Want Better Transit Service? Advocate, Protest — and Ride the Bus!

Drivers on route 87 in St. Paul — the one that runs between Rosedale and Highland Park, with compact buses that appear to have been compressed, accordion style, on either end — will be responsible for two routes once Metro Transit’s latest service cuts and changes begin on Saturday, December 3.

When the No. 87 transitions to hourly service on weekends and between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays, its drivers will do a loop and then jump to route 65 — which runs from Rosedale to Dale Street, ending on Grand Avenue in Crocus Hill. That route also has been trimmed primarily to hourly service.

Image courtesy of Metro Transit Facebook page

The driver who explained all this smiled and shrugged, acquiescing to the changes if she wants to keep her job. Later, on my return trip, a driver with gray hair laughed when I asked how the coming schedule cuts would affect him. “I’ll be in Florida,” he declared, clearly headed for retirement.

And more riders will be left outside waiting in the winter cold.

Higher Pay, Fewer Drivers

Six of the 36 bus routes that serve primarily the urban core will be reduced to hourly service for weekend and non-rush-hour trips when Metro Transit enacts its “quarterly service changes” this coming Saturday: That’s almost 17% of city and first-tier suburban routes. Overall, 24 of those 36 routes (numbered from 2 to 94) will be affected, as will many suburban commuter lines.

The ongoing challenge to hire enough drivers has prompted the service cuts, according to Metro Transit officials. Despite a recently boosted starting wage of $26.16 an hour (about $54,400 a year) and a hiring bonus of up to $5,000, Metro Transit is 74 drivers short of the more than 1,000 drivers it needs to fulfill its current schedule, according to Adam Harrington, director of service development.

“We’re trying to manage schedules so we don’t have service that doesn’t show up,” Harrington said. But service delays already have been a problem. Of the 170,000 monthly trips in the current schedule, 1,500 were cancelled unexpectedly during October, due to drivers being sick or unavailable, according to Drew Kerr, communications manager at Metro Transit.

Ian Buck hosts the Streets.mn podcast and did an episode in September called “Solving the Bus Driver Shortage.”

“These are not cuts we want to make. A lot of them are really, really painful — for us and for our drivers,” said Cody Olson, community outreach coordinator for Metro Transit at a recent Transportation Committee meeting of Union Park District Council in St. Paul.

Amid a metro area unemployment rate of less than 2%, Olson urged committee members to talk up the “good benefits, union representation and sign-on bonus, as well as training” available in Metro Transit jobs. “It’s a continuous struggle. We need folks to drive buses and trains.” On the upside: Almost 90 people participated in two hiring events in early November.

Opportunities for Engagement

Move Minnesota, a transit advocacy organization that was born of the 2017 merger of Transit for Livable Communities and St. Paul Smart Trips, is planning a “Boost the Bus” rally at 6 p.m. on Thursday, December 1 to encourage Metro Transit officials to stop the service cuts and improve transit reliability. A phone bank to promote the rally will be held on Tuesday, November 29, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the organization’s headquarters in St. Paul.

Move Minnesota Executive Director Sam Rockwell said he and his colleagues “applaud” the boost in compensation for bus drivers and train operators. But it’s not enough. “We are asking for Metro Transit to use other tools in their toolbox to improve service,” he explained.

These suggested tools include:

  • Signal priority, which prompts traffic lights to stay green when a bus is approaching an intersection.
  • Shifts in “stop spacing and location,” such as the effort more than two years ago to speed up route 63 in St. Paul by putting more distance between bus stops and relocating those stops to the far side of signalized intersections.
  • Lobbying cities and counties for “emergency bus lanes,” said Rockwell, “to speed up buses.”
Move Minnesota is sponsoring a “Boost the Bus” rally on Thursday, December 1. Photo courtesy of Move Minnesota Facebook page

Citing Chicago, Boston, New York and San Francisco as examples, he said Metro Transit needs to “look at service holistically rather than just a product of how many drivers we have. We are leaving a lot of service improvement tools in the toolbox, and Metro Transit should be putting all of them to use.”

