Across the country, an operator shortfall is throwing transit systems into crisis: 71% of agencies recently surveyed by the American Public Transit Association report having to cut service or delay service increases because of a lack of workers. In many cities, a shortfall of operators means that buses and trains are simply never showing up.
The problem is hurting greater Baltimore. The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has reported a shortfall of 173 bus operators and 26 light rail operators is resulting in buses and trains not performing their scheduled runs. Analysis of MTA data by the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and DC Metro Hero shows show that this spring, an average of 13% of scheduled bus arrivals never showed up. On the CityLink Purple, Red and Brown routes, more than one of every five scheduled runs was a no-show. And last month, the MTA announced service cuts on the light rail due to a lack of operators.
These missed and canceled trips are leaving riders stranded or delayed. Service cuts are also counteracting MTA efforts to win back riders who stopped taking transit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We feel the effects in schools and workplaces. Both principals and employers report having to relax their attendance policies due to ongoing MTA service problems. In schools this year, it was very common for there to only be five to 10 students in the classroom when the 1st Period bell rang and for the rest to trickle in throughout the period. Last month, business leaders in Greater Baltimore launched the Baltimore’s Transit Future campaign which names addressing MTA’s operator shortage as a strategic priority.
A new report by TransitCenter, “Bus Operators in Crisis,” details the challenges transit agencies across the country are facing in both recruiting and retaining bus operators, and offers actions that transit agencies can take to solve issues locally.
The report finds that a key cause of operator shortfalls is the deterioration of job quality. While being a bus operator was once a ticket to a stable, middle-class lifestyle, pay for operators has not kept pace with the skyrocketing cost of living in cities across the country.
At the same time, the job has become more difficult. Operator assaults have increased, rigid scheduling requirements make it difficult for junior operators with child or eldercare responsibilities, and a lack of access to restrooms on route and break rooms at depots exacts a health toll. The transit industry is losing workers to delivery services and trucking companies, which often offer more flexibility and higher pay.
To tackle operator shortfalls, Maryland must improve job quality for transit operators. By “Maryland” we mean primarily the governor and secondarily the Maryland General Assembly, since the MTA is a unit of state government with no local control. As the backbone of the transit industry, operators deserve involvement in solving the crisis, better compensation and safer working conditions.
- Listening to operators. The MTA has been recognized in the industry for its In-Reach Program, which involves operators in bus route planning and other aspects of service. Efforts to address the operator shortage should start with their input.
- Making the job more competitive through compensation and opportunities to advance. When it is published in October, review the compensation study the Maryland General Assembly required the MTA to produce, and enable MTA to respond to it by increasing state funding for transit operations and using annual federal funding traditionally used for roads and highways, like the Surface Transportation Block Grant, which could be invested in transit.
- Redesigning the job for health and safety. Build restrooms and breakrooms at transit hubs; compensate businesses for allowing operators to use restrooms; promote access to mental health services and mentoring; use more offboard fare collection to take it off the list of responsibilities for operators.
The end of COVID-19 will not bring the end of operator shortfalls; they will persist unless agencies address core issues with the job. Achieving our region’s transportation goals — decreasing carbon emissions and closing transportation access gaps — is simply not possible without operators to drive our buses and trains. While the problem is multi-faceted, MTA and state government leaders can take steps now to help operators get students and workers to the classroom or workplace reliably.
Laura Gamble (email@example.com) is the regional president of PNC Bank for Greater Maryland. Matthew Rodriguez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an educator with the Baltimore City Public School System. Brian O’Malley (email@example.com) is president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.