Report Details Pay, Workplace Culture, and Other Issues to Address in Bus Operator Shortage

Local, state, and federal agencies need to concertedly raise awareness about a worsening national bus operator shortage and take various steps to make it a more “rewarding career, both financially and professionally,” according to a new report by TransitCenter. 

The New York-based nonprofit this week released “Bus Operators in Crisis,” a 35-page report that cites national and local transit agency data to explain how cities across the country came to lack enough drivers and mechanics to run functional, equitable bus systems. In addition to highlighting dark realities plaguing bus systems nationwide — waves of retiring employees, struggles recruiting a new generation to replace them, insufficient pay outpaced by rising costs of living, hostile work environments, and demoralizing workplace culture — the report proposes solutions that government can take to reverse the situation over time. 

Author Chris Van Eyken bluntly highlights the severity and insufficient attention paid to the problem thus far by noting more federal attention has gone to a problematic truck driver shortage. “The transit worker shortfall should be getting the same level of attention,” the report says. “The millions of dollars from the [Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act]…  currently flowing toward capital investments in new buses will be of little use if there aren’t enough operators to drive them.” 

Transit agencies themselves can make direct, impactful changes, the report says. Among the varieties of solutions (and some examples, added below) are to: 

  • Improve recruitment and hiring processes by awarding signing bonuses to new hires or conditional offers at job fairs, or establishing stronger job pipelines with high schools and colleges
  • Boost compensation, including paying middle-class wages to ensure operators can afford to live in places where they work 
  • Enhancing or adding facilities serving employees, including designing routes around intentionally planned (and adequately maintained) restroom stops or adding break rooms at transit hubs with amenities and recreation areas for drivers 
  • Assuring better driver safety amid rising rates of assaults on drivers — a fourfold  increase from 2009 to 2020, per FTA data — by fully enclosing cockpits away from passenger zones and implementing off-board fare collection 
  • Conducting more proactive driver outreach, including providing chances for operators to give feedback that influences agency-wide decisions 

At the state level, those that provide relatively paltry amounts of per-capita funding for transit — Texas, Georgia, and Missouri, for example, per FTA figures — should look to level up with larger appropriations, both for capital projects and operating subsidies, the report says. States can also take steps, implicitly via legislation or administrative orders, to accelerate the awarding of commercial driver’s licenses and thus reduce hiring backlogs (the federal government has a role here as well). States could also create programs to widen applicant pools, such as recruitment and training for formerly incarcerated individuals. 

And, at the federal level, USDOT and FTA leadership —  the report names Secretary Pete Buttigieg, specifically — should be “using the bully pulpit” to communicate the severity of the operator shortage and specific problems like assaults on drivers, and form an interagency task force as the Biden administration has to address the national truck driver shortage. Additionally, Van Eyken writes that USDOT should issue new and more comprehensive guidance about federal grants and other resources for worker recruitment or facility improvements, and also tailor drug-testing requirements to monitor for actual impairment within the last 24 hours via oral testing rather than detecting long-term use, as with hair testing or urinalysis. (However, some of the drug testing rules are set in law, so change would require a new law.)

TransitCenter’s report includes data about more structural cultural problems plaguing mass transit — for instance, the fact that Black, Latinx, and Asian-American workers fill just one-third of managerial and leadership positions despite accounting for “almost half of the total transit workforce,” and disproportionately high rates of chronic health problems for transit workers. 

Read the full report on TransitCenter’s website here. 

Eno is currently finalizing a report that will help improve the way transit agencies recruit and retain bus operators.  The Transportation Research Board’s Transit Cooperative Research Program awarded Eno a research grant to study challenges, best practices, and innovative practices. 

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