Oct 17, 2022 - News

Metro Transit: More riders, fewer drivers

Illustration of a bus that is displaying an upward trend line.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Riders are slowly returning to buses and trains. The drivers? Not so much.

The big picture: Metro Transit ridership numbers in August were the highest they've been since February 2020, and September is expected to be even better.

The issue: One way to improve ridership numbers is to add more service, but Metro Transit doesn't have enough drivers.

  • It's on pace to provide just over 6,000 trips this fall, compared to nearly 8,000 in the fall of 2019.
  • And a small cut in service is coming today, followed by an 8% cut in December.

By the numbers: Metro Transit is short 61 drivers in the immediate term, and remains down more than 300 from the 1,400 it had pre-pandemic.

What they're doing: Upping wages. The Amalgamated Transit Transit Union Local 1005 just approved a contract amendment that will raise pay for starting drivers to $26.16 an hour, up from $21.80 an hour.

  • Metro Transit spokesperson Drew Kerr told Axios that the wage is competitive with other bus operators in the metro. Unlike many of those services, Metro Transit also offers full-time work and generous benefits.

Yes, but: Kerr cautioned that pay raises aren't guaranteed to fill driver seats.

  • "That's not the only thing that keeps people away from working at Metro Transit," he said. "Schedules come into play. The type of work comes into play. And not a lot of people want to come and drive a 40- or 60-foot bus."

What they're watching: The slow ridership rebound so far has come from people making non-work trips, said Eric Lind, manager of research and analytics for Metro Transit. Ridership to and from the office remains depressed.

  • Lind said cheap parking, lighter rush hour traffic and remote work are main reasons for fewer commuters.
  • Metro Transit continues to grapple with crime — it's up 29% this year through September, largely due to narcotics violations, according to the Star Tribune.

What they're saying: "We're watching parking occupancy in the city and state ramps [in] downtown Minneapolis," Lind said. "Those will be leading indicators for us about when that demand is coming back and we can restore service if we have the operators to do it."

The bottom line: Transit is a low-pollution transportation option, but many riders have opted for cars since the pandemic hit.

  • Ongoing service issues may be keeping them from coming back to buses and light rail trains.

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