Jobs: A lack of drivers has made it difficult to keep the system running. Matthew Hall


Big Blue Bus suffers from shortage of drivers resulting in a reduced service for 2023

Santa Monica’s municipal transportation system Big Blue Bus (BBB) will begin a reduced service schedule in January as a result of “persistent challenges” in recruiting qualified drivers, or Motor Coach Operators (MCO).

In spite of efforts to attract and retain MCOs, attempts to maintain the workforce levels needed to maintain an extensive service and meet increasing customer demand have had limited success.

“Despite the restoration of training classes in 2021 and 2022 and aggressive recruitment and retention efforts, labor market shifts accelerated by the pandemic have contributed to the current shortfall of 45 MCOs from the Department’s 317 budgeted positions,” Edward F. King, Director, Department of Transportation, said in a statement.

BBB operates in the city of Santa Monica and the greater Westside region of Los Angeles County but despite a rise in ridership of 26% in the fiscal year 2021-22, the service has struggled to bounce back to pre-pandemic numbers.

According to the statement, the staffing shortage had not significantly impacted daily service until recently because the service had continued to operate at 70-85% of pre-pandemic levels. However, daily vacancies and unscheduled absences are consistently high, resulting in service cancellations due to a lack of operators. Moreover, traffic congestion has worsened.

Many customers have returned to riding the system as economic conditions have improved and schools have once again begun in-classroom teaching. The surge of customers has required an increase in bus frequency and restoring Rapid services (which had been suspended during the pandemic) on the Pico, Lincoln and Wilshire corridors to address overcrowding and buses operating late due to heavier traffic.

Since 2021, a number of initiatives to address the staffing shortfall have been introduced, including increasing the annual number of training classes, reducing the time required to recruit trainees and increasing the training pay rate. However, BBB’s performance has suffered and the customer experience has been eroded. Despite focused efforts to increase recruitment, candidate quality and the inability to swiftly train and certify drivers in large numbers, means that filling the current empty positions will likely take an additional one to two years.

For the January 2023 change, service will be reduced on some routes to reallocate resources to where the demand is greatest, as such the cuts will incorporate the following:

• Saturday service will be changed to match Sunday service.

• Eliminating route 41 on weekends.

• Eliminating early morning and late-night trips on routes 1, 2, 7, Rapid 7, 8, 9, 16, 17, 41 and 43.

• Significant trip eliminations on Rapid 3.

• Delaying the restoration of service to pre-Covid levels on lines 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16, 18, 42 and 44.

Staff said that if labor market challenges continue and any of these service changes have to be maintained for longer than six months, the Department will engage in a public hearing and stakeholder engagement process and will return to Council with recommendations.

Scott Snowden

Scott Snowden started with the SMDP in 2023 with a long list of journalistic experience. He has written local and international investigative work in Forbes, The Sunday Times, The Financial Times, The...