transit industry a lot of people are starting to retire...If we educate students we can start filling some of these jobs.”As a lifelong resident, McKnight knows Philly isn’t perfect, and may never be. But it’s home and it’s real, and when you really love something, you want to help it succeed.

"The nice part about Philadelphia is it’s authentically itself,” he said. "I’m not looking for perfection, I’m just looking for it to be a little bit better than it was yesterday.” – The Philadelphia Inquirer/Tribune News Service

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