Celebrating 40 years of women bus drivers in Budapest – meet the ladies behind the big wheel
Today we don’t even raise an eyebrow when we see a woman driving a bus in Budapest – but it’s only been 40 years since ladies took the wheel for the city’s public transport company. Back then, Hungary was still under Soviet rule. While the USSR had already sent Valentina Tereshkova into space, here in Hungary, women were prohibited by law to even drive buses. When the vehicles became easier to drive, the law was abolished, opening up new doors. But what’s it like for the ladies behind the big wheel? Meet the pioneering Istvánné Gulyás and two current female bus drivers.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of women becoming bus drivers in Budapest, the city’s public transport company BKV organised a round-table discussion, inviting two current female drivers and one of the first ladies to take the wheel in Hungary.
“When you hear that old diesel engine sound, it’s wonderful. If it gets to you, it will never let you go,” begins Istvánné Gulyás, one of Budapest’s first female bus drivers – and all three ladies agree. “And the smell!” adds Gabi, a current employee.
All three ladies seem to have had some kind of connection with BKV before they joined – a husband, a father or a relative. But they all just wanted to drive and be in control. “It is much better than sitting in an office. The office desk doesn’t move. But out in traffic, every day is different and you go wherever you can,” says Kati, a current BKV employee. “Anything you do has an immediate result.”
It would be perfectly valid to think that seeing ladies doing something that had not been allowed before, and something rather manly, would have caused mixed feelings among male colleagues and passengers. As Istvánné Gulyás explains, “Back in the day, if there were technical difficulties or massive wheels to turn, male colleagues always came to the rescue. With very few exceptions – and those guys behaved just the same at home with their wives as well – all colleagues were very helpful and friendly.”
Kati adds: “When I joined, at first they were a little bit surprised – ‘Wow, a girl, what does she want?’ – but then realised it’s great to have girls around… – she laughs – and the same goes for the passengers. They all stared a lot in the beginning and some commented positively, but once an older gentleman shouted at me, ‘What if you handled the clutch a bit more smoothly?’ and I said, ‘OK, but there isn’t one in here!”
Her colleague Gabi adds: “While on the road, people would sometimes stare. Once a guy looked at me from his truck with doubt written all over his face so I just pointed at my hair and said it’s blonde. He smiled and drove away. Some colleagues ironically kept saying, ‘Do you need help with that?’ But I never needed any help”.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that last year, Gabi performed admirably at the first European Bus Drivers’ Championships. Contestants had to perform challenging tasks with three different types of vehicle, such as turning a 12-metre bus in a room 15 metres wide, with the stopwatch ticking. “You had to undertake a certain task in one bus, then jump out and get in another bus straight away to attempt another difficult challenge. When I finished my last one, in under 7:56 when anything under eight minutes is outstanding, my male opponent from Milan was just leaving his second bus, getting ready for the final round.”
Back at the Budapest presentation, questions arise from the audience about how ladylike a bus driver can be. The ladies tell us that although they do not put on much make-up, they do risk a skirt or a dress on special occasions such as Women’s Day. High heels are prohibited for obvious reasons, but efforts at beautification are sometimes recognised all the same. All three ladies say that some gentlemen passengers do notice them from time to time and express their gallantry. “They bring some sweets, some chocolates or pay compliments,” says Kati. “Or they just don’t get off the bus but stay for a few rounds around town,” adds Gabi.
According to Istvánné Gulyás: “I think we need that a little bit, too. If I wasn’t ever acknowledged, I would think that I was either really stupid or not much of a looker,” she laughs. And all of this is just innocent wooing – these three ladies are all taken. And not that it happens that often, but if any passenger gets a little too pushy, the ladies can count on their male colleagues.
Their favourite buses prove to be the Hungarian-made Ikarus, especially the Ikarus 260, even as opposed to a Volvo or a Mercedes. There really must be something in that diesel smell and sound!
Concerning accidents and bad driving on the road, the ladies concur that the tuition they received before they started was exceptional. Exams take place every two years and there’s lot of advice and practice. They had hardly driven much before joining BKV, but the training they received made them exceptional drivers. “We need to be fully aware. We know that we are transporting passengers and we have to take care of them, we are responsible for them. Some are standing, too. It is a whole different mindset to driving a car,” says Istvánné Gulyás.
Gabi adds: “We have great visibility, so we have to think far ahead. We have to know what other drivers are about to do and adjust accordingly. The watchword is avoidance, as much as possible. Avoid accidents and be cautious.”
And about the future, the two ladies say they are planning to stay for as long as possible, at least until retirement. A flexible schedule, the fixed salary and the variety they find on the roads is very appealing and something they would never swap for a job in an office.
Although more and more ladies are taking jobs at BKV, the industry is still predominantly staffed by men. Currently, BKV employs 135 female bus drivers, 4% of the total, plus 94 metro and 227 tram drivers, as we find out from BKV CEO, Tibor Bolla. “Without them, BKV would be struggling,” he underlines.
“It is great to be a woman among so many men, and it is not about the mini skirt. It is about mutual respect and respecting borders that needn’t be crossed,” Istvánné Gulyás concludes.