After COVID, who’s driving the bus?


As schools have returned to in-person learning and employment centers come back to life, mobility is grinding to a halt with a slow return of bus operators, the result of market pressures and ill-timed disinvestments.

A child waits at his bus stop
Image by Glenn Beltz via Flickr

A common sight across communities in America is the classic yellow school bus ferrying children to and from school and the public transit bus, circulating people of all walks of life to jobs and services in their communities. 

We see buses everywhere because of the thousands of bus operators who undergo rigorous training and certification to operate these oversized passenger vehicles safely and efficiently. The operator training is supported via a network of training operators, who keep abreast of the latest safety and operational standards from the federal government and vehicle manufacturers.

Communities are facing a lack of operators and bus trainers, due to a cascading slew of factors exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

bus driver wearing mask adjusts mirror
Image from Flickr/MTA NYC

Transit drivers under pressure

From the perspective of the transit bus operator, driving a bus lent itself to job security, community respect, and in many areas, union representation. Most importantly, driving transit was an inclusive industry for those historically marginalized from the labor market. 

However, the glamor of the job has eroded significantly over time, with stagnant wages, more arduous hours, contentious riders, more complicated roadways to navigate, and more complicated vehicles to operate. The industry was already struggling to both train and retain skilled operators. 

COVID-19 presented further challenges to an already strained transit workforce. With the onset of the pandemic, transit bus operators were on the frontlines, providing mobility to fellow frontline workers and subjecting themselves to regular COVID exposure risk (and some losing their lives to COVID, such as 136 NYC MTA operators in the early days of the pandemic). For some operators, that was too much risk to bear.

To add to these challenges, transit systems facing dire budgets with falling riderships made draconian cuts to service (eliminated routes, lowered frequencies, reduced reliability) and then struggled to pivot the operators, bus trainers, and mechanics that remained into other roles. As a result, transit operations scaled down quickly, without a plan to scale back up. This cut off transit-reliant people (seniors, youth, persons with disabilities, persons with limited financial resources) from jobs and services. But when the fiscal picture for transit agencies started to look better, scaling operations back up took more time than scaling down.

Hampton Roads Transit (HRT), operating in southeastern Virginia and serving over 22 million annual passengers, is no exception. A spokesperson told T4A that “HRT is currently operating a reduced service plan in order to maintain a level of reliable service. The pandemic has had a significant impact on HRT staffing, beginning with a dramatic decrease in attendance that when added to the shortage of operators resulted in HRT at one point being down 30% of bus operators needed to meet service.” 

Empty driver's seat
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Unpredictable workloads for school bus drivers

Faced with similar challenges to those of transit bus operators, if not worse, school bus operators are opting out of shuttling children to school. With split schedules (AM and PM stints), school bus drivers are unable to work enough hours to qualify for benefits, despite working more than half of their day. With COVID-19 requiring virtual learning, many districts were unable to pivot operators to other roles in the interim, forcing these drivers to be furloughed for more than a year. 

Now as schools reopen to in-person learning, many bus operators have decided not to return, choosing to pursue steadier opportunities. Others are less able to work because of falling ill or succumbing to COVID-19. This has placed school districts across the country in a pinch.

The story linked above notes that some school districts are asking—even paying—parents to drive their children to school, contributing to daily congestion and eroding air quality. Other districts have had to delay starting school to give themselves time to find, train, and license new drivers . Yet others have required the state to intervene and call in the National Guard to drive children to school. To add salt to the wound, in many cities, children are shuttled to school by transit buses, which as noted earlier, are already stretched thin.

What we need

This developing crisis will require considerable intervention by municipalities to stem the tide. It will involve revisiting bus operator working conditions, and strengthened policies and procedures to protect the bus driver from health hazards as well as unruly passengers. 

Most importantly, municipalities will have to invest considerably to ensure that compensation for a bus operator is competitive and marketable alongside investment in training resources and the staffing involved to support not only bus operator training, but also the maintenance of bus fleets. Hampton Roads Transit’s re-staffing issues reflect many of these national trends. According to their internal figures, “the number of applications received dropped by 48%.  To attract new operators HRT is currently offering $4,000 sign-on bonuses, Commercial Driver’s License training, and referral bonuses.  HRT recently negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement, increasing the starting pay by 20% in order to be competitive locally.” But these increased incentives require increased funding.

Tom Klevan, the manager of multimodal planning for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, phrased the need for action well in an email to T4America:

“The bus operator shortage currently facing public transit providers across the country illustrates the growing and continuing need for both federal and state investment in multiple mobility options, as well as our nation’s road infrastructure. Further, we need to increase public understanding of the role that transit plays in the overall well-being of communities. The global Covid-19 pandemic has served to shine a bright light on the value of life-essential tasks—including operating and maintaining transit vehicles—as well as the fragile nature of our global and local economies if we collectively don’t take steps to focus resources both public and private on creating the conditions that promote equity.”

Lastly, municipalities and transit agencies will need to revisit protocol in addressing future resource strains. Those protocols need to prioritize not cutting transit service, training, and maintenance support, because as we’ve seen, those short-term solutions lead to steeper costs in the long run.

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