King County Metro will reduce weekday service on nearly 60 bus routes this fall because of staff shortages and reliability concerns.
The change, beginning Sept. 17, will be more subtly felt on some routes than others: The No. 24 bus, for example, between downtown Seattle and Magnolia, will lose just one trip per weekday, while the commuter-friendly 218 from Sammamish to downtown will lose nine.
The reductions represent Metro’s effort to improve reliability. While most planned trips are still being delivered, “We’ve seen a significant uptick in cancellations,” said Graydon Newman, senior transportation planner with King County Metro. The schedule changes will, to an extent, reflect what may already be happening on some routes, and the hope is that riders can count on the remaining trips to show up on time.
It’s a playbook being repeated across transportation agencies in the state. The Washington State Ferries has run on “alternative schedules” for well over a year, eliminating sailings in advance rather than at the last minute — an acknowledgment of its lacking staff.
Metro has about 2,500 full- and part-time operators. Spokesperson Jeff Switzer said the current need is estimated to be 62 more full-time operators.
Other bus agencies in the region have taken a similar approach. Community Transit in Snohomish County began reducing weekday service last spring as it struggled to retain and recruit staff. Sound Transit said Thursday that 10 routes would see reduced service because of a staffing shortage.
Difficulty recruiting and retaining staff is affecting 90% of bus agencies across the country, according to a recent report on operator shortages from the pro-transit foundation Transit Center. Among 117 agencies surveyed by the American Public Transportation Association, 71% reported reducing or delaying service in response to lack of staff.
Newman said Metro strove to correlate the trip reductions with pandemic-era shifts in ridership. The agency has the largest drop during peak hours and some of the adjustments are intended to reflect those declines.
Newman said the agency also sought to keep equity in mind.
Ridership on Metro has increased steadily over the summer, to about 200,000 average daily riders in July. But volume is still hovering around 50% of 2019’s ridership.
To fill its staff roster, Metro must compete with every other transit agency in the region. Its training classes are filling, said Newman, and they’re looking to add more cohorts next year. Whether recruitment is robust enough to fill additional classes is still an open question.
Newman couldn’t hazard a guess when service might return to normal.
“We have to acknowledge that there is so much uncertainty in the labor market now,” he said. “I’d be hesitant to put any timeline on this one.”