A Long Wait for the Next Bus

The nationwide bus driver shortage is impacting campus transit: colleges are adjusting bus schedules, training new drivers and handing out taxi vouchers to help students get around.

September 28, 2022
A very crowded shuttle bus.
Elle Brown-Horton was packed in with 86 other students on the USU Aggie Shuttle commute Tuesday morning—including one who stood on a seat to make more room.
(Elle Brown-Horton)

Since the start of the semester, Utah State University senior Elle Brown-Horton has perfected the art of packing into a crowded USU shuttle bus, which she takes from a parking lot near the football stadium to central campus every morning.

“You have to hold your backpack a certain way so we can fit everyone on the bus,” she said.

In the past, two buses traversed that route throughout the day, driving students the approximately 15 minutes it takes to get from the stadium to the student center. Brown-Horton recalls that the buses were often nearly full, but she still had room to breathe.

This year, however, due to a shortage of shuttle operators, one bus no longer runs after 10:30 a.m., increasing the time between buses from 15 minutes to about 30 and significantly increasing the number of students who need to pack into each vehicle.

“Basically, if you’re not sitting in a seat staring at everyone’s butt … you’re breathing down other people’s necks, essentially, trying to squeeze in there,” Brown-Horton said, adding that students often double up in a single seat to save space.

Bus driver shortages at K-12 schools have garnered significant attention since the 2022–23 academic year kicked off, with schools struggling to find ways to get young children to class on time. But the shortages also extend to campus shuttle services and public transportation that serves college communities. For many students, route and schedule changes have increased commute times and made them late for class more often; Brown-Horton’s commute from her home to campus jumped from about 25 minutes last year to nearly 45 minutes this year.

USU’s campus bus service, the Aggie Shuttle, typically has 30 student drivers at the start of a school year, according to Tracy Hulse, director of parking and transportation services. But this year that number dwindled to 20, forcing the university to adjust routes. USU is currently training six new drivers, a process that takes about a month. In the meantime, the university is using stopgap measures to make sure students aren’t forced to walk.

“My full-time shuttle supervisor, who does all the training and obviously has a [commercial driver’s license] himself, is driving up to 30 hours a week to fill shifts,” Hulse said. “That’s not what I want him to be doing.”

According to Philip Plotch, a researcher at the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, transit agencies throughout the United States are currently struggling to find bus operators. Many older operators retired early during the pandemic, in some cases because they were concerned about contracting COVID-19 on the job. Now, as transit agencies try to rebuild capacity, they face competition from companies such as FedEx and Amazon that are also keen to hire employees with commercial licenses.

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“A lot of these [transit] agencies can’t provide the service that they want to provide,” Plotch said. “During the pandemic it wasn’t as much of an issue, because ridership was down, but as we’re coming out the pandemic, it is.”

One community college in the greater Chicago area is doing its part to help the local bus system fix the driver shortage: Harper College will soon begin providing free CDL training courses to drivers who plan to work for Pace, the suburban bus system that serves six Illinois counties—including Cook County, where Harper is located.

During the pandemic, Pace discontinued the route that went to Harper due to low ridership, according to Jeff Julian, Harper’s chief of staff.

But the college and Pace kept in contact throughout the pandemic, and when the transit system told Harper it was ready to bring the suspended routes back but couldn’t because of the dearth of drivers, Harper offered to provide training for Pace bus operators. The two organizations quickly began working together to launch the CDL course, and last Wednesday Harper hosted an event that allowed prospective drivers to meet with Pace officials and begin the screening process to eventually become bus operators.

“We think it’s a win-win,” Julian said. “We see the college as a convener and a partner in the community. We want to be the first choice for workforce education, so this is a natural fit for us. We know that helping Pace train more bus drivers—it’s not just going to help Harper, it’s going to help everyone in our community.”

The bus route to Harper is not only back but now also more convenient for many students. Since the start of the academic year, Pace has been offering a more direct route that takes Harper students to and from a transfer center that can take them wherever they need to go.

“It’s quicker route than the one we had before,” he said. “It’s really great.”

Taxis, Lyfts and Minibuses

For some universities, addressing the bus operator shortage means coming up with creative transit solutions.

Early this semester, the company that provides shuttle service to the University of Alaska Southeast warned the university that drivers might not be available at certain times in the morning and afternoon, when they were scheduled to drive local K-12 students to and from school.

While that scenario has only arisen once so far, UAS prepared for it by offering some individuals—namely, those who take the shuttle around campus as an accommodation for their disabilities—taxi vouchers to use if the bus isn’t running, according to Lori Klein, the university’s vice chancellor for enrollment management and student affairs.

Similarly, at Harper, students have access to discounted Lyft rides as part of a new pilot program. Students will be able to apply a $10 discount to as many as four Lyft rides per month that either begin or end at one of the college’s two campuses. So far, the program, which launched at the start of the fall semester, has doled out 376 discounted rides to 151 different users.

“Obviously, we’ve got students who really need this and are using this benefit,” Julian said. Harper is paying for the discounts through surplus funds in the college’s budget.

For its part, USU has finagled some available resources to help ease the driver shortage. Starting Monday, the university shifted a shuttle away from one of the less congested routes to the route that Brown-Horton takes. The shuttle on the less traveled route has been replaced by a van-like minibus that individuals who don’t hold a CDL can drive.

Still, Brown-Horton didn’t notice much of a change in her morning commute Tuesday; the shuttle was tightly packed with 87 students—including one who stood on a seat in an attempt to make space for others—according to a counter at the front of the bus, and still left over a dozen students waiting for the next bus, she said.

Hulse said his department is currently working to recruit at least four more student drivers by advertising at the bus stops, on the Aggie Shuttle app and in the student center.

“I don’t have any doubts that we’ll get them; it’s just taking a lot longer at the beginning of this year for some reason,” he said.

According to Plotch, many transit agencies throughout the country are turning to pay raises and bonuses to try to attract new drivers; some are offering signing bonuses as high as $4,000, while others are using referral bonuses to entice workers to help them recruit.

“They realize this is something they have to do—they have no choice,” he said.

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Johanna Alonso

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