Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Metro Bus Operator Crisis

Being a bus operator is hard work. It is both physically and mentally demanding work, and throughout the long days, drivers are charged with getting riders to their destinations safely. Too often, it is a thankless position.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic upheaval that has accompanied it, appears to have changed the calculus for many of those in Metro’s labor pool. Metro has been losing more operators each month than it can hire.

In the Fall of 2021, as Metro tried to reinstate pre-COVID bus service (7.1 million RSH), the agency’s statistics show a gap immediately between the number of worker-hours that Metro would have needed to run service according to the timetable and the worker-hours they actually had at their disposal.

The picture on the ground was grim. Riders were left stranded by the system as operator callouts led to rolling cancellations throughout the day. That was despite promises from Metro to undo the COVID service cuts and repeated admonitions from the Board of Directors to boost hiring to support the NextGen program that riders were told would finally boost frequencies on major corridors.

Like so much else in our region, the worst impacts of the service cancellations were concentrated in some of the neighborhoods that could least afford them. According to an analysis by Henry Fung, chair of Metro’s Community Advisory Council, canceled buses fell disproportionately in South Los Angeles. Out of 15 bus lines which reported a 25% or greater cancellation rate in January, Fung says that 13 of them serve South Los Angeles. And, that rate means that one out of every four buses on a line would be canceled every day for the entire month. The Vermont Rapid Line, one of the few Rapid lines remaining serving one of the county’s busiest transit corridors, experienced a cancellation rate of nearly four in 10 buses – 40%!

The reasons for such a disparity – and why it should fall on one of the poorest regions of Los Angeles County – might be able to be found in the way Metro schedules operators work. Fung indicates that after training, new operator hires at Metro may be sent to work anywhere in the county. Metro’s service area is enormous, and, with Los Angeles’s traffic, this can result in multi-hour commutes for drivers to or from work in an unfamiliar part of town. Municipal bus services throughout Los Angeles County such as Long Beach Transit and Santa Monica Big Blue Bus have much smaller service areas, which therefore ensures a greater idea for prospective bus operators where they will commute to.

The elevated number of operator callouts in South Los Angeles could be, at least in part, a product of harmful perceptions about the frequently stigmatized area. This is a challenging problem, to be sure – but it is Metro’s duty to solve it and solve it well. Riders in South Los Angeles rely on transit to navigate the city. Good transit can liberate riders, but on the flipside bad transit can entrap riders.

Investing in Place’s analysis indicates that despite the unfavorable commuting conditions and high cost of living, operators start at a rate ($19.12 after six months) that is below several of the agency’s peers. As Henry Fung writes in his letter, the approximately $30,000 a new hire at Metro could expect to earn in a year is barely enough to get by, even without the challenges that come with being a bus driver.

Metro is currently short almost 600 bus operators. This is a crisis.  Based on the data we have, the best month Metro had in hiring new operators was April 2021, with 43 new people hired, but they haven’t hit that level since. 

Metro Transit Operator Hiring Trends 

*Metro Rail and Bus Operators come from the same group of staff. When Metro increased rail service, it took away bus operators. And when new rail lines start, that will be another hit to the bus operator pool.

At this rate it may be years before Metro has enough operators to restore bus service to pre-COVID levels.  The impact of this is huge, we know that the majority of Metro bus riders have no other choice but the bus to meet their daily needs.  COVID-19 bus ridership numbers clearly demonstrated that.  Metro suffered the least amount of transit ridership loss than anywhere in the country since the start of the pandemic. Metro bus riders still relied on the bus in the early days of the pandemic. Why, you may ask? Because Metro is a lifeline, the only option, and likely because many bus riders are also low wage service workers who took care of the region while many of us sheltered in place.

The current contract with Metro’s transit operators expires June 30, 2022. Metro executives and Union leadership are meeting to develop a new contract.

We have learned about key themes impacting the desirability of the job such as: 

  • Starting Pay
  • Unpredictable schedule and location
  • Working conditions on the bus 
  • The fact operators are currently contractually required to show up  for overtime hours if called back. Over the past two years this has had a tremendous impact on staff and their families due to Metro’s operator shortage.

It is critical that all Metro leaders – Board and staff – recognize this crisis, and respond with significant changes to restructure the job and the working environment, analyze key takeaways that come up from current operators to inform changes to the new contract, and speed up and streamline the path to full time employment.  It is particularly important to get input from current bus operators – particularly ones with 1-3 years of service.  They can illuminate why so few people want to be a Metro Bus Operator.  

Every decision made by Metro leadership should consider this information to address this crisis if they want to make progress and improve from conditions within the next year. Metro and the Board need to respond with urgency and commitment to radically improve the bus experience for everyone.

Metro bus operations: the past, present and future

by Jessica Meaney

Promises and Press Releases: Where are the Better Buses?

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