King County Metro is experiencing a shortage of bus operators, leading to reduced service and reliability. Passengers say the situation is exacerbating concerns with the vital public service.
In a Feb. 21 King County Council committee meeting, newly appointed Metro General Manager Michelle Allison said the transit agency needs the equivalent of 119 more full-time bus drivers. That breaks down to 132 more part-time operators, 40 more working full time and 36 additional vehicle mechanics.
Metro spokesperson Al Sanders wrote that this shortage is due in part to a tight labor market, with many operators moving on to supervisory positions or roles as light rail and streetcar operators in other agencies.
The staffing issues are not limited to the Seattle region. Across the country, transit agencies and school districts are struggling to recruit and retain enough staff to maintain their services. Metro, like many agencies, has had to cut the number of routes and ride frequency, which remain below pre-pandemic levels.
Sanders said that the agency was looking at ways to revamp recruitment and retention.
Many riders have struggled with this new (post) pandemic reality. Real Change vendor Zackary Tutwiler (badge #12759) is a frequent transit rider and says that service has deteriorated significantly.
“It’s gotten worse,” Tutwiler said. “They’re missing stops, folks waving down buses — they’re bypassing them.”
Ryan Packer, a senior editor at the Urbanist and transit expert, said that the shortage in operators has led to a lot less reliability in the system. There aren’t backups if a driver calls out for some reason, leading to canceled trips.
“And so there’s not a whole lot of resiliency in the system, to say nothing of the fact that overall service is still not back to the pre-pandemic level,” they said.
Packer said that agencies are faced with a dilemma, and simple fixes like hiring incentives won’t make a dent.
“I feel like bonuses haven’t had much success,” they said. “I think that the overall working conditions and the actual pay scales are having a much bigger impact on the ability to recruit operators than individual bonuses.”
Another concern Metro drivers face is safety on buses, Packer said. Issues such as drug use on transit have become more prolific and received more media attention.
Packer said that it didn’t seem like vaccine mandates, which were recently lifted, were a significant factor in the shortage. They pointed out that Sound Transit is seen as a more desirable workplace yet still has mandates in place.
Real Change vendor Sabina (badge 11650) said that she’s witnessed people use drugs without consequences on the bus before.
“They could just do whatever, and everybody had to deal with that,” she said.
Operators and other passengers are instructed to not engage with people in order to avoid escalating potentially dangerous situations.
Sabina relies on the 101 route to travel between work and home. One time, the buses on the route got canceled without notice, leaving her stranded.
“It was really concerning, we didn’t know how we were gonna get back home,” she said. Sabina couldn’t afford a rideshare and was carrying a cart, leaving her without many options. After more than an hour of waiting, another bus finally arrived.
Sabina also said that King County Metro needs to work on biases against homeless people. Because of her cart, operators have discriminated against her in the past, assuming that she’s unhoused.
Read more of the Mar. 8-14, 2023 issue.