As the new school year started to roll out, the Ottawa Student Transportation Authority hit a snag with its school bus routes: there simply wasn’t enough drivers to go around.
The OSTA said that as of Wednesday, more than 102 permanent yellow bus drivers have quit since July 2021, or 16 per cent of the driver fleet.
As the OSTA explains, when the authority distributed the proposed routes to operators at the end of July and drivers began to formalize their employment agreements and assigned routes, “it became clear the existing driver shortage was worsening.”
Based on the initial count, at least over 60 drivers would not be returning to work. By school start-up, the number grew to over 80 drivers. This is similar to last year’s start-up driver situation.
This situation forced the OSTA to reassign over 3,000 students in grades seven to 12 to public transit to make room for elementary students on the yellow buses. This included working with OC Transpo to create over 50 new service runs to accommodate the location of students and schools.
“Despite the severe driver shortage, OSTA provided regular and alternate transportation services for 95% of eligible students,” the OSTA said on its website Wednesday. “Parents are working together to get children whose transportation has been cancelled to school by carpooling, walking, riding their bikes, or making other arrangements.”
But it's the city's west end getting hit the hardest.
According to the OSTA, Ottawa's west end is experiencing a population growth and the need for transportaiton services in that end of the city exceeds the number of available drivers.
“New drivers are interested in working within their community,” the OSTA explained. “Many new drivers live in the centre of the city or the east end and are unwilling to drive to the far west end to work [two to three] hours, twice a day. As new drivers are trained and licensed, they prefer taking on positions within the area that suits their needs.
So far, the OSTA has cancelled 114 routes and 484 runs during re-planning and start-up.
Some were permanently removed from the system, and students were reassigned to alternate transportation.
The authority also continues to work on covering routes that remain in the system, which are on the long-term cancellations lists.
This has translated to 685 delays between September 7 and September 19.
As drivers become available and start working towards alternate solutions, the authority has prioritized coverage of yellow bus routes in the following manner:
- Rural routes
- Low-income school communities
- Elementary schools over secondary schools
But this year, the shortage has also impacted van and wheelchair bus operators.
Capacity has been reduced in many vehicles to minimize the potential transmission of COVID.
The recruitment of drivers is ongoing, as is the search for available vans to buy.
The OSTA said its next step will be to collect data relating to the causes of the driver shortage and will work with its member school boards to develop a plan for what’s to come afterwards.
Among the data the OSTA will collect is:
- Average driver compensation in the Ottawa areas compared to other jurisdictions and other similar jobs on the market
- The unemployment rate in Ottawa compared to other Ontario cities
- The relative increase in wages versus operator contract increases
- Money spent on advertising and other recruitment incentives this past summer
- Changes in demographics and potential driver pools due to COVID and other circumstances
For more information on the OSTA’s plans for route coverage, delays, students with special needs and more, visit the OSTA’s website.
The OSTA said it has faced many challenges due to COVID and the ongoing shortage, but that staff continue to work on solutions and communicate any changes.