Fewer City Bus Drivers Means Longer Wait Times, Limited Service

By: - October 20, 2022 12:00 am

Rosa Contreras and her daughter, Aalia, wait for the bus in Los Angeles in June. Los Angeles is one of many areas where transit agencies are experiencing a shortage of bus drivers. Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press

Rigid scheduling requirements. Mandatory overtime. Hostile interactions with passengers, often because drivers must enforce fares or intervene in onboard incidents.

Driving a public bus isn’t an easy job, and many transit agencies around the country are having trouble finding people who want to do it.

Many agencies have boosted pay rates or offered bonuses and are trying to streamline hiring practices and improve worker schedules. In the meantime, driver shortages have forced them to reduce service or delay expansion plans, meaning longer wait times and more crowded buses for some passengers.

“It’s a big deal, and it’s probably an issue we’re going to be dealing with for some time,” Matt Dickens, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group, said of the shortage. “It involves doing all sorts of things to try to make it easier for people in the jobs and for people to apply for the jobs.”

An October report by the association found that 96% of 190 transit agencies that responded to a survey reported experiencing a workforce shortage overall. The highest level of vacant positions were bus operators.

Dickens said the shortage was becoming a problem before the coronavirus pandemic because of an aging workforce and a lack of interest from younger people. The pandemic has exacerbated it.

“We’ve had a high rate of retirements, and now, with low unemployment and the increase in e-commerce, transit agencies are in competition with package delivery companies and others for drivers,” he said.

Like school bus, delivery and truck drivers, city transit drivers must have a commercial license, which means they must pass a specialized exam and road and drug tests.

A July report by TransitCenter, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in New York, found that while lots of agencies offer a middle-class salary and good benefits for city bus drivers, housing and living costs in many areas have skyrocketed, and operator pay hasn’t kept up.

Starting salaries for drivers at agencies in the top seven ridership regions range between $19.55 and $29.61 an hour, not including overtime, according to the report. Operators with years of tenure can make much more.

Safety concerns also may be dissuading some would-be drivers. Researchers cite Federal Transit Administration data that showed transit operator assaults by passengers increased fourfold from 2009 to 2020.

“It has definitely gotten worse during the pandemic and has impacted operators. They’re being yelled or spat at or even physically assaulted,” said Chris Van Eyken, a TransitCenter program manager. “And while train operators are in an enclosed cockpit, the bus operator is right there, in the vehicle with you.”

In New York, Metropolitan Transportation Authority data shows that the vast majority of harassment and assault against transit workers is aimed at bus drivers. Over nine weeks in August and September, there were 223 incidents in which transit employees were harassed on buses and 11 cases of assault. That represented 85% of such incidents against transit employees.

During the first year of the pandemic, ridership plunged nationally, and many transit agencies suffered big drops in revenue, forcing them to freeze hiring and make other cost-cutting moves. There also was a spike in bus driver retirements, and agencies couldn’t replace them. 

Ridership has increased, but many transit agencies have fallen behind in hiring bus drivers.

“They are struggling to win back public trust without having a sufficient workforce,” said Van Eyken. “Lots of agencies have had to cut schedules. That has meant more crowded buses, more frequent delays and longer commutes for riders.”

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA, now has 2,520 bus operators but still is short 180. That has forced officials to eliminate some bus trips, depending on the day and staffing situation, officials said.

Spokesperson Andrew Busch said SEPTA had to freeze hiring for six months in 2020, so it couldn’t bring on new drivers to replace those who retired. It’s still difficult recruiting new operators, despite a 3% pay raise instituted last year, he said. Starting drivers now earn $19.55 an hour and can progress to $32.59 after four years.

The agency also is trying to attract candidates through a partnership with West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, a nonprofit workforce development group that helps people with lower incomes.

In the Los Angeles area, LA Metro had a shortage of nearly 600 bus operators throughout 2021. It still is short about 350 to 360 drivers, according to Robert Bonner, the agency’s chief people officer.

Bonner said the agency instituted a hiring freeze during part of the pandemic, but even when the freeze ended, hiring wasn’t keeping pace with the number of operators needed.

LA Metro offered a $3,000 signing bonus to attract new drivers. It also boosted entry-level pay from $20.49 to $23 an hour, with a top rate increasing from $33.21 to $42.07, as part of a new labor agreement instituted in July, which replaced the signing bonus, officials said.

The agency also launched Bienvenidos a Metro, an initiative to hire and retain bilingual Spanish and English speakers. It offers instruction and training in both languages to candidates who failed their initial commercial driver’s license test because they struggled with the vocabulary. So far, 25 of 27 students passed their license test after taking the class, officials said.

The bus driver shortage isn’t just affecting big cities.

In southwest Virginia, Blacksburg Transit, a small agency with a fleet of about 70 vehicles, also has been hit hard, said Transit Director Brian Booth.

The agency, which primarily serves students and employees affiliated with the local university, Virginia Tech, has about 100 full- and part-time drivers on staff but needs between 125 and 140, Booth said.

Only 30 positions are full-time, and about half of the part-timers are students at the university or recent graduates.

Ridership plummeted when the university largely went to remote learning early in the pandemic, Booth said. Some drivers concerned about COVID-19 took early retirement.

“COVID put us behind on our hiring cycle,” he said. “Once you get behind, because of our cyclical nature of hiring, it’s hard to catch up.”

Booth, who was a part-time bus driver at Blacksburg Transit when he was a Virginia Tech horticulture major in 2007, said the transit industry faces a major hurdle in attracting people to the job.

“Very few people consciously as a school-age child say, ‘I’m going to grow up and be a bus driver,’” he said. “Moving forward, the transit industry is going to have to do a better job of touching those school-age children and planting the seeds that transit is a viable career option.”

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Jenni Bergal

Jenni Bergal covers transportation, infrastructure and cybersecurity for Stateline. She has been a reporter at Kaiser and the Center for Public Integrity.