BY :: TERRI FINCH HAMILTON
PHOTOGRAPHY :: T.J. HAMILTON
Peter Varga really loved driving the bus. He was so excited to get his first regular route as a new bus driver in California.
He was replacing a lady named Bev who had just retired. Everybody loved Bev. People rode the bus just to see her.
“They had high expectations,” Varga recalls. “As people got on the bus, they said, ‘We loved Bev. Are you going to be as good as Bev?’”
Yikes. No pressure.
So Varga played his A game. He joked, jollying the passengers who often packed the popular bus like sardines. He led them in song.
His last day on the job before heading to a promotion, his passengers climbed aboard with balloons and cake. It was a farewell party on wheels.
“That bus was a mess,” he recalls with a laugh. “There was cake and balloons everywhere.
“It was a real relationship I had with them,” he says of his passengers. “I’m still very conscious of that.”
These days Varga, 63, is a bus head honcho, as CEO of The Rapid, which operates the public buses that travel 185 square miles through Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Walker, Wyoming, Grandville and East Grand Rapids.
It’s a busy time for The Rapid. Ridership is up, and the system boasts 10.8 million riders this year — a record.
A millage passed in May 2011 means improvements have been popping up all over town. Buses are arriving more often — every 15 minutes — on popular routes at peak times. They added 23 buses to the fleet, many running later, after midnight, to accommodate riders who work second and third shift.
Varga talks enthusiastically about the Silver Line, expected to be in place in a couple years. Technically known as a Bus Rapid Transit route, the Silver Line will run 9.6 miles of Division Avenue through Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Kentwood from the downtown Grand Rapids Rapid Central Station to 60th Street.
It’s expected to run faster than a bus because it would get a dedicated lane during rush hour traffic, with a journey from 54th Street to the Michigan Street downtown reduced from the current 53-minute trip to about 24 minutes.
A new ad campaign called “Real Riders of The Rapid” shows real-life urban professionals telling how cool it is to ride the bus. (You can check Facebook on the way to work and not worry about crashing into the car in front of you.)
The Rapid has a good vibe going.
Still, Varga says, it can be stressful being him.
The millage in May 2011 passed by just 136 votes. A bit too close for comfort.
“There’s some tension,” Varga says. “People are agitated about taxes. We’re trying to meet the needs of the community.”
He worries that people don’t see the transportation system as “real people.”
“Transit has real faces,” he says.
His is pretty interesting.
Varga speaks six languages: English, Hungarian, French, German, Italian and some Amharic, the language of Ethiopia.
He grows orchids. An outdoorsman, he climbed Mount Hood and has been ice climbing in Canada.
An avid photographer, he takes his camera everywhere. Everywhere. He has a series of photos called “Shots Taken from Peoples’ Bedroom Windows.” (Don’t worry — he asks permission first.)
Varga has been interesting ever since he was a kid.
He was born in Ethiopia and lived there until he was 13. His Hungarian parents left Europe for Africa after World War II.
Young Peter attended a multilingual Catholic school, where his friends were from all over the world. He and his sisters were raised with traditional African cultural values Varga speaks fondly of today.
He loved Ethiopia, and his family often camped in the savanna, where he watched lions, giraffe, zebra.
“Never try to sneak up on a rhinoceros,” he advises. “They can smell you.”
So you can imagine the culture shock when his parents decided to move the family to New York City. His dad, a painter, wanted to try to make it there as an artist.
Peter, 13, was rattled and overwhelmed. Goodbye serene savannas, hello, skyscrapers and rough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
Peter talked funny, the other kids said. He was different. He got beat up.
Varga ended up with degrees in history and political science from New York University. Working his way through college, he drove a taxi at night in New York City, giving rides to such celebrities as Neil Simon, Anne Bancroft, Howard K. Smith and Mel Brooks.
Varga moved to California and got a job driving city buses in Santa Cruz, then moved up to be safety and training coordinator for the transit system.
He got a job in Muskegon as executive director of its bus system. After two years there, he came to Grand Rapids as director of operations.
These days Varga is a transportation heavy hitter. He’s been president of the state public transportation agency and was appointed to a state transportation funding task force.
A board member of the American Public Transportation Association, he was nominated for vice chair and is running unopposed, so it’s likely he’ll be chair of the national group next year. He’s already on its legislative steering committee.
Nationally, bus ridership is up about 5 percent, he says. The Rapid’s increase is more than twice that.
The high cost of gas is a factor, he says. But he also credits lifestyle changes.
“A lot more young people are riding,” Varga says. “The younger generation isn’t as interested in cars. They want walkable neighborhoods, bikes, they want to use public transit.
“When I was that age, I was so focused on getting a car, but now that isn’t as important to young people,” he says. “They want to do their social media on the way to work,” he says.
“They post that they’re on the bus.”
He loves that.
There’s a QR reader code on every bus stop that tells you when the next bus is coming.
“Young people don’t want to carry a bus schedule,” he says.
Riding the bus is personal, Varga says. The former bus driver who replaced beloved Bev knows that well.
“People who drive cars don’t know who they’re driving with,” he muses. “It’s a faceless way of going through life. “In public transit, you know who you’re riding with — all real people who are making a different choice on how they want to live.”
He and his wife, Susan, recently took their 4-year-old granddaughter Lily to New York City. They went to Coney Island, Central Park, Little Italy, the Statue of Liberty, all on public transportation.
“Yesterday I was on the bus platform and I saw a bunch of little kids with their teacher,” Varga says. “Those were real kids riding the bus. Some people think our riders are people mooching off life. People who need to pull up their boot straps and a buy a car.”
He shakes his head.
“The people who ride the bus aren’t who you think they are.”
Quite often, it’s Varga. Some days he’s even behind the wheel.
“Just to get the feel of it again,” he says.