From July through early September, anywhere from several to dozens of CTtransit bus trips in Greater Hartford were canceled each weekday. The official reason: “lack of operators.” Only after weeks of non-stop disruption was there news coverage, which pushed CTtransit to publicly acknowledge that around 21% of its drivers were calling out on any given day. COVID was cited as the cause, raising the question of why this workforce COVID cluster has not received more attention.
Regardless of what created this staffing issue, how CTtransit handled the driver shortage was far from professional, with short- and potentially longer-term impacts. Meanwhile, the debacle revealed how little those who don’t take public transit understand about both buses and their riders.
Each canceled bus trip was the equivalent of closing a road to drivers, except that instead of being given another bus to use, like a detour, often there were no alternatives. Unlike when roads are closed, bus cancellations only make it into radio and tv traffic reports when there’s a blizzard.
Instead of announcing all canceled trips early each day, these details were released anywhere from hours to minutes before a bus was scheduled to arrive. Sometimes, notice was provided hours after the fact. Cancellations are not posted at bus stops. Would-be passengers needed to know to look on Facebook. Sometimes, changes would be listed under an “alerts” tab on the CTtransit website, though where these appeared varied and were often deleted later. This system assumes everyone has access to technology and the savvy to search for this information.
Clear, honest, accessible, and early communication would have shown respect for passengers. This was missing, though with each announcement was a canned apology for “inconvenience.”
“Inconvenience” minimizes the weeks of disruption, making it sound as if passengers were upset for merely waiting an additional five minutes in the rain.
Understanding the extent of this “inconvenience” means being informed about who uses public transportation and for what reasons. Schedules may still heavily reflect the notion that bus and train riders are Monday-to-Friday first-shift work commuters, but that’s not reality. Standing room only mid-day Farmington Avenue buses in Hartford tell us this, with riders going anywhere from the pharmacy to doctor’s office to connecting buses.
If a bus rider was stranded at a grocery store in West Hartford’s Bishop’s Corner and needed to get home to Hartford, that would cost at least $15 on a rideshare app, plus tip. That’s more than most riders make in an hour. In an area that does not have frequent transit on a good day, a person had to decide whether to wait another half hour for the next bus – which could also be dropped – or try to navigate home another way. For those who are able-bodied and have tech know-how, they might have known to walk the seven minutes to another nearby bus stop that travels other routes. Everyone else?
Besides sitting outside the supermarket with bags of rapidly defrosting food, this mangled transportation service created many other situations that went beyond mere inconvenience. For parents riding to retrieve their children from daycare, a suddenly canceled hourly bus presents a hassle. Those with a strong support system could potentially send a few frantic texts and have someone else authorized to pick up the kids go do that. Everyone else? This is a decision about one of those expensive taxi rides or paying a late fee to the childcare center. In some communities, there’s concern that child services might be called if the kid is stuck past closing time.
What looks like inconvenience to one person is the compounding of vulnerabilities to others.
Those workers making less per hour than what it costs to take a cab home? They are most likely to be punching a time clock, without much forgiveness for lateness. In the final weeks of CTtransit’s staffing issue, most disruptions were in the afternoon and evening, which may have benefited first shift workers on one end, but was unhelpful to those on other shifts. A delay coming home is also not simply inconveniencing someone who wanted to crack a beer and turn on the game. This pauses making dinner, taking medications, tackling the ongoing household chores, and helping kids with homework.
Youth relying on public transit learned in their first week of school that it cannot be counted on. This does not play well with those who have anxiety, nor with those whose teachers might not readily recognize the different ways in which students travel to school. This experience with unpredictability no doubt left a negative impression on young people, and given the demands of our changing climate, we should be concerned about how we are making it more challenging to entice future generations to live in ways that leave less of a carbon footprint.
Since Labor Day weekend, the Hartford area staffing shortage appears to have been resolved. Has CTtransit learned any lessons from this fiasco about how to not erode the public’s trust? We shall see, next time around.