‘Ghost Buses’ Haunt Transit Agencies and Frustrate Riders

By: - January 31, 2023 12:00 am

People wait for a bus in Chicago earlier this month. Some transit agencies are trying to fix the problem of “ghost buses,” which on riders’ tracking apps appear to be on their way to a stop, but don’t exist. Nam Y. Huh/The Associated Press

Noah Appelbaum was freezing on a bitterly cold evening as he stood waiting at a Chicago bus stop earlier this month. He was headed to work and didn’t want to be late.

The bus-tracking app on his smartphone kept showing that the next bus would be there in just a few minutes. But that time kept being pushed back, and the bus never showed up. He ended up boarding a later scheduled bus that finally arrived after he had been shivering for 40 minutes.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Appelbaum, 34, a guitar teacher and actor. “There’s not just the unpleasantness of waiting in the cold. It also throws off your whole schedule. It’s not only a matter of getting myself to work, but also of communicating with everyone waiting for me at work.”

Such “ghost buses” show on online bus-tracking apps and websites that they’re on their way, but they never arrive. Sometimes, it appears that they’re nearly there, but then they just vanish.

Riders who’ve been ghosted say they can’t feel confident about planning their trips because they never know when — or whether — a bus will come.

The ghost bus phenomenon stems largely from two problems: a bus driver shortage that agencies have been grappling with since the COVID-19 pandemic and technology that doesn’t give riders accurate, up-to-date information.

Transit agencies that have ghost bus problems say they’re aware of riders’ frustrations and are trying to address them, by updating their tracking systems and by hiring more drivers.

“One missed trip has a significant impact on customers. They depend on us to get to their doctor’s appointments, work, school,” said Leroy Jones, senior vice president of bus services at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in the District of Columbia, which has had ghost bus issues.

In some areas, the ghost bus problem can have a disproportionate impact on people of color and those with lower incomes, who often comprise a big chunk of ridership and are more likely to rely on that form of transportation.

The Chicago Transit Authority and some other transit agencies use a bus tracker app with a mixture of scheduled service data and real-time information, which comes from transponders on buses that share their locations through GPS. If a trip listed on the schedule has been canceled because there are mechanical problems or too few drivers, the app may pull that data anyway, show that the bus is on its way and give a time estimate. Then the bus will disappear.

The problem isn’t just with transit agencies’ apps. Third parties, such as Google Maps, use agency data for their bus trip planning apps, and if that information isn’t right, that’s what riders may see.

“Ghost buses are a pretty new issue. It’s an emerging metric that is becoming really important for agencies to be tracking,” said Mary Buchanan, research manager at TransitCenter, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in New York. “You can’t fix what isn’t measured.”

She said agencies also need to make ghost bus and canceled trip statistics available to the public. “It’s an idea of accountability. Agencies are hesitant to post that data, but from a point of openness, it’s better.”

Buchanan said ghost buses were rare before the pandemic because agencies typically had enough drivers for full scheduled service. If a bus was supposed to show up, it generally did, although it may have been late.

During the pandemic, agencies saw much higher rates of canceled trips because they didn’t have enough drivers.

An October report by the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group, found that 96% of 190 transit agencies that responded to a survey reported experiencing a workforce shortage overall. The position with the highest level of vacancies was bus drivers.

And the phantom bus problem hasn’t just affected the nation’s largest transit systems.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, a WBTV investigation last May found phantom buses were bedeviling the Charlotte Area Transit System, where buses missed nearly 98 trips a day in the first quarter of 2022.

In Iowa, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority, which launched its trip planner in 2018, updated its system this fall to try to address these issues and make its trip planner more reliable. Now, it is using only real-time data and not combining it with scheduled data, according to spokesperson Erin Hockman.

Larger transit agencies also are tackling the ghost bus problem.

Brian Steele, a spokesperson for the Chicago Transit Authority, said workforce shortages are the main cause of ghost buses at his agency.

“We understand that situations where estimates end up being incorrect are extremely frustrating to any rider,” he wrote in an email to Stateline. “That’s why we are acutely focused on addressing the workforce challenges that underpin many of the tracker issues.”

Steele said the CTA hired more than 450 new bus operators last year but is still short about 500 and is continuing to try to recruit and hire more. It also has realigned its schedules to help improve tracker accuracy, and anticipates riders will see fewer instances of ghost buses throughout the system, he said.

Steele said the agency also is working on technological changes to its bus tracker that it hopes to roll out later this year.

But Micah Fiedler, a co-organizer of Commuters Take Action, a coalition of CTA riders fed up with service issues, said that despite the agency’s efforts, ghost buses remain a problem.

“I’ve ascended past frustration. It is infuriating,” he said. “You’re being set up for something you trust, and then immediately have it revoked when you see the app change from ‘bus is due’ to ‘next bus in 23 minutes.’”

Fiedler said his group has received about 5,000 complaints from riders since May, and more than three-quarters are about late or ghost buses.

“We’ve gotten hundreds of complaints about people being late to work or school. Some have been fired for tardiness because they can’t rely on their transit,” he said. “People who have medical issues are having to wait in the cold or excessive heat for a ghost, and that’s a real health issue for them.”

A group of volunteers in Chicago even has created a website called ghostbuses.com that analyzes the transit agency’s real-time and schedule data and shows how many buses run on each route compared with their schedule.

One candidate in the current Chicago mayor’s race, Democratic state Rep. Kam Buckner, has made it an issue and is proposing changes to the city’s transit system that include fixing the ghost bus problem, after he personally was ghosted.

In the District of Columbia, transit officials say they’ve recently upgraded their technology to try to fix the ghost bus problem.

The previous strategy was to show real-time and scheduled buses, but the agency worked with a technology vendor and in December, switched to using only real-time data. Officials say that has allowed customers to have more reliable information and more confidence in the system.

According to the agency, “no show” complaints have declined by a third, from 226 in the period from mid-November to mid-December, to 151 from mid-December, when the changes went into effect, until mid-January. 

Jones of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority noted, however, that while the agency makes the data available to third-party apps, it has no control over what they do with it, and their information may not necessarily be reliable. It encourages riders to use busETA, its own tracking app.

But even if transit agencies can fix bus app tracking flaws, TransitCenter’s Buchanan said they still have to deal with the bigger issues resulting from maintenance problems and not having enough drivers. She said agencies need to address pay and working conditions.

“The big picture of not having enough folks to drive the buses can’t be fixed tomorrow,” she said.

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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.