New York City bus driver David Smith points out how to use the fare system to a passenger.
New York City bus driver David Smith points out how to use the fare system to a passenger. Chris Hondros/Getty

Why doesn't anyone want to drive the bus?

Hauling passengers on a 40-foot city bus has never been glamorous. But Ryan Timlin could at least see the potential back in 2006, when he was earning nearly minimum wage at a St. Paul hardware store and hungry for a change. A friend who worked at Metro Transit, the public transportation agency for the Twin Cities, convinced him that driving buses meant good pay and a stable future. So Timlin donned the striped Metro uniform and got behind the wheel, ferrying passengers around Minneapolis and St. Paul every day for 11 years.

Timlin, now 38, recently settled into a new role as president of his local Amalgamated Transit Union chapter. He has no regrets about his career. But if he was younger and searching for a new job today, he isn’t sure he’d choose the bus route. “I loved that job, even with all its baggage,” he said over the phone last week. “But it’s hard to say that I would do it again, because of how it’s gotten.”

How has it gotten? By many accounts, driving a city bus is a worse paying, more arduous, and more dangerous occupation than it once was. Yet many more workers are needed, badly, for a job that few seem eager to do. There’s an industry-wide labor shortage, and it is affecting passengers by straining service.

You don’t have to look far to find this problem. Across the country, transit agencies are working overtime to recruit more bus drivers. King County Metro in Seattle, Washington, needs about 100 more people to make up their operator gap. Ray Greaves, the New Jersey State ATU chair, believes New Jersey transit needs at least 200 more bus operators across the state. As of last December, Regional Transit Denver was short 127 bus drivers. L.A. County Metro, which operates the second-largest bus system in the country, is hustling to fill shifts.

Riders may be feeling its effects, too. A 6 percent cut in bus service by the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority in Ohio earlier this year—the second year in a row—was attributed in large part to their driver shortage and growing overtime expenses. In Gainesville, Florida, cutbacks that hit 17 routes—setting back arrival times as much as 15 to 35 minutes—were linked to a lack of bodies behind the wheel. Louisville’s 40 operator vacancies were resulting in delays on about 10 routes every day earlier this year. The shortage is plaguing rural and suburban systems, too: The Cooperative Alliance for Seacoast Transit in New Hampshire is short at least 25 percent of the workforce it needs to cover its timetable.

Why doesn’t anyone want to drive the bus? Once upon a time, it was considered an honorable and desirable gig—a stable union job with a good middle-class salary, a public pension, and at least some cultural recognition for the contributions it made to society, if bus-driving everyman heroes like Ralph Kramden of “The Honeymooners” were to be believed. Like many public sector jobs, it provided a reliable foothold on the ladder of social ascension. Even if you didn’t have a college degree, being a city bus driver meant you could buy a house, feed your family, take a vacation, save for your child’s college tuition. And relative to other transportation jobs, transit is still more inclusive of women and people of color.

But public sector jobs of all kinds have declined in pay as collective bargaining continues to be eroded. Bloated MTA salaries may be a punchline in New York City, but not so in other towns. The median hourly wage for a municipal bus driver in the U.S. is $19.61, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s above-average pay, and seasoned employees can make double. But as with all kinds of low- and middle-income jobs, driver wages have barely kept up with the rate of inflation over the past decade. Entry-level paychecks tend to be much smaller, which can pose a barrier to many young workers, especially with the fee required to earn the requisite commercial driver’s license.

During World War II, women took on bus operator jobs in cities nationwide, including this driver in Beaumont, Texas, in May 1943. (Corbis via Getty)

Sustained funding cuts that began during the recession have further challenged transit agencies to keep pay competitive. Less funding also translates into diminished routes and reduced frequencies, which seem to be the most important factors driving down bus ridership around the U.S. Welcome to the transit death spiral: fewer riders, lower revenues, lighter paychecks. “We have drivers who are homeless in this country,” Larry Hanley, the president of ATU International, the largest labor union representing transit workers in the U.S., said. “In the Google area of California, the pay is so suppressed that we have drivers who are sleeping in their buses.”

Hanley was referring to a policy in Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which for 20 years has permitted employees who live more than 50 miles away to sleep on trailers parked on its property. Some drivers also choose to snooze in their cars on nearby streets, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. News broke this week that VTA, which faces a $26.4 million budget gap for the coming fiscal year, is phasing out its official sleep-permitting policy.* Operators there aren’t sure what they’re going to do.

