Given my profession, I have been well aware of the operator labor problems public transportation agencies are currently facing. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker believes it's a genuine 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.
I'm seeing this problem locally as well. Local agencies like METRO are struggling to keep their heads above water because they're having trouble finding drivers; as a public agency, it's simply hard for them to compete against the wages and benefits that private delivery companies like Amazon and UPS are currently offering. This means that METRO is unable to add back the service that they had to cut at the beginning of the pandemic as much as they would like. This in turn effects everyone who uses transit - whether it be suburban workers who are beginning to return to the office or "essential" workers who, even during the height of the pandemic, relied on public transportation to get around - because buses come less frequently, are overcrowded, or don't operate at times of day (i.e. late evenings) when people need them.
Transit faces an uncertain future as it is, with people still wary of being in close quarters on buses and trains and more people working from home. But it's still a critical part of our urban infrastructure that needs to be adequately staffed in order to be effective (and no, driverless buses are not "coming to the rescue" anytime soon).
Walker has a couple of suggestions for transit riders and concerned citizens alike:
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.