A Razorback Transit bus driver shortage that began at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect students as UA Transit and Parking Department officials seek to hire more drivers.
David Wilson, director of communications for Transit and Parking, first noticed the driver shortage in early 2020, he said. However, the shortage did not present a serious problem until the 2021-22 school year began.
“As soon as the coronavirus concerns hit everybody, there was a shortage,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t very noticeable, and it wasn’t a big problem because this entire last school year, (because) we didn’t have many people riding the buses anyway.”
Public schools and colleges in every region of the country are facing a bus driver shortage, and 51% of school district respondents to a national survey in August considered the shortage severe, according to the National Association for Pupil Transportation. Transportation officials at universities including the University of Michigan, the State University of New York at Buffalo and the University of Massachusetts system are struggling to adequately staff their fleets.
Beginning Sept. 20, 2021, UA Transit and Parking officials altered bus route schedules to accommodate the shortage while best serving the influx of students on campus, Wilson said. Routes 13, 21, 33, 35, 44 and 48 went to on-demand service after 8 p.m. Monday-Friday, requiring passengers to request service through the bus-tracking app Passio Go! The department also modified Route 26, which goes from Union Station to the Northwest Arkansas Mall, to offer one bus per hour after 8 p.m., according to the Transit and Parking website.
Transit officials have also reduced the number of buses on routes during daytime hours, Adam Waddell, director of Razorback Transit, said in an email. In fall 2019, 21 total buses ran at a time, while 17 now run at a time.
Officials made cutbacks based on ridership, limiting the least-used routes and prioritizing those with the most riders, Wilson said.
Bailee Miller, a senior, has noticed fewer buses running compared to her freshman year, she said. She takes Razorback Transit Route 48 on weekdays, and has to leave her apartment earlier than in the past to catch the bus.
“I have to (leave) at least 30 minutes early, if not earlier, just so I can make sure I can get on the bus and be able to walk from the Union all the way to Bell,” Miller said.
Anna Lee, a junior, also depends on Razorback Transit and takes the Route 26 bus to and from campus on weekdays. Fewer buses running has affected her daily routine, she said.
“I’ve noticed there’s been a few times the bus isn’t running when I need to take it,” Lee said.
When the buses are unavailable, Lee drives to campus and parks in the metered spaces in the Harmon Avenue Parking Garage, which cost $1.80 per hour. She has done so several times this semester, she said.
Miller also noticed multiple buses tend to arrive at her stop around the same time, which makes it difficult if she misses them, she said. She waited for a bus for 30 minutes one day and missed an appointment because of the delay.
“Usually there’s only two buses on Route 48 and two buses on Route 11, and they usually show up around the same time,” Miller said. “Whereas before COVID-19, they were pretty staggered.”
The fleet of bus drivers is currently half its normal size, Wilson said. There are 16 full-time drivers, while the fleet had 32 when it was at full capacity in years past.
To incentivize applicants, the department increased starting pay for drivers from $14 to $17 per hour this school year, Wilson said.
Transit and Parking has lost drivers every past school year, but there are usually applicants to fill in the spaces, Wilson said. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, fewer candidates have applied.
“We always have lost people every year,” Wilson said. “But it never was a problem hiring somebody new and training them and keeping plenty on staff. We haven’t had more people leave, we just haven’t had the same amount coming to us.”
The training process for new drivers can take three to four weeks, but it varies for every applicant. Some new hires take longer to master every skill, Wilson said.
“It’s not like a semester class where everyone finishes at the same time,” Wilson said. “They’re not going to put you behind the wheel of the bus until you are completely proficient.”
Department staff will continue to advertise hiring perks through social media, the department website and signs on Razorback Transit buses, Wilson said. Wilson thinks the driver shortage is a result of the pandemic, which has caused a nationwide labor shortage, and he does not know when the fleet will be fully staffed again.
“It looks like this will continue to be a concern, but it’s hard to predict,” Wilson said. “This is worse than it’s been, but I don’t think it’s any worse than anyone else who’s trying to hire.”
This story is part of an ongoing series about the U.S. labor shortage and its effects on Arkansans. For more special coverage, select “Where are the Workers?” under the “News” tab at the top of The Arkansas Traveler website.