The Bus Driver Shortage is an Emergency

I know we’re having a lot of emergencies and it’s hard to keep track, but many US transit agencies are looking at devastating service cuts due to a shortage of bus drivers.  Drivers are quitting or retiring early much faster than agencies can replace them.  One friend told me their agency is losing 10 drivers for every one they hire.

Here in Portland, TriMet is cutting 9% of its service, bigger even than the cuts in the Great Recession.  I’m seeing similar cuts all over the US.

Can you blame the bus drivers?  The job was always hard, and now it’s more dangerous in two ways: People breathe on drivers a lot, not always masked, and the mental health epidemic is showing up in more rudeness and bad behavior.  Worst of all, some US cities are seeing a rise in assaults on drivers.

Meanwhile, there’s been huge growth in delivery jobs, some of which pay decently and don’t involve dealing with people.

Transit agencies are doing what they can, offering one-time bonuses for signing up.  But the real problem is retention, and it’s hard to imagine how that will be solved without some increase in compensation, also known as operating cost.  It means less service for the same operating dollar.  And of course when compensation goes up it doesn’t come back down.

Before you jump on me:  I believe that drivers should be paid well and held to high standards. I believe that a bus driver, with an employed partner, should be able to own a home and raise children.  Most US bus drivers are unionized and tend to have relatively good pay and benefits, certainly compared to non-union driving jobs.  (One friend of mine is a freelance software consultant but still drives a bus part-time just for the health insurance.)  I wish all transportation jobs paid as well.

But in any case, these service cuts are an emergency.  They are not minor.  They are not necessarily temporary, because right now it’s not clear how the problem will get better.  We could be looking at a lasting shrinkage in our transit services, right when people are crying out for expanded service and many agencies had been on track to deliver it.

What can you do?  Advocate for funding, but also:

  • Be kind to your bus driver. If you have a moment, watch them in action.  Notice how hard their job is, and how much they have to deal with.  Thank them.
  • Be kind to your transit agency management.  It’s a terrible moment for them.  They’re as horrified as you are by having to cut service.  (You can be kind to them and still be mad at them for some things. But be sure that what you’re mad about is really their fault.  The driver shortage isn’t.)

This advice may sound simplistic, but it’s actually practical.  Kindness is a powerful form of activism.  A lot of it can add up to big change.


22 Responses to The Bus Driver Shortage is an Emergency

  1. Phillip Summers December 3, 2021 at 5:27 pm #

    We are seeing it here in Winston Salem NC.

    We advocated for expansion but they are unable to provide.

  2. Andy December 4, 2021 at 1:10 pm #

    A high-level manager of a transit agency serving my community said verbatim during a public meeting that their driver shortage, which has resulted in significant service cuts, “isn’t an emergency.” So while I agree that there’s a lot outside of agency staff’s control, I am concerned that challenges like this become even harder to address because many transit agencies’ boards and management — particularly in auto-dependent places where these leaders don’t regularly ride transit themselves — don’t fully grasp the importance of or take pride in providing high-quality bus and rail service.

  3. Kevin Chambers December 4, 2021 at 2:28 pm #

    Thanks for the timely post, Jarrett.

    We can also advocate for more road space for buses. Dedicated bus lanes can make each bus on the road (and the person operating it) *much* more efficient. We can provide the same level of service with fewer vehicles if buses aren’t stuck in traffic with POVs.

  4. Ryan Wilhite December 5, 2021 at 7:17 am #

    In Indianapolis, we are facing the same problem. Cuts to service due to an operator shortage. And that means we’re also unable to expand service until we can stablilize the workforce. All of this is coming as we’re getting ready to break ground on our second rapid transit line, which will open in 2024. Union signed their contract in 2020, with expiration at the end of the 2023. The contract provides only 2% wage increases (although I heard it increased the baseline pay). I’m interested to see if we lose more drivers if inflation continues to increase and if there is a vaccine mandate. From what I hear from some, the vaccine mandate could be devastating. I don’t know if you (or anyone else) has heard the same.

