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Transportation and Mobility

LA Metro Is Cutting Service Again As It Struggles To Hire (And Keep) Bus Operators

An orange Los Angeles Metro bus drives along a street.
(Courtesy L.A. Metro)
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When the pandemic hit, Los Angeles County’s public transit agency cut service as ridership plummeted. As riders started to return to its buses and trains, L.A. Metro aimed to restore service to pre-pandemic levels.

But staffing shortages and the omicron surge have taken a toll. Now Metro will be cutting scheduled bus service by nearly 12%, beginning Feb. 20.

That means fewer buses and longer waits on the system’s 117 bus lines. According to a presentation to the agency’s board last week, service will be cut based on how each bus line falls into the NextGen Bus Plan tiered system. The new frequencies will be:

  • Tier 1 service frequency: 5-15 minutes weekday; 7.5-20 minutes weekend 
  • Tier 2 service frequency: 12-20 minutes weekday; 15-40 minutes weekend 
  • Tier 3 service frequency:  20-45 minutes weekday; 30-60 minutes weekend 
  • Tier 4 service frequency: 40-60 minutes weekday and weekend

Metro has posted a full list of the new service frequencies for all of its bus and rail lines, broken down into the morning peak, midday, afternoon peak and night hours. Officials note that service will start and end at the usual times, and bus routes aren’t changing.

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Metro says it’s working to update the soon-to-be-outdated bus and rail timetables listed on its website and advises riders to use the Transit app (available for iPhone and Android) to plan trips.

Dave Sotero, spokesperson for Metro, said the bus lines with the longest wait times — 45 to 60 minutes between buses — “are lower ridership local bus lines on less densely populated corridors.”

The agency will also run fewer trains on its rail lines; light rail service will be cut by about 14% and heavy rail will be reduced 5%, officials said.

  • The B (Red) and D (Purple) lines will run every 15 minutes at peak service times and 15 minutes midday and weekends
  • The A (Blue), C (Green), E (Expo) and L (Gold) lines will run every 10 minutes during peak service times

Metro’s leaders set a goal to restore service by June 2022, but CEO Stephanie Wiggins told the board last week that “the goal is not a guarantee.”

Many bus riders are already experiencing service worse than what Metro is planning for. Systemwide, nearly one in every five scheduled bus trips was canceled in January.

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On some lines, 20-35% of expected buses did not arrive last month, according to Metro data. The cancellation rate hit up to 50% on the 754 line.

“Overall, the temporary service reduction is intended to adjust services more strategically across our network and minimize the burden on any one line as well as maintain capacity to accommodate our riders,” said Metro spokesperson Dave Sotero.

How Did Service Get This Bad?

The main reason: Metro is short by more than 550 bus operators.

As in many other job sectors, people are leaving positions faster than Metro can fill them. In the last half of 2021, the agency hired 207 bus operators, but 356 operators left during that time. Metro currently employs 3,119 bus operators, but needs to hire another 558 more to meet normal service levels. The agency is also short almost 30 rail operators.

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Operators who do stay are having to cover additional shifts, and that’s taking a toll on them. Metro has enacted “mandatory call backs,” making operators come in on their days off to cover shifts.

“That is turning out to be really detrimental to our employees,” said Conan Cheung, acting chief operations officer for Metro bus service. “It's resulting in fatigue and burnout, and it's really impacting morale.”

People in masks exit a train car and walk in different directions.
People wear face coverings while departing a Metro train on Dec. 15, 2021 in Los Angeles.
(Mario Tama
/
Getty Images)

And of course, there’s the omicron surge. Since the start of December, Metro has confirmed more than 500 COVID-19 cases among its bus and rail operators.

And as several people noted in their public comments during Metro's board meeting, it doesn’t pay too well to be a Metro bus operator. As of January the starting wage was $17.75 per hour.

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“We must pay bus operators a living wage — $17.75 is not a living wage in Los Angeles,” one caller said.

Board member and L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin agreed:

“For the wages they're [getting] to operate this big, huge piece of machinery on public roads with frustrated and angry passengers, with people who may be sick, with all this stuff going on, it's uncanny that they're able to do the job … there's so much more we need to do for the operators.”

Metro did bump up bus operators’ starting pay this month, from $17.75 to $19.12 per hour, though right now that’s happening under a limited 6-month pilot program. The agency is also offering a $3,000 hiring bonus for new operators.

Metro also outlined some conditions that must be met before service is restored:

  • COVID case rates for operators must stay at 30 or fewer new cases per month
  • Metro must have at least 3,677 bus operators and 326 rail operators on staff
  • No more than 200 mandatory call backs to operators per week
  • Systemwide, bus service cancellations can’t exceed 2% average
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Updated February 17, 2022 at 10:52 AM PST
This story has been updated with a link to Metro's upcoming reduced service frequencies and comment from the agency.