Meantime, the service cuts will affect real people, like the young man I met at a bus stop the other morning who was unaware of the coming changes and doesn’t own a car. He’ll continue to use the bus (“I have to,” he told me), but the cutbacks will affect him.

I do own a car, a 52-miles-per-gallon Prius, which often sits idle both for climate protection and for my health, given the walking that transit use requires. I anticipate it becoming more onerous to bus to medical appointments, workout classes, volunteer shifts at Planned Parenthood and even coffee dates with friends. I imagine greater use of the “trip planner” feature on Metro Transit’s website and a heightened inconvenience that is at the very root of why so many people who can afford to, choose to drive.

Another Option? Ride the Bus

I’ve signed up for the Move Minnesota phone bank and hope to attend the rally on December 1. In some small way, those decisions will make a difference, because the point and power of collective action is for each and all of us to show up.

But public protest is not the only action available if you care about funding and sustaining a stronger transit system. St. Paul City Councilmember Mitra Jalali, a cyclist and transit user herself, was at the Union Park Transportation Committee meeting earlier in November, and she urged that easiest of democratic actions: Contact your elected officials.

“It’s important to start tracking this issue,” said Jalali, who represents the City of Saint Paul on the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory Board. “Get involved with your state representatives and senators this coming legislative session,” when DFL control of the House and Senate could yield more transportation funding. Jalali also urged engagement with Ramsey County commissioners, including board chair Trista MatasCastillo.

Another activist option is simply to ride the bus, and encourage your friends, colleagues and family members to do the same. When event and meeting organizers advertise parking options only, I ask them to publicize transit options, too. When I meet people across the river from my home in St. Paul, I choose locations based on transit access, and I always ask for mobile numbers in case the bus or train is running late.

Image courtesy of “The War on Cars” podcast

In a recent episode of “The War on Cars” podcast, Seattle-based advice columnist, former marriage equality activist and committed non-driver Dan Savage told listeners that “the best thing you can do for bike activism is to get on a bike.” That lets drivers see you and learn to share the road. The same logic applies to riding the bus or train. The more people who do it, especially in a car-centric, class-conscious metro area, the more normalized a behavior it will become.

When my husband and I took mass transit to Allianz Field last year for a Keystone Community Services fundraiser, we were the only dressed-up people on the bus. No matter. But we also were apparently the only attendees at the event who had to time their exit in 30-minute intervals so we could catch the 21A back home.

Perhaps that left an impression on our tablemates stuck in traffic as they eased toward Interstate 94, allowing them time to ponder the dissonance of riding in a $40,000 SUV after attending an event to raise money for folks who can’t afford groceries.

How does that saying go? Be the change you want to see.

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

Amy Gage is managing editor of Streets.mn. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging (themiddlestages.com) and is executive director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County.

21 thoughts on “Want Better Transit Service? Advocate, Protest — and Ride the Bus!

  1. frdicaprio

    I live near both the 65 and 63, so this is definitely relevant to me. The 65 already runs a bit too infrequently for me to rely on it for my commute, so I’m really dismayed to hear it’s getting cut back further. I appreciate the action items along with the bad news though!

    1. Ian R BuckModerator  

      When I worked at Harding High School, my preferred transit commute was 65 -> 63. The 65 was an underrated gem of a route! Now it’ll be once an hour and doesn’t connect for that midday transfer window. Good thing I work from home now, I suppose.

  2. John Dillery

    Heartbreaking to know that scientific facts indicate that strong and growing transit will reduce climate disruption significantly, while many sociologists note the benefits to community building that frequent well used transit brings to a community. Now here we are at the bottom. Yes, good regular route transit will help to save our world. Our creativity and vision of where we want to go will help to save transit.
    Count on this: Half the responsibility for growing a great transit system is the transit operators’, and the other half is the responsibility of the entire community to insure that they do everything they can to create and maintain a transit-supportive environment. The garden will only grow in great soil.