  5. Sean Gillis December 6, 2021 at 9:24 am #

    This is part of a broader trend in our society, specifically in the US, but across the wealth west. Front line workers have long been treated poorly and are leaving their jobs in response (the ‘Great Resignation’ story). How big a deal the Great Resignation is seems to be debated, but stories like this are common.

    Here in Canada there is a big shortage of health care workers, among other jobs. Retention is a huge problem: too many shifts, extra work from the pandemic and the already high stress of the jobs are too much for many workers. Can’t say I blame them, but this is horrible for patient care! This is also tough for the workers who stay.

    How have we gotten to this point — shortages of critical workers, but high employment growth in digital services, finance, management, and other professionals services? This seems to be a moral failure as much as anything. We don’t value hard, essential work and don’t respect those who do critical jobs. They often lack good pay, decent working conditions, and respect for their outsized contributions to our wellbeing.

    Michael Sandel, a contemporary philosopher, makes a strong argument that western ‘meritocracies’ that reward ‘smart’, college educated people have been disastrous for the working class. Since less educated workers didn’t ‘earn’ a spot among the winners, their poor pay and lesser social standing is seen as deserved or tolerable. This is devastating for social trust. This is devastating for job prospects and financial wellbeing of many workers. It may finally be coming home to roost for all of us if truly essential workers are walking. If this truly is a Great Resignation, let’s hope we wake up and make some changes.

  6. Mark December 6, 2021 at 12:25 pm #

    If only US transit agencies would show interest in separate lanes, signal priority, all-door boarding, and all-door fare payment without driver involvement. With these measures, bus routes would move a lot faster and more reliably, meaning that fewer drivers would be needed to supply a full level of service. The driver’s job would be somewhat more enjoyable too.

    • Jarrett December 19, 2021 at 1:41 pm #

      Most US agencies are interested in all these things! When it comes to lanes and signal priority, though, the transit agency isn’t in control. The city government or state highway department is.

  7. Sailor Boy December 6, 2021 at 5:18 pm #

    I firmly believe that a big part of the problem is that we just expect drivers to do too much.
    They are expected to do fare collection which can be done with transit cards or on board ticket machines.
    They are expected to do fare enforcement which should be done by transit police.
    both are a hugely confrontational part of the role, which would put anyone off.

    Driving is also high stress because drivers are expected to magically keep a route on time despite exposure to traffic; bus lanes would massively improve conditions for staff!

    • Dave December 7, 2021 at 8:16 am #

      “They are expected to do fare collection which can be done with transit cards or on board ticket machines.
      They are expected to do fare enforcement which should be done by transit police.
      both are a hugely confrontational part of the role, which would put anyone off.”

      In most large US cities, they don’t do either of these things. Fareboxes at the front of the bus collect the fares, and the driver doesn’t make any change or even need to look at or touch the farebox – it beeps when they’ve paid with cash or card. And after a series of high-profile violent altercations between drivers and passengers who didn’t want to pay, drivers now are behind a plexiglass shield and told to not confront anybody… to the point where a good third of the passengers in my local transit system don’t pay anymore at all and nobody says anything to them. (This is not good for many other reasons, including the fact that the people most likely to stiff the farebox seem to be also most likely to engage in other antisocial behavior like playing loud music, littering, taking up more than 1 seat, etc. all with no visible pushback from the transit authority… but the free-for-all attitude has resulted in bus drivers no longer being stabbed or shot as often.)

      Being a bus driver is very hard. But they literally only now need to drive the bus, at least in the US.

      • Sailor Boy December 8, 2021 at 3:27 pm #

        I wasn’t aware hat was the case in the US. Great to see sensible decisions around fare collection, but it’s a real shame to see that there hasn’t been an appropriate level of policing.

        • Henry December 10, 2021 at 11:15 am #

          To put things in perspective;

          * due to the controversial nature of policing these days, putting enforcement on transit vehicles these days is a controversial topic

          * police officers in the US have a tendency to see doing certain things as below the prestige that they have for their profession, so even if they were welcome they probably wouldn’t do it. See: parking enforcement

          • Sailor Boy December 12, 2021 at 2:48 pm #

            I am aware of that general trend in the US. It’s a big part of the reason that I really support transit police. They would have specifically limited roles, i.e. fare enforcement and safety on transit (maybe parking could also be rolled in). They would not be able to pursue other arrests/check warrants, etc. I.e they wouldn’t be police, they would effectively be government managed transit security guards.

