Transit strike predicted by years of increasing usage and poor employee retention

Vancouver bus workers just announced a full system shutdown next week, but the challenge of overcrowding and resulting worker dissatisfaction on Vancouver buses has been a long time coming.

“[When I first started working,] it was unheard of that people would get hired and quit halfway through training,” said one transit operator when reflecting upon the start of his career. “... [But now] I’ve heard that it’s been 50 per cent they’ve lost in classes.”

The operator, who did not disclose their name to The Ubyssey due to fear of repercussions, has recently returned to Vancouver after spending 15 of his 23 years as a Coastal Mountain Bus Company (CMBC) driver in other jurisdictions: Richmond, Burnaby and Surrey.

TransLink identified recruitment and retention as a significant challenge in their latest business plan, attributing the turnover to a highly competitive market and a lack of trained professionals.

TransLink noted in the same report that they will need to hire 500 more drivers over the next three years in order to match growing demands.

In a statement, TransLink told The Ubyssey that 61 trainees resigned before passing training this year out of 852 operators who had been hired. Unifor was unable to speak to the rate of retention.

So far, strike action has only taken the form of uniform bans and bans on overtime and maintenance work. Scores of SeaBus sailings have been cancelled while congested routes to UBC like the 16, 41, 43 and 25 have experienced increased delays.

But on Wednesday, Unifor announced the system will shut down entirely between November 27 and 29 with more strike action to follow if an agreement is not reached. SkyTrain workers have also voted in favour of job action, though the exact method has yet to be released.

Strikes through history

This isn’t the first time that Vancouver has dealt with a transit shutdown.

In 1984, when transit in the city was still controlled by crown corporation BC Transit, a three-month long work stoppage was ended by provincial legislation that forced transit back into service.

Another four-month strike followed in 2001. It also only ended after the province passed legislation that raised operator wages to what TransLink had proposed at the beginnings of the talks.

The transit operator remembers the 1984 strike as a child, worked through the 2001 variation and once again finds himself in the midst of the crossfire.

But since 2001 TransLink usage has grown exponentially, and UBC students are more reliant on transit than ever.

The introduction of the ‘Vancity’ U Pass in 2003 increased ridership at UBC by 53 per cent by 2008 and total ridership grew from just over 200 million trips a year to 436 million in 2018. More specifically, transit usage on Vancouver’s campus has grown 328 per cent since 1997 and accounts for upwards of 80,000 or 50 per cent of trips in and out of campus each day.

As of 2018, the 99 B-line is the busiest bus route in Canada and the United States, with more than 17 million trips annually. That’s roughly eight million more than the runner up, the 49, which had just over nine million trips last year.

In a recent UBC Vancouver Senate meeting, UBC President Santa Ono also announced that about 17,500 of UBC’s 56,000 enrolled students live beyond Main Street, meaning many students need public transit to commute long distances.

According to a 2018 service performance review, the UBC/Vancouver sector had over 45,000 bus trips with overcrowding last year, over 10,000 more trips than the second most overcrowded region of Southeast.
According to a 2018 service performance review, the UBC/Vancouver sector had over 45,000 bus trips with overcrowding last year, over 10,000 more trips than the second most overcrowded region of Southeast. TransLink

As ridership continues to grow, efficiency is taking a hit.

“Congestion slowed average bus speeds from 2014 to 2018. 80% of bus routes are slower today than in 2014,” stated a 2018 service performance review.

“Slower service disproportionately affects heavily used bus routes on busy streets. As many as 85% of customers—or 250 million trips—were affected by slower service in 2018.”

While ridership in the UBC/Vancouver sector only increased by 4.8 per cent last year, the lowest increase amongst the seven regions outlined by TransLink, it had over 45,000 bus trips with overcrowding last year. That’s over 10,000 more trips than the second most overcrowded region of Southeast.

‘A hard job’

After two decades on the job, the transit operator has seen this all play out.

“In Vancouver, it just seems that the people kind of understand that buses are late. There’s going to be another bus, it’s crowded, they’re just used to it,” he said.

But he was adamant that Vancouverites are better off than most because in other municipalities where people rely heavily on the transit system, a late bus can have a huge impact.

“There’s a lot of anxiety out there with passengers,” he said.

But for the driver, a late bus means missed breaks.

“I can’t believe I got a 15-minute break [today]. I’ve never had a 15-minute break for maybe two years,” said the transit operator.

And simply missing a break isn’t an option for him anymore. He said not being able to take time to stretch and get blood flowing leads to physical ailments.

Krista Lee Hansen, another transit operator, told The Tyee that the washroom on her route is a porta-potti that does not have a sink to wash her hands. Beyond the day-to-day discomfort, she noted that as someone who menstruates, she must find other places to take care of herself.

She added that a number of operators have medical conditions, such as diabetes, making access to a washroom with a sink a necessity.

“I’m not asking for everything. I’m just asking for a 15-minute break at the end on one side, not on both sides,” the anonymous transit operator said.

“It is just a hard job.”

TransLink declined to comment on workers’ breaks.

The 2001 strike left UBC students and staff scrambling for ways to get to campus during the spring exam season. Given UBC’s isolated location, many were forced to carpool, bike or walk to campus in the heart of spring exams.

The operator doesn’t see an agreement coming any time soon. With final exams quickly approaching, students may once again be subjected to the same fate.

“I think there’ll be a major strike,” he said.