Rigid planning requirements. Compulsory overtime. Hostile interactions with passengers, often because drivers have to enforce fares or intervene in incidents on board.
Driving a public bus is not an easy task, and many transit agencies across the country are struggling to find people willing to do so.
Many agencies have raised pay rates or offered bonuses and are trying to streamline hiring practices and improve worker schedules. Meanwhile, driver shortages have forced them to cut service or delay expansion plans, meaning longer wait times and busier buses for some passengers.
“It’s a big problem, and it’s probably something we’re going to be grappling with for a while,” said Matt Dickens, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association, a group commercial, about the shortage. “It involves doing all sorts of things to try to make it easier for the people who are in the jobs and for the people who are applying for the jobs.”
An October report from the association found that 96% of 190 transit agencies that responded to a survey said they had experienced labor shortages overall. The highest level of job vacancies was for bus drivers.
Dickens said the shortage was becoming a problem before the coronavirus pandemic due to an aging workforce and a lack of interest from young people. The pandemic has exacerbated it.
“We’ve had a high rate of retirements, and now, with low unemployment and the rise of e-commerce, transportation agencies are competing with package delivery companies and others for jobs. drivers,” he said.
Like school bus, delivery, and truck drivers, city transit drivers must hold a commercial license, which means they must pass a specialized exam and drug and driving tests. .
A July report from TransitCenter, a New York-based nonprofit research and advocacy group, found that while many agencies offer middle-class pay and good benefits to city bus drivers, the cost of housing and life in many areas has skyrocketed and operator pay has not kept pace.
According to the report, starting wages for drivers at agencies in the seven major ridership regions range between $19.55 and $29.61 per hour, not including overtime. Operators with years of seniority can earn much more.
Safety issues may also deter some potential drivers. The researchers cite Federal Transit Administration data that showed passenger assaults on transit operators quadrupled between 2009 and 2020.
“It definitely got worse during the pandemic and impacted operators. They get yelled at, spat at or even physically assaulted,” said TransitCenter program manager Chris Van Eyken. “And while the train operators are in an enclosed cockpit, the bus operator is right there in the vehicle with you.”
In New York, data from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority shows that the vast majority of cases of harassment and assault against transit workers are aimed at bus drivers. For nine weeks in August and September, there were 223 incidents in which transit workers were harassed on buses and 11 cases of assault. This accounted for 85% of these incidents against transit workers.
In the first year of the pandemic, ridership plummeted nationwide and many transit agencies suffered severe drops in revenue, forcing them to freeze hiring and take other measures to cost reduction. There has also been an increase in bus driver retirements, and agencies have been unable to replace them.
Ridership has increased, but many transit agencies have fallen behind in hiring bus drivers.
“They’re struggling to regain public trust without having a sufficient manpower,” Van Eyken said. “Many agencies have had to reduce their hours. This means more crowded buses, more frequent delays and longer journeys for riders.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA, now has 2,520 bus operators, but is still short of 180. That has forced officials to eliminate some bus trips, depending on the day and the workforce situation. , officials said.
Spokesman Andrew Busch said SEPTA had to freeze hiring for six months in 2020 so it could not recruit new drivers to replace those who had retired. It is still difficult to recruit new operators, despite a 3% salary increase instituted last year, he said. Novice drivers now earn $19.55 per hour and can increase to $32.59 after four years.
The agency is also trying to attract applicants through a partnership with the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, a nonprofit workforce development group that helps low-income people.
In the Los Angeles area, LA Metro has been short of nearly 600 bus operators through 2021. It’s still short about 350 to 360 drivers, according to Robert Bonner, the agency’s director of human resources.
Bonner said the agency instituted a hiring freeze during part of the pandemic, but even when the freeze ended, hiring did not keep pace with the number of operators needed.
LA Metro offered a $3,000 signing bonus to attract new drivers. It also raised the entry-level wage from $20.49 to $23 an hour, with a maximum rate rising from $33.21 to $42.07, under 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 provides education and training in both languages to candidates who failed their first commercial driver’s license exam because they had difficulty with vocabulary. So far, 25 out of 27 students have passed their licensing exam after taking the course, officials said.
The shortage of bus drivers does not only affect large cities.
In southwest Virginia, Blacksburg Transit, a small agency with a fleet of about 70 vehicles, was also hard hit, Transit Manager Brian Booth said.
The agency, which primarily serves students and employees affiliated with the local university, Virginia Tech, has about 100 full-time and part-time drivers but needs 125 to 140, Booth said.
Only 30 positions are full-time and about half of part-time employees are university students or recent graduates.
Ridership plummeted when the university shifted heavily to remote learning early in the pandemic, Booth said. Some drivers concerned about COVID-19 have taken early retirement.
“COVID has put us behind on our hiring cycle,” he said. “Once you’ve fallen behind, due to the cyclical nature of hiring, it’s hard to catch up.”
Booth, who was a part-time bus driver with Blacksburg Transit when he was a horticulture student at Virginia Tech in 2007, said the transit industry faces a major hurdle in attracting people to work.
“Very few school-aged people consciously say, ‘I’m going to grow up and be a bus driver,'” he said. “Moving forward, the transit industry will need to do a better job of reaching these school-aged children and planting the seeds that transit is a viable career option.”