      • John December 14, 2021 at 5:40 am #

        Where I am, we are too small for transit police, and fares are too critical a part of our funding to not enforce them. We also don’t have registering fareboxes–its still cash in a drop box, or tickets or monthly passes. So, drivers do all these things, as well as get up to assist people with bags, mobility devices, etc. This is very normal for smaller transit systems in the US.

        My transit system also happens to not be unionized, and has better and faster growing pay and benefits then most of the unionized systems in our state. That isn’t a judgment on union vs. non-union. It’s just an observation that the stereotype of union being better paid often doesn’t match reality in smaller systems where management knows everyone and there are good relationships all around, and a valuing of staff at all levels. We are still short on drivers and about 15% of our fixed route services are suspended as a result.

        I think a primary problem is the schedules. Entry level has to work second shift due to seniority, and there are many driving jobs out there that allow people to work first shift right off the bat. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about that unless we don’t run transit after 6pm!

        Our workforce is also predominantly older, and the pandemic has encouraged a lot of them to retire. We are finding few young people choosing driving professions, which I think is partly due to a cultural devaluing of blue-collar work and the hype that everything will be self-driving in 10 years (which I don’t believe).

        • Max WYSS January 8, 2022 at 3:00 am #

          I think you bring up a key point with scheduling. For a transit agency, the seniority system is sheer poison. It might have had some advantages back in the steam railroad days, but there is no space for it in the modern society. There are systems around which do level things out, and allow everybody having “good” shifts, but also “shit” shifts.

    • Bill Bradley December 8, 2021 at 8:17 pm #

      This is mostly a spot on post. Trimet has lost 2 front line workers for every 1 hired since the pandemic began. The erosion of core benefits and stagnating wages in a time of unprecedented increases in housing costs and violent assaults has changed the calculation of this job. To quite a large extent, this operator shortage is a management issue. The workforce has been demoralized to the point that workers are willing to walk off the job mid route. ATU has been saying that focusing only on recruiting and ignoring retention will ensure these cuts remain permanent. In order to meet our climate goals and regional mobility goals, the buses must be running a full service.

  8. Gregg Zuman December 7, 2021 at 7:12 pm #

    There’s no worker shortage. There’s a salary shortage.

  9. JMH December 8, 2021 at 3:33 am #

    It would be interesting to understand whether it’s ‘quitting’ or ‘retiring early’ that the main issue. Either way, I’d be surprised if bus drivers (generally unionized with good benefits) are decamping in large numbers to delivery work (generally non-union with poor benefits). But perhaps the reality is surprising!

  10. Henry December 10, 2021 at 11:19 am #

    The bus driver shortage is really bad, but my impression is that this has been simmering for a while.

    At least where I have seen, bus driving is fairly unique in that there is a probationary training period where drivers earn less as they learn the ins and outs. This restriction does not exist for trucking, delivery, construction etc. that recruit workers with similar education and qualifications, and so in hot job markets like Seattle there was a shortage of drivers even pre-pandemic.

    If the harder job pays less it’s no wonder they can’t recruit.

  11. Sam Jensen December 12, 2021 at 12:55 pm #

    As someone who drove transit buses in Minneapolis (and dispatched as well) before going back to school to become a planner, this doesn’t surprise me at all. We had a driver shortage back the too. I loved driving a bus and helping passengers, but the hours, unrealistic expectations, and (few) unruly passengers made the job one of the most stressful I’ve ever had. The pay and benefits were ok, but the working conditions were miserable.

    I think there are three main issues that need to be addressed before pay:

    The first issue was the horrible hours, often split shifts. If you managed to avoid split shifts, it wasn’t uncommon to have to drive the same route for 10 hours straight with few (if any) breaks. With traffic, helping disabled passengers, and dealing with behavior issues it wasn’t uncommon to also go hours between bathroom breaks. Human beings shouldn’t be expected to have to do something as complicated and dangerous as manouvering a bus full of people through city traffic for 8 hours straight without a break, let alone 10. I’ve never understood how it was even legal to have people work that long without a lunch break in transit but not other industries.

