By Hope O’Dell
Capital News Service
In the age of Uber and Lyft, public transportation is still the only viable option for many Michigan residents.
“Sometimes on the weekend, or if you catch the right person, you might be able to grab an Uber, but it’s not regular service like that,” said Kelly Getman-Dissette, the general manager of Niles Dial-A-Ride Transportation.
Niles –– a small city near the Indiana border –– and only one regular bus route that runs on the hour, doesn’t have multiple lines of fixed-route service either, Getman-Dissette said. It runs on a major street, M-51, and is used mostly for shopping trips to stores like Wal-Mart and Martin’s.
The agency’s Dial-A-Ride service, which also serves the Buchanan area, fills a gap for those who need transport to work, school and medical visits, she said.
But a driver shortage is hurting Dial-A-Ride services across the state, causing them to cut back on services. That often leaves the most vulnerable residents in rural Michigan with longer wait times and less access to public transportation.
“Nationwide, there has been a driver shortage,” Getman-Dissette said. “The schools are struggling, the trucking industry is struggling, so we’re all struggling to hire drivers.”
In Michigan, the labor force for transit jobs dropped almost 39% from January to May 2020, its lowest point. While slowly increasing, as of December 2021 the labor force was still down 18% compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Even larger transit agencies, like SMART, which serves Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, are being hit by the shortage. It’s causing them to evaluate whether a shift to more Dial-A-Ride type services is necessary, said Dwight Ferrell, SMART’s general manager.
“We are taking a wider view and analyzing the changing mobility needs which will determine how we adjust our mix of services for southeast Michigan,” Ferrell said.
Niles Dial-A-Ride was struggling to hire drivers before COVID-19 hit, Getman-Dissette said, but the problem got much more difficult once the pandemic started.
Fifteen drivers work for the service, some part time and some full time. Getman-Dissette said she’d prefer 20.
While employment isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels, she said ridership levels are close to where they were in 2019 as people return to some aspects of pre-pandemic life.
“They would like more service hours, they would like shorter wait times, and we are not able to meet that demand,” Getman-Dissette said.
Wait times used to sit around 15 to 20 minutes, she said. They now range from 30 to 45.
Amber Vandenburg, the transit operations manager for the dial-a-ride service in Marshall – a small city near Battle Creek ––operates only three of the six buses she has available for the demand-response transit system. Daily service was also cut by two hours.
“We max out how many passengers we can take,” Vandenburg said.
Vandenburg said her seven part-time drivers are putting in extra time to make up for the shortage.
Two of her drivers work four days a week when they want to work two.
“They’ll do what I need them to just because we’ve got a great group of employees and they all have each other’s back and will step up and work more or less whenever we need them to,” Vandenburg said.
“That being said, in a perfect world, I would have two more drivers,” she said.
Service cutbacks and longer wait times adversely impact those who frequently use public transit, often elderly, disabled and low-income passengers, according to a report by the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, based in North Dakota.
Clark Harder, the executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association in East Lansing, said that while the shortage of drivers has caused service cutbacks statewide, he expects workers from high-stress jobs like medical professionals and teachers to fill some of those openings.
“They want to do something that has some value in giving back to their communities,” Harder said. “I expect we’re going to see a lot of those folks coming over into the public transit world and applying for jobs.”
The association website lists job openings. They include recent solicitations for Michigan Transportation Connection schedulers to arrange trips for non-emergency medical appointments around the state and a mechanic for Allegan County Transportation.
Harder said he also expects some who have worked in entry-level jobs like retail and food service to move to public transit.
Without a large budget to advertise job openings, Getman-Dissette has turned to another solution –– buying smaller vehicles that don’t require a commercial driver’s license to operate and can be less daunting to drive.
“But right now, since the pandemic really started, it’s been really tough,” she said. “We just haven’t had a lot of interest at all.”
Vandenburg said Marshall Dial-A-Ride has looked into buying smaller vehicles, but hasn’t felt it necessary to add an extra expense when it’s been able to accommodate everyone who requests a ride within 24 hours of a request.
But it has been asked to expand its service into Battle Creek, a request it can’t fulfill.
“That’s not anything that we would be able to do when we’re struggling for drivers just to do what we currently have,” she said.
Vandenburg said she’s hopeful after receiving two driver applications in a recent week, and Getman-Dissette said Niles Dial-A-Ride has been advertising locally, including on a bus with a hiring sign on it parked at a local senior center.
“Our daily lives are so affected by the driver shortage,” said Getman-Dissette. “I hope that there’s some relief in sight.”