Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Battle Creek, MICHIGAN — Christena Smith’s decision to rely on public transportation in Battle Creek leaves her with no margin of error when planning trips to doctor appointments, the grocery store, or the post office.
Smith says moved back to Battle Creek from Massachusetts in October 2019, and at that time she had a car which she got rid of in July 2021. She began using the bus through Battle Creek Transit, but when the hours were changed for different routes, she realized it was difficult to get around anywhere without a car. This realization was compounded by a pandemic that sent the majority of businesses and organizations scrambling to develop contingency plans to maintain their operations during state-mandated shutdowns, including Battle Creek Transit.
While the timing of her move into a house in March 2020 was less than ideal, coming the same day that everything shut down because of the pandemic, Smith says she had purchased a car upon her return to Battle Creek which enabled her to get around town, but that was not to last.
“The car turned out to be a lemon and I thought that this was as a good time as any to give up the car culture. The bus stop was literally around the corner from me,” she says.
But then in December 2022, that bus needed to be replaced. This fall into disrepair was followed by a reduction in hours of operation and fixed routes for buses operated by BCT
due to staffing shortages. In August, there were further reductions
“It’s really difficult to get around now,” says Smith, who is unable to work because of a severe back injury she sustained several years ago. “But, I don’t depend on the bus to go to a job and I have insurance that covers the cost of transportation to get me to medical things, I’m privileged that way.”
A vehicle in the fleet operated by BC Transit.
Those same privileges don’t extend to fellow bus riders she has had conversations with, some of whom have told her that they have lost jobs and housing because of a lack of dependable public transportation. She’s been sharing the stories she’s heard from other bus riders with City Commissioners and leadership of the city and BCT and has been told that there aren’t enough drivers and the buses aren’t full.
The stories from workers are a counterpoint to what employers are telling Mallory Avis, Public Transit Director for the City of Battle Creek.
“What I’m hearing from employers is that the lack of reliable transportation options is a barrier to them getting the employees they need. They don’t have staff because we don’t have staff,” Avis says. “I’ve heard from passengers and employers that the current hours of operation don’t work for them.”
Mallory Avis, Public Transit Director for the City of Battle Creek
“I think they’re well aware of what’s going on and everything it’s going to take to make change happen. It’s going to take a while to unravel,” Smith says, “but people who ride the bus, need the bus.”
Avis says she understands the concerns of Smith and her fellow passengers and is continuing to focus on hiring new bus drivers.
“We still have a pretty severe shortage. I currently have seven open driver positions for CDL (Commercial Drivers License) bus drivers. That’s seven out of the 20 drivers that would bring us back to being fully staffed. This leaves me with 13 drivers and this doesn’t account for those on medical leave, vacation, or intermittent sick days. On any given day I have 11 of the 13 here and three of those are in training. I’m hoping they all pass.”
What’s happening with the city’s Transit System is going on throughout the United States, according to the American Transportation Authority (APTA)
Avis says she doesn’t think residents recognize this.
A vehicle in the fleet operated by BC Transit.
“I think people are local-centric. They think it’s a Battle Creek Transit problem, something we are doing and failing at. Even when I’m doing press releases about service changes, I communicate that this is a national problem,” she says. The statistics back this up.
Ninety-six percent of U.S. transit agencies surveyed by APTA reported experiencing a workforce shortage with 84 percent saying that the shortage is affecting their ability to provide service.
“Although the shortage is most acute at agencies serving large urbanized areas and agencies with greater ridership, most agencies across the country report the shortage has forced service reductions regardless of the size of an agency’s ridership, service area population, or fleet. The aging of the transit workforce suggests that agencies will experience a high rate of retirements for the foreseeable future,” according to information on APTA’s website.
Additionally, agencies report that retirees make up 24 percent of all quitting workers. At rural agencies, 34 percent of departures are retirements which is not surprising given that 43 percent of transit workers are over age 55, nearly double the percentage of the broader transportation sector.
“The aging of the transit workforce suggests agencies should plan for an increase in the rate of retirements over the next five to 10 years. Transit agencies face strong competition for workers,” according to APTA.
During negotiations in 2