If you ride the bus regularly, you may be familiar with an increasingly common phenomenon: according to your smartphone, a bus is minutes away, when poof! It vanishes from the screen and your wait time has ticked back up. You’ve been ghosted by the bus.
What’s behind this alarming rise in ghost buses? Amid a national shortfall of transit operators, years in the making and worsened by the pandemic, there simply aren’t enough bus operators to run all the trips that transit agencies schedule. Short-staffed crews mean a smaller “cushion” of on-call operators, who can fill in behind the wheel if, for example, someone calls out sick. When no one is available to drive, transit agencies must cancel the trip — increasingly, agency dispatchers make this call at the last minute and without a good way to record the cancellation or update riders.
In January 2022, ghost buses haunted LA Metro – nearly 1 in 6 bus trips were canceled – as the transit agency struggled to run its bus system while down 600 bus operators. By contrast, New York City Transit, which has managed to retain a full operator workforce in 2022, has consistently delivered about 95% of scheduled trips.
Information on ghost buses is hard to come by, compounding the problem. Most agencies don’t publish statistics on how often scheduled runs are canceled, depriving riders of important context that may lead them to plan time buffers or alternate routes into their travel.
There are technical challenges to tracking ghost buses, for riders and agencies alike. Transponders aboard en-route buses share their locations via GPS, feeding real-time arrival boards and trip-planning apps. Canceled trips don’t generate GPS locations, so apps reference and display scheduled arrival data instead. This misleads riders into thinking their bus is running when it’s not.
Analysts can use bus location data to identify their canceled trips, which are scheduled runs that lack GPS coordinates. But many agencies hesitate to post the data, citing potential abnormalities it may contain – like a bus that ran with a broken transponder. Fear of revealing inconsistent, poor service delivery likely also stands in the way of transparency.
How can agencies create a better experience for riders, amidst a workforce shortage that is likely to persist into 2023 and beyond? First, agencies must track and publish the rates of canceled buses. You can’t fix what isn’t measured, and riders deserve a clear and accurate picture of what’s going on with transit service.
Agencies also need to be realistic about the amount of service they can provide with the labor force they have, and adjust schedules accordingly. LA Metro temporarily cut service by 12% in February in order to recalibrate their schedules with the level of service they could consistently run. The decision was painful, but successfully decreased cancellations and made service more predictable for riders — with fewer long, unannounced gaps in service.
But most importantly, agencies need to address the structural reasons behind the operator shortfall. They must radically improve the job for operators by raising pay and improving working conditions. They must also attract new operators by offering signing bonuses and addressing roadblocks to starting the job, like long waits to receive commercial drivers’ licenses and unnecessarily strict drug testing.
Reducing ghost buses, in addition to being transparent about when, where, and how often they are happening, is essential to building and maintaining trust with riders. Riders will only put up with being ghosted so many times before they find other ways to get around.
Was the 6:45am WB (Kensington) of route 21 cancelled? I’ve been standing out here in the cold for 20 minutes now and can barely feel my hands.
— Andrew Feury (@AFeury) October 20, 2022
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