    The second issue we faced was unpredictability in shifts and time off due to understaffing. Having a job where you can’t plan a holiday with your family or vacation because you never know if you’ll get time off isn’t something most people will put up with unless they have to. I think most people working an office job don’t realize how common and frustrating this is.

    The third issue was the disconnect between the planners working on scheduling and the people driving. Schedules were often not updated enough, or timed to provide as much service as possible no matter how unrealistic. It doesn’t take long to hate your job when you go in knowing that you’ll be yelled at all day for not meeting a schedule that would be challenging without any passengers.

    Also, per Dave’s comment, it’s not uncommon for drivers to still be pressured into enforcing fares (though maybe that’s improving in some cities). I think it just varies from agency to agency.

  12. asdf2 December 12, 2021 at 6:05 pm #

    I recently got a random postcard in the mail from my local school district, offering over $30/hour to drive kids around in a school bus, paid training, no experience necessary.

    When I saw that, I knew there must be a very severe driver shortage indeed. I would expect the driver situation for the local transit agency to be similar.

  13. Chris December 16, 2021 at 1:51 pm #

    I work at a transit agency with a bus driver shortage. A lot of drivers have retired, something we should have realized would happen. Up to 20% of the workforce is out on workers compensation or long-term sick. We have drivers who quit and go to work someplace that gives them a hiring bonus, even if in the long-term our pay is better.

    Our potential hiring pool is decreased by at least three things:
    1. A decline in the number of teenagers getting driver licenses compared with 30+ years ago
    2. An insistence that everyone should go on to some form of college
    3. An increase in the legality/availability of drugs like marijuana that the FTA prohibits drivers from using

    One good way to start would be to get transit agencies to train/hire drivers that are 18 or over instead of 21 or over. Some places, including university systems, already do this. But the nature of the work – early morning, late night, weekends, holidays, split shifts – is not appealing to people who may be able to have a different driving job where they can work weekdays 8 to 5. And it’s hard to imagine that changing.

    Reducing the wage progression would also help but would increase costs significantly. In few other places do you start at 60% of the maximum wage rate. At top rate driver pay which is usually around $60,000 – $100,000 per year with overtime is consistent with or exceeds that of most non-managers or executive employees at transit agencies. But starting at $17 per hour is less than that of some fast food places.

    Just because drivers are told not to interfere with fare evaders or disruptive passengers doesn’t mean they are not impacted by it. It makes them angry in the same way retail workers are angry when their company lets people get away with shoplifting.

  14. Max WYSS January 8, 2022 at 3:19 am #

    It may sound theoretical, but in such a situation (driver shortageI), it becomes more crucial to optimise scheduling. I read so much bad stuff about the seniority system (which I don’t grasp anyways). There are other scheduling systems (which are not optimal either, for sure) which do level out the bad shifts.

    In another comment, I read that drivers are on their vehicle for 8 or more hours. This is close to criminal! A driver should (well, must) not be longer on the vehicle for more than 5 hours, and then have a break at a decent place. After that break, another 3 to 4 hours, preferably on another line makes working more acceptable. (I know about agencies where the exchanging drivers have a small company car to drive to the exchange point, and the relieved driver takes the car back to the garage (and these transfers count as working time).

    The role of driving and “commercial activities” should be separated. Which does call for Proof of Payment systems. This also leads to all-door boarding, which can considerably speed up the vehicles (and with that reduce the number of active drivers for a specific operation level). Fare inspection could be done by (accordingly trained) drivers, on a “inspection” shift in their rotating shift schedule. In places where the service levels at stops is too low to justify ticket vending machines, there are agencies which have a ticket vending machine installed on the vehicle. Another advantage of the PoP system is that it can put more emphasis on passes. For the agency, selling passes is insofar interesting that there is just one single financial transaction for dozens of rides, and the money is in and available way earlier than with individual trip sales.

    To conclude this rambling, the transit agencies have means at their hands, which can relieve the driver shortage, but it may mean to break out of their comfortable box, and leave old style ways of thinking. Some features can be implemented immediately (that’s what would be currently needed), other are more long term. They all are worth to have political support, as well as support by the employees.