  3. Brendan Anderson

    They’re nearly 500 operators short, there’s another 30+ retiring as of the first of the year. They continue to cut, but it’s fine the first couple of weeks of the service change. Drivers will start getting worn out and start calling in sick regularly. It’s an on going issue. Respect from Metro Transit, by addressing the increasing assaults against the Drivers and actually having the police respond to issues with the increasing crime including fentanyl smoking on the vehicles. Respect from the general public has massively dropped since the pandemic as well. Until any of this changes or until the economy crashes, they’ll never find enough operators. As a 12 year driver myself, I’m actively looking for a job outside the company.

  4. Robbie King

    A fundamental difference between many Amazon delivery drivers and a metro transit driver is training and flexibility. Amazon allows you to take your own vehicle and work on your own schedule. UPS does the same, you can see this in all of the seasonal job listings available now for Amazon and UPS.

  5. James Larson

    And these aren’t the only cuts they’ve made. They made some cuts effective October 15 and ELIMINATED ENTIRELY some routes – 705B and 831 are two I know of. And yet Metro Transit hasn’t published a list of these — per a Facebook posting they said they only notified people on the affected routes who subscribe to those particular routes’ email alerts. I find it outrageous that they are keeping some of their cuts under wraps.

    And it’s more than reducing some routes to an hour frequency. Those are the lucky people. It’s the complete elimination of routes or the eliminating weekend or midday and evening services that are most harmful to those affected.

    On the issue of hiring bus drivers, Amazon drivers don’t have to put up with this. This is an article about Denver city busses is not much better, I just haven’t seen an article as comprehensive as this:

    “In the past two years, Denver-area bus drivers had reported being assaulted by their passengers more than 145 times. Suna had been spit on, hit with a toolbox, threatened with a knife, pushed in the back while driving and chased into a restroom during her break. Her windshield had been shattered with rocks or glass bottles three times. ”

    — That’s just a small sample of it. Much more at: https://archive.ph/WUCsc

    1. James Larson

      I can’t edit the above. So just to clarify – it’s the October 15 cuts that they didn’t publish. They have publicized all the December 3 cuts.

      To fix my word salad, I’d also like to revise: “This is an article about Denver city busses is not much better, I just haven’t seen an article as comprehensive as this:”

      should be revised to

      “This is an article about Denver city busses. The situation in the Twin Cities is probably not much better (may be worse), but I just haven’t seen an article as comprehensive as this about driving busses in the Twin Cities”.

  6. J Baxx

    What is your point? Do you think MTC drivers are overpaid? They should work for lower wages ( less than living wage?) so you can have a (mostly) empty bus whenever you want?

    How is it ecological to have mostly empty buses driving around, picking up riders who aren’t there ?

    Just, wow.

    1. Dane Van Slooten

      The point is that they wouldn’t be mostly empty if they ran more frequently. It would be more ecological because a more robust bus schedule would coax people out of their cars and into the bus. One of the main factors limiting bus use is lack of frequency. In cases like this you have to create the supply before the demand can grow. Counter intuitive, but the data shows it in places that have embraced the strategy.

  7. Benjamin

    Probably because Metro Transit ultimately requires a Commerical license with DOT requirements. That can include a medical exam and a drug test. You also have to deal with people all the time. Public facing positions are all having difficulties finding qualified people.
    If you can get or have a CDL and are able to pass a drug test, you can earn far more with another company and have the benefit of regular schedule.

    Amazon drivers for the most part, do NOT get drug tested, and a relatively clean driving record is all that is needed. You can drive your own vehicle, and have increased flexibility on choosing when you want to work. You rarely deal with the public.

    The two positions are widely different, and not very comparable.

    1. Sheldon Gitis

      Agreed. The 2 jobs are widely different. However, why is that?

      The 2 jobs both involve delivering groceries and other necessities to and from many different locations. The 2 jobs also involve operating a passenger vehicle.

      There are 2 big differences:

      1) the training and skill involved in operating a big bus or a train vs. the relative ease of operating a much smaller car or van, and
      2) the flexibility of signing up for a work schedule that fits individual needs.