Labor shortages are a barrier even for cities that look healthy from a transit perspective. Until King County Metro in Seattle—a rare example of 21st-century bus ridership success—can fill its 100-person driver gap, it won’t be able to fill rising demand for more service, one county transportation planner told me in March. Back in Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have been praised for increasing bus and rail service to meet a growing population, “we do not see that number [of bus operators] moving the right direction without any additional programming or assistance,” Aaron Koski, the head of Metro Transit's workforce development department, told MPR News in May. A system expansion “will put more pressure on the need to have a full complement of operators to deliver service.”

There were always times when Metro Transit struggled to meet the demands of the system, like during state fairs or holidays, Timlin told me. “If there’s no one there, the bus just gets cut,” he said. Part-time drivers are running in short supply; pushing overtime too often burns out full-time workers.

Virtually all of the old transportation trades, private and public, are facing hiring struggles, from school bus systems to trucking industries. A “silver tsunami” retirement wave is hitting them hard, and ground transit—which includes city buses and intercity coaches—has the highest percentage of workers over the age of 55 (35 percent) compared to the trucking, air, rail, and maritime transportation sectors. A staggering 63 percent of transit workers are over the age of 45. While trucking has the greatest projected future labor needs, buses are hardly dying out, contrary to what you might read about Uber and Lyft killing transit. Nearly 200,000 transit and intercity coach driving jobs are estimated to open up by 2022, according to a 2015 joint analysis of BLS data by the U.S. Departments of Transportation, Labor, and Education. And nearly 72 percent of the current operator workforce is set to exit by that year.

The transportation trade facing the most existential angst right now is probably taxi driving. Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing services have blown up that industry’s rigid, medallion-based business model, leading to plummeting earnings (and a wave of suicides among New York cabbies). For better or worse, new players dramatically lowered the barrier to entry for workers who wanted to plug in and drive. Indeed, the allure of ride-hailing gig work may be siphoning off would-be bus drivers, some of the union and transit agency leaders I spoke with suggested. Driving for services like Amazon Flex may be another draw.

But there’s a distinction between the bus and taxi labor crises: Buses themselves aren’t critically endangered, as the demand for operator jobs right now proves. Bus driving, however—at least as the job has long been described—might be, if the profession doesn’t undergo a radical makeover.

According to a current job description posted by L.A. Metro, here’s what a bus operator needs to know: state and local traffic laws, vehicle safety rules, and “basic money and time concepts.” That makes sense; apart from maneuvering the vehicle, bus operators have traffic to negotiate, schedules to adhere to, and fares to collect. Unmentioned, though, is the most demanding part of the job, according to drivers: the human element. A bus is an unruly micro-community, full of passengers who are getting sick, laughing, crying, arguing, and dancing. They need directions, they’re carrying babies and strollers, they’re struggling to scrape together fares.

Most riders are respectful and pleasant, bus operators told me. But knowing how to handle the full rainbow of behaviors makes bus driving a highly skilled customer-service job that other transportation trades are not. “We’ve seen a lot of reluctance among the youth,” said Hanley. “When someone who is 21, probably raised on technology, is offered this kind of job, they may venture out and try it. But they’ll realize it’s a hard job. You have to actively concern yourself with all the things you see.”

Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433 strike in front of the First Transit Inc., bus depot on in Tempe, Arizona in 2013. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Bus operators also face the quite tangible occupational hazard of assault. Incidents of verbal abuse, spitting, slapping, stabbing, and even Tasering against drivers appear to be continuing to rise, even as transit ridership numbers have fluctuated. Highly-publicized incidents, like bus hijackings and urine flingings, depress morale and scare off recruits, Timlin, Hanley, and others said. Most bus-rage eruptions escalate from fare disputes. “The bus driver is like the tax collector,” said Greaves, the union leader in New Jersey. “They’re demanding the fare, which puts them in a precarious situation”—especially as fares climb to cover budget gaps.

Many agencies have struggled to make adequate driver safety improvements, according to one 2015 U.S. Department of Transportation report. But there are pathways. Automated fare collection and driver barriers would lower the risk of assaults, said Ed Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, a national coalition of transit worker unions. Union leaders are also pushing for improved driver workstations with better visibility and ergonomics; chronic muscle and skeletal strains are common among drivers, another factor explaining high rates of absenteeism and turnover.

Held at different angles, the plight of the American bus driver is like a Rorschach test for society’s ills. See the graying labor force with no successors, the failure to retrain middle-class workers, the yawning class divides. See the tech disruptions peeling away customers and workers. And here, see the extinction-level threat still looming in the future. That’s automation.

