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The Great North American Driver Shortage and Why Better Solutions and Integration are Needed to Solve It.

The pandemic made a lot of existing issues in the world a lot worse (obviously), and the transit industry is no exception. COVID decimated the amount of new operators (drivers) joining the workforce and the amount of service authorities now provide. There are many reasons for this. 

Operators were on the frontline during COVID — I knew several bus and rail operators and supervisory staff who passed away during the pandemic because they all got COVID driving buses and trains. 

But the second big issue, and I had a union delegate explain this to me, is that new operators weren’t willing to join up. The way he explained it was, “Why the f!ck would I want to work a 14-hour day with my first piece in the morning and three hours between it and the second piece when I can pick up more hours for slightly less pay with Amazon, which works a lot more like a gig economy job?” 

No one wants to do this type of job right now. It’s a problem in trucking as well. Fewer and fewer people would choose insanely long shifts and long breaks between multiple shifts over fewer hours with slightly less pay but better work/life balance. 

And it got me thinking about one of the main problems we have in public transit, again, best explained by a good friend of mine in the major transit union in Boston. He pointed out that, based on their current collective bargaining agreements, they could very well waive/modify parts their CBA that deal with work selection in a single garage for a three-month period to try out a new arrangement. 

If it works, they could then get together with labor relations and senior management and work out a memorandum of understanding or an amendment to the CBA that allows for a new type of work. And eventually, when they renegotiate their collective bargaining agreement, they might renegotiate it with new terms. 

Here’s the problem with that idea and why the data doesn’t allow for it. When I was at the T, we needed to show the Carmen’s union that the new style of work selection they were going to use with the new software suite we were installing worked similarly to how they selected work from their old system. It was a relatively Herculean task just to set up a cloud instance of this new software suite to run in parallel with the old mainframe work selection system they had been using for 35+ years.

I’m going to outline a few of the big issues we need to deal with and a few suggestions about how to deal with them.

Rigid Scheduling/Service Planning Practices

Based on a recent APTA report, it’s evident that many agencies struggle with outdated and rigid scheduling systems that significantly affect their capacity to retain drivers. The rigidity of these schedules, coupled with long, often inconvenient hours I’ve mentioned above, makes transit jobs less attractive compared to other industries that offer more flexible working conditions.  As one of my colleagues in the Carmen’s union used to say “This work sucks!  How do I sell this to my people?”

The institution of some four day weeks with ten hour shifts in each of those four days was met with positive feedback when we rolled it out at the T.  Even more flexible scheduling options need to be brought to the table, discussed, scheduled (now it becomes tricky because of software limitations) and implemented at one or two garages to test how well these options work for operators.

Software Limitations

A lot of the software that’s out there for work selection is only designed for how work selection works in its limited concept in the United States and Canada right now. The software accounts for these long spread times between the first bit of work that an operator works in the morning and their second piece of work later in the day. 

On top of that, the software has to account for the federal requirement of 10 hours of rest in between your shift and the next one because you don’t want sleepy drivers. So, there’s no software out there that can even try to schedule one quarterly period in which one garage works like a gig job where people can pick up specific pieces of work.  Instead, a pilot program like this would need to be created and run manually, which, given the complexities of the schedules and service of large transit authorities, would be amazingly hard to do.

There just isn’t any current system out there that currently does that. You also don’t have the ability with the current software (although it’s starting to get a little better with the cloud implementations) to run in parallel with a new system to run the new work selection in one garage or rail area while the old system runs as usual. 

Lack of Data Integration 

Data Integration is another (and I would argue a bigger) issue. There is very little good data to back up the idea that creating work in a gig-economy style would increase the number of drivers and therefore amount of service that an authority could provide, thus improving ridership.

Data from the operations management systems, the vehicle location systems, the automated passenger count systems, payroll systems, etc. is not well integrated (if at all in some transit authorities).  This leads to gaps in data and, even more dangerously, erroneous data from which transit management tries to make decisions.

The problem there is that a lot of these transit decision-makers need to make decisions based on data that they see. When I was at the T, one thing became very, very apparent to me…the data in the software systems was not lining up with the stories we were hearing from operators out in the field.

I created a panel of delegates from the local transit union, their barn captains, the scheduling department from the T, and some service planning folks (though, for political reasons, service planning was often not involved…that is a different story entirely for another post). 

A lot of times, the union would come to the table and say, “This type of work doesn’t work because of this condition that we’re seeing out in the public for these routes,” or, “We’re getting feedback from our ridership that this thing is happening or we’re seeing this traffic pattern that keeps popping up and you’re not adjusting the routes because it’s too difficult to adjust.” 

So, they’ve come to the table with a lot of interesting ideas because of the way their stories lined up with the folks out in the field (the drivers) compared to what people who would attend town meetings would say about their service. Oftentimes the only people coming to town meetings live in well-to-do areas, meaning that you hear the vocal minority talking about what to do, not the silent majority. You have to rely on the drivers to tell you what’s happening with the silent majority (if you haven’t read my article on lean processes and the main problem I see – the lack of engaging and getting feedback from front line staff about problems leading to no continuous improvement of processes…you should).  If you have bad data coupled with not listening to all of the stories behind the data, you are going to make erroneous decisions.

Erroneous Passenger Counts and Vehicle Location Data

Along the same lines, we also don’t have accurate passenger counts because passenger counting data on buses is frequently very archaic. On top of this, the data is not necessarily being fed into systems that allow for the creation of new services, and the data isn’t always accurate in the first place.

Vehicle location software often isn’t configured properly either, so you can’t get an accurate account of what actually happened on a route compared to what was scheduled. That’s… kind of important. You need accurate data in this area when you’re creating new services later on so you can see the trends and poke at them to figure out why things are the way they are. 

You need to be able to then go back to your folks out in the field—your operators—and say, “The data is showing us this, so what gives?” Then, ideally, they can give you their story. 

Wrong Decision-Making Approaches

I’ve been saying for years that data-informed decisions, not data-driven decisions, are crucial. Because data without the story behind it doesn’t do you any good. I will also make the argument that North American transit authorities are not just making data-driven decisions without hearing the rest of the story, but they’re making data-driven decisions with data that is inaccurate, which is actually worse than making a decision with no data at all. 

The data is inaccurate because of lack of configuration and a bunch of different things. It is, therefore, crucially important that system integrations are built so that the proper data from your CAD/AVL, your vehicle location systems, and your APC or automated passenger count systems is fed correctly into some sort of system that allows you for service planning and trending. It requires your service planners to have a base idea of how scheduling works, can work collaboratively with schedulers and have a good understanding of the service. It also needs to be coupled with your transit authority sitting down with union members, your scheduling department, and your service planning department together to talk about issues and collectively work together to bring ideas to the table to solve them. 

And oh, by the way, if you don’t have your schedulers and or your service planners going out to the field and talking to the drivers and riding the damn bus and the train with them to hear their stories before they come back to their ivory tower and schedule their service plan, you’re doing it wrong. Make sure that that happens. 

A Wide Gap Between Systems

There’s a key thing going on in the United States as the Department of Transportation ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) program. I’ve seen some RFPs from smaller transit authorities coming up for these over the past several years since the Biden administration passed the historically large infrastructure bill. 

Right now, a lot of transit agencies are very slow to accept that infrastructure money and do anything with it. The government’s ITS program is alluding to the fact that, “Hey, we need to know where your buses are. We need to know what the buses are doing compared to their scheduling. You should probably integrate your system so that you have this information.” 

They don’t necessarily spell it out like that, but that’s what the ITS program is getting at. 

And by a certain time, nearly all transit authorities in the United States are going to need to have these things. There just aren’t a lot of folks out there in the transit space who are great at transit software integration. You have a lot of transit software companies out there that are focused on their specific niche and they’ll work with other companies to try to integrate if they’re told they have to, but they’re kind of half-@ssing it and it’s not something they want to do because it’s not where they make their money. 

So, having an informed transit software integrator like my company is very, very important if you’re going to try to bridge the gap between all these different systems and understand how their data needs to be configured, where it needs to go, and how it needs to interrelate so you can craft better service, create better schedules (read better work), and, thus, get more operators who actually want to do the job.  

This will help you get a feedback loop going from a process and management perspective, where you have a good relationship with your transit unions and you’re actually working together to make things better because (I’m talking to you right now, folks in transit management) the people who drive the buses and trains, often care about the service they provide. 

More often than not, the ones who really care are going to tell you what they see and they’re going to collaborate because they want to make things better. Concerning the problem of management looking at the unions from an adversarial point of view and vice versa, the best way to make that better is just to sit down at the table and talk. 

And if you have these work design meetings on a regular basis, bi-weekly, once every three weeks, whatever, and you have your scheduling and service planning teams. union members, and technology folks all together, you can really make this go a lot quicker. 

How We Can Help You Make This Work At Your Transit Authority

  1. Empowering Leadership in Transit: Effective transit solutions require more than just direction—they need leadership that can amplify and enhance the capabilities of existing teams. At StarSpring Consulting, I bring a unique approach that not only provides strategic oversight but also elevates the existing leadership within transit authorities. By working closely with current leaders, I help foster a culture of collaboration and innovation, making every team member more effective and cohesive in tackling the challenges we face together.
  2. Collaboration Between Unions and Authorities: My specialty lies in fostering robust partnerships between transit unions and management. By improving these relationships, we can create work environments that address the concerns and needs of transit workers, leading to enhanced job satisfaction and retention.
  3. Stronger Transit Software Integration: Lastly, the integration of advanced transit software plays a pivotal role. StarSpring Consulting brings extensive expertise in deploying technology solutions that allow for the piloting of innovative scheduling ideas. This technology enables us to test and refine flexible scheduling options in a controlled manner, ensuring they meet the needs of both the workforce and transit operations.

Give us a call and let’s tackle this problem together.

Love, Tim XOXO