      Why couldn’t public transit operate, most of the time, on most routes, with much smaller vehicles operated by independent contractors working flexible schedules that fit their needs? Imagine the number of independent contractor drivers and relatively small, efficient, and less polluting transit vehicles, requiring little or no special training to operate, could be had for the price of what Metro Transit currently spends on other things.

      The problem isn’t a lack of money or workers. The problem is a lack of imagination and a fixation on big ticket “economic development” concrete projects, squandering public transit resources while reducing public transit service.

  8. James Larson

    This from MetroTransit: Good Question: Why is service being reduced in December? 11/22/22

    Some stats from it: They are 70 operators short of what is needed to support current scheduled service levels, and 300 short of needed to support pre-pandemic service levels. The December 3 cuts will cut service by 8% and reduce the number of operators needed by 80 — more than the 70 they are short now to maintain current service levels, “because many employees retire at the beginning of the year.”

    Another article of interest: Ghost Buses are Haunting Riders Across America, transitcenter.org, 10/31/22

  9. Daniel Baxter

    After waiting in the dark and cold at 4:50am for a Route 23 bus that never arrived a couple of weeks ago, I guess I can live with it running just once every hour if it will be more reliable. Hopefully Metro Transit will restore the service cuts once they get more drivers!

  10. Ed SteinhauerEdward w Steinhauer

    As a (former) Keystone employee, I can tell you I was stuck in traffic for two hours on Snelling, trying to get to a similar event. It’s good you took the bus!

    I am a year-round cyclist who supplements with transit during inclement weather. And this week, boy, is there ever. My bus got stuck three times during my commute yesterday. Watching the driver struggle to get the articulated bus moving; and stop occasionally to scrape ice off the wipers, i was so grateful for his work. And told Metro Transit so, as well.

    I understand your meaning here to lament service cuts, with the understanding that driver shortages make maintenance of routes such as the 87 difficult. I take the 62, which crosses the Mississippi to the West Side. It’s one of a very few bus routes to do so. It’s a catch-22, that more frequent routes would be more useful for more people, but with largely empty buses for existing routes, we have to be grateful for what service we currently enjoy. So use it or lose it, I guess.

  11. R Kaur

    Buses cannot run without drivers,I am in London right now they have bus drivers vacancy painted at the back of their buses.
    Metro Transit can do a better job by consolidate some routes.
    Ex: Rice St has too many routes-3AB,61 62 67 68

    Se Mpls 2 3 4 6 10 11 17 25 61 plus GL.W hy keep the 6U which is mostly duplicated it 4 blocks from #4 ?

    Longfellow has 2 low ridership routes 9 and 23 why not consolidate and keep 30mins headways instead of 2 routes hourly?

    Why keep UM routes when there are existing routes with a transfer?

    60-120mins frequencies are useless.

    Increase route spacing to 1/2 mile and keep the frequencies

  12. James Larson

    Demographer: Minnesota has one of the tightest labor markets in the U.S. and it’s unlikely to change , MPR, 12/7/22

    There are 90,000 fewer workers in Minnesota than before the pandemic, apparently referring to the labor force

    Minnesota Labor Force Participation Rate, FRED. — https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LBSSA27

    Nationally, the labor force participation rate has been dwindling from a high point of about 67.3% in 2000 to 62.1% now. (It was 62.2% in January, so there hasn’t been any progress in that all year, actually a mini-decrease). Meanwhile the population of elderly (such as me) needing more and more service (me not yet but soon) grows.

    U.S. Labor Force Participation Rate: http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS11300000

    1. James Larson

      The labor force statistics help explain why there is such a shortage of workers in most areas and occupations, such as bus drivers, to name one of many.

      I found a couple of other labor force statistics that illustrates the problem of fewer workers and more population:

      Nationally the number in the labor force is down 152,000 from pre-pandemic (December 2019) to the latest (November 2022)

      Meanwhile, the civilian noninstitutional population age 16+ has grown by 4.5 million during that same time period. This particular population is the base of most of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment/unemployment numbers, and it is the denominator used in the calculation of the labor force participation rate

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