Self-driving shuttles have already hit the roads in Paris, Helsinki, Las Vegas, and the Bay Area, and on campuses like the University of Michigan. Drivers have taken note. Following the fatal crash of a self-driving Uber in March, drivers from the Columbus, Ohio, chapter of the Transit Workers Union distributed pamphlets to riders warning against the threat of autonomous vehicles. The demonstration focused on the technology’s perceived safety hazards, but it was also fueled by job loss concerns, workers said.

They may have been premature: the transition to self-driving for full-length, fixed-route buses is likely decades away, experts say. And technology may, in fact, hold hope for the profession. For now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, the scope of what is involved in managing a bus—not just driving it—eclipses the abilities of any robot or digital device. And the stress of the job transcends that of most comparable gigs in transportation or service. After all, bus driving is both.  

That’s why transit agency leaders like to say automation won’t displace the need for transit labor; as long as there are people boarding a communal vehicle, someone’s got to be in charge to manage them. “We talk about placing a greater focus on customer experience,” said Joshua Schank, the chief innovation officer at L.A. Metro. “As it is, we’re not doing a good enough job making it the best it would be.” He imagined future bus operators positioned at the front of the vehicle giving directions, helping passengers board, and settling conflicts and mishaps.

No agency I’ve spoken with seems to have seriously broached the topic of automation with labor, though. Union representatives, meanwhile, largely view automation as a threat to riders and drivers. For them, the worst thing would be if agencies used the labor shortage to further cut service, or if automation was used as “solution” for the lack of workers. “No,” Hanley said. “The industry has to decide that they’re going to pay bus drivers enough to live in the city where they work.”

But if self-driving technology ever got to a point where a bus can handle street traffic without a human driver, Hanley did agree that reorienting drivers to focus on passengers would make sense. It’s hard to see the downside of starting to train bus operators that as customer service experts now. It seems new drivers would be better prepared for their jobs and perhaps more likely to stick around.

Tom Fink, who drove for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, California for 25 years before retiring in the mid-2000s, has devoted his retirement to changing operator training so that agencies more fully prepare drivers for the stress of the job. In 2008, he helped launched the Joint Workforce Investment program, a partnership between VTA and the local ATU chapter that partners newer recruits with more seasoned operators as mentors. Rookie drivers can learn the art of negotiating with difficult passengers or simply get a chance to vent—important in an occupation that’s almost totally solitary. The results point in a promising direction. Satisfaction and retention rates of VTA operators who’ve gone through the program have been notably higher than those who haven’t. Working with the Transportation Learning Center and ATU, Fink is working to export the model to other union chapters and agencies. “It’s not right to not prepare people for the full spectrum of the job,” he said.

Drivers may have plenty to complain about, but many old-timers say they’d never trade in the honor of serving the public. For the first few years of driving for VTA in the late 1970s, Fink hated the job—it was too stressful, and overtaxed his natural introversion—until a diverse flock of passengers boarded one Sunday. A group of church ladies stepped on in the morning and again in the afternoon. A good-natured man on a bar crawl kept turning up at stops, growing chattier and warmer as he hopped on and off. It suddenly dawned on Fink that he was not a chauffeur, nor was he a machine. If not for him, carless people in San Jose would be stuck at home, deprived of their outlets for pleasure, worship, social contact.

“I was woven into the fabric of the community,” Fink said, his voice husked with emotion. “I wanted to be useful.” Work became more than a paycheck for him. Part of the driver mentorship program is to convey how profoundly vocational the job can be.

At a time when Americans find themselves engaged in a national argument about “civility,” the driver’s seat of a city bus might be one of the better places to catch its fundamentals in action. There, you can witness basic consideration and respect exchanged between fellow humans, and with the public worker who gets them all where they need to go. “Elon Musk, Uber, all these technocrats—they don’t have the answer,” Timlin said. “They’re creating bubbles that don’t help society.” But transit seems to strengthen communities in an age that seems determined to tear them apart. Happier drivers, happier passengers: It might be good for America.

If that sounds utopic and far-off, it is. But there is a simple thing you might do to burst one small social bubble, feel some fleeting joy, and lift a harried worker’s spirit. “Some passengers walked by as if you weren’t even a human being,” Timlin said. “But it did feel good when someone actually thanked you.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that VTA plans to redevelop the lot where bus operators have slept in trailers.  There are currently no plans to develop the land, according to a spokesperson.

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