With more workers returning to the office and gas prices higher than ever, it’s no surprise that there is a growing interest in public transport, as evidenced by the rise in the number of users.
Now, transit managers face the challenge of finding more drivers to get people where they need to go.
The shortage of bus drivers has become an issue in the North County Transit District, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System and public transit agencies across the country.
Local transit districts say they are grappling with the situation, but coping. Like some other transit agencies, they have raised salaries and are offering signing bonuses to attract new drivers.
But shortages persist as public transportation experiences a rebound in ridership that plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic over the past two years. Generally, traffic is heading towards pre-pandemic levels and possibly beyond.
The driver’s challenge comes as a confluence of events makes public transportation more attractive: the waning (or normalizing) of the pandemic and a spike in gas prices. The reopening of the economy has brought back frustrating traffic jams, while gasoline costs around $6 a gallon.
Those negatives could be positives for transit advocates and planners, who are pushing long-term plans to increase ridership and help fight global warming by reducing emissions, while easing traffic congestion.
Disruptions due to driver shortages will not help this cause. Most people, including over 70% of MTS riders, use public transit because they don’t have a car. But much of the expected increase in ridership must come from “preferred” drivers who have access to a car. This emphasizes the reliability, convenience and comparative cost of public transport.
The San Diego Association of Governments, the regional planning agency known as SANDAG, is seeking to increase transit ridership from about 3% of all rides currently to more than 10% over the next two decades.
Most transit districts appear to have been affected by the driver shortage, but not to the same degree.
“It’s been a challenge, but we’re holding it together,” said Mark Olson, director of marketing and communications at MTS.
He said service was cut 5% in January, but there were no major cuts or route cuts. Most of the time, MTS has adjusted by increasing the time between frequent buses, such as extending the intervals from 12 minutes to 15 minutes. But Olson said the agency has a small margin to cover absences and vacancies, and added there have been missed bus runs, particularly in South County.
By comparison, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority in February reduced bus service by 10% on most routes and train frequency from February, in what officials described as an “emergency” measure. “, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The North County Transit District has also reduced service, which means not only longer intervals for frequent buses, but also the cancellation of 10 to 50 bus rides per day, according to Phil Diehl of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
NCTD recently raised the bus driver’s starting salary from $16.40 to $18.40 an hour, along with bonuses of up to $5,000. At MTS, entry-level bus drivers earn $20.21 per hour and can receive a bonus of $1,000. The agency also sweetened the pot with enhanced health benefits, according to Olson.
MTS has 484 fully certified and trained bus operators, with 13 drivers in training. That’s below the 540 certified drivers MTS would like to have, Olson said.
Several factors explain the shortage of bus drivers. In many ways, transit agencies are not much different from other industries struggling to find workers in a tight job market with the easing of the pandemic.
The ‘big quit’, as it’s been called, came as many employees found themselves reassessing their jobs and lifestyles, and quit their jobs – or didn’t return once businesses reopened . Some were looking for work with less stress and, ideally, better pay, benefits and conditions.
Bus drivers were frontline essential workers during the pandemic and had to enforce mask-wearing requirements. Sometimes they had to stop people from boarding because the bus had reached social distancing limits. This did not always sit well with some potential pilots.
Aside from the pandemic, the job requires constant concentration where one mistake can lead to a fatal accident.
“Compared to other professions, city bus drivers work under some of the most demanding, stressful and unsanitary conditions, with higher mortality and morbidity rates, as well as absenteeism and bearing,” according to a study published by the National Library of Medicine.
In addition to the opportunities opening up in other professions, the competition for drivers has become intense. School districts across the country are also suffering from a shortage of bus drivers. This also applies to transport mechanics and maintenance workers.
Meanwhile, the demand for drivers in the private sector has increased with the growth of delivery services. Some of these options may not pay as much, but they may offer greater flexibility and less direct contact with people.
Moreover, the quitting boom has turned into what is called the “Great Retirement” for many workers. It’s hard to say if this affected transit districts, but bus drivers tend to be an older group. The average age of bus drivers nationwide is just over 52, according to Data USA. Olson said the average age of MTS bus operators is just over 48.
If the availability of an adequate driver workforce remains uncertain in the coming years, this could argue in favor of autonomous transport. Some agencies are already moving in that direction, at least to some extent, though Olson said MTS has no plans for a driverless bus. SANDAG participated in the testing and study of autonomous vehicles as part of its long-term transportation plan.
For David Bragdon, the immediate solution is simple. He is the executive director of the non-profit TransitCenter, which campaigns for improved public transportation.
“There really isn’t a shortage of bus operators,” he told the Virginia Mercury online news agency. “There is just a shortage of labor at the wages that employers are willing to offer, so raising wages must be part of the response to the perceived shortage. Nationally, we have no not yet seen systemic change in transit labor relations, but the situation calls for it.”
Olson noted that driver recruitment picked up after the pay and benefits increase.
This story originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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