Just over a year ago, the MBTA began to slash bus service due to a driver shortage, forcing people to wait longer at bus stops in the heat, rain, cold, and snow, and lengthening their commutes.
The cuts deepened during the year, as the agency struggled to find enough drivers to operate its scheduled bus service. To attract applicants, the T launched an ad campaign, increased its tuition reimbursement, added a $4,500 signing bonus, and eliminated a commercial driver’s license requirement.
But it wasn’t enough.
Now, the MBTA is short even more bus drivers than it was a year ago. In December 2021, T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the agency had 1,558 drivers and needed around 300 more to bring back pre-pandemic bus frequencies. Last week, Pesaturo said the T has 1,512 drivers and needs 350 more.
“We’re not making the kind of progress we want to see,” MBTA chief administrative officer David Panagore told members of the agency’s oversight board last week.
The MBTA’s failure to retain and attract bus drivers is worsening racial inequity in Boston, new data shows, as service cuts reduce residents’ access to jobs. Longer wait times are forcing those who can afford it into cars, worsening congestion and emissions, and those who can’t into lost wages, time away from family, and missed opportunities.
The failure also threatens the MBTA’s bus network redesign project, which aims to increase bus service by 25 percent over the next five years, requiring hundreds of additional drivers on top of the 350 needed to restore pre-pandemic service.
Even with the reduced schedule in place, Pesaturo said, the agency still does not always have enough drivers available to operate every scheduled trip; the agency dropped 5.1 percent of its scheduled bus trips in December.
“The Authority is constantly evaluating the external labor market trends in coordination with its internal workforce needs in pursuit of its hiring goals and to achieve its mission of delivering safe and reliable transportation services for the riding public,” Pesaturo said via e-mail, also noting that many other transit agencies face the same challenge. “The MBTA is closely reviewing hiring projections as it continues to work toward implementing elements of the bus network redesign program this year.”
Among the bus lines hardest hit by the cuts over the past year is the 31, which runs between Mattapan and Forest Hills Station. As many as nine buses per hour used to stop along the line during peak times before the pandemic, according to an MBTA service and ridership dashboard from TransitMatters, a public transportation advocacy group.
Now, riders are lucky if half as many show up each hour. Overall, about a third of weekday service on the 31 bus has been cut, the dashboard shows.
Buses are the only public transportation option for many residents who live along the 31, where the subway is out of immediate reach. The 31 only carried about 2,700 rides on weekdays in mid-January, about half as many as before the pandemic, according to TransitMatters’ dashboard.
The extended wait times often force Mary Warren, 56, to splurge on Uber and Lyft rides to get to work on time or forgo her $18 per hour wage at her job as a shuttle bus driver for the elderly.
Either way, she loses.
She takes the 31 bus from Mattapan Library at 5:25 a.m. to Forest Hills Station where she gets on the Orange Line, then switches to the Red Line at Downtown Crossing to get to Alewife Station by 7 a.m.
On Tuesday, Warren said, she had to abandon her public transit trip at Back Bay Station and get a $35 Lyft ride to Cambridge to make it to work on time.
“I was waiting for that 31,” she said. “And then I missed the train and had to wait about 15 minutes.” The MBTA cut subway service in June by more than 20 percent, compounding travel woes for people who use both modes.
Elda Honore, 63, uses the T to get to homes across Boston for her job as a health aide. She said she waited more than an hour for the 31 bus at Mattapan Station on Monday. Honore was late to her first visit, a home in West Roxbury, and lost much of her $16 per hour wage for that visit. There is no way for her to make up the time, she said, because she has to try to make it to her next visit on schedule.
“You can’t do anything about it if you can’t afford a car,” she said.
Linda Smith’s job at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital is more understanding, she said, but the stress of constantly arriving late and waiting out in the cold for the bus with her 4-year-old son can be overwhelming.
On Tuesday, Smith was supposed to be at work at 8:30 a.m., but by that time, the 31 bus still hadn’t arrived at Mattapan Station.
“We just have to freeze — it’s sad,” she said. “It’s stressful, it makes everything stressful.”
A recent analysis from TransitCenter, a national public transportation advocacy organization, found that public transit riders in Boston saw their access to jobs increase early in the COVID-19 pandemic as the MBTA redistributed its reduced bus service to better serve riders. But since September 2021, the number of jobs accessible on public transit to residents of Boston has been steadily declining. The researchers considered a 45-minute travel time the measure of job accessibility.
Between September 2021 and August 2022, the number of jobs accessible to residents decreased by 7 percent, the study found. For Black and Hispanic residents, the losses were worse: Black residents, who had access to the fewest jobs of any race before September 2021, saw their number of accessible jobs decrease by 12 percent, and Hispanic residents saw theirs decrease by 10 percent.
The MBTA’s cuts to subway service in June after federal inspectors found the agency did not have enough dispatchers likely worsened the trend as wait times for trains increased, said Mary Buchanan, one of the researchers. And the decline in job access has likely worsened since August because the MBTA cut bus service further last month.
“If people have another option, people are going to start looking at, ‘How else can I get around?’ ” said Buchanan. “If you don’t have another option, it means you’re just worse off.”
The MBTA’s ad campaign, signing bonus, and elimination of its commercial driver’s license requirement are good first steps, said Chris Van Eyken, a program manager at TransitCenter who authored a recent report about how transit agencies can better hire and retain drivers. But more investment will be needed to get the T out of this crisis.
Of the eight regional transit authorities in Massachusetts that advertise starting wages for bus drivers on their websites, five offer higher starting wages than the MBTA’s current $22.21 per hour. That includes agencies that provide bus service to cities and towns including Lawrence, Attleboro, and Springfield, where the living wage is much lower than in Boston, according to MIT’s living wage calculator. The MBTA makes drivers start as part-time employees, further limiting their earnings.
Pesaturo said the T has increased its wage for the 10 weeks of new driver training from $16.66 to match the starting wage of $22.21 as of Jan. 1. The T also increased its tuition reimbursement from $5,000 to $10,000 and is paying the “nearly $8,000″ it costs for drivers to earn a commercial driver’s license, Pesaturo said. He declined to comment on whether the agency is working on a deal with the Carmen’s Union to raise starting wages for new drivers.
A spokesperson for the Carmen’s Local 589 said in an e-mail that the MBTA and the union are “actively working together to address these issues.”
Raising wages and offering full-time jobs is key to attracting more new drivers, said Van Eyken.
“Boston has just fallen behind a lot on this,” he said. “There’s a real need for competitive pay to make sure people are getting in the door in the first place.”
Drivers might be encouraged to stay and newbies to take the jobs if the T eliminated split shifts that require drivers to work both the morning and evening peak hours, often without enough time to go home in between. Offering additional pay or child-care assistance for drivers working split shifts can help ease the burden, Van Eyken found. So can improving employee facilities like break rooms and access to bathrooms along routes.
Warren, who travels from Mattapan to Alewife for work, said she hopes the T can add more buses to the 31 route soon.
She loves her job, she said, and fears getting fired. She’s trying to save up to buy a car.
“As soon as I get a car I won’t have to deal with this,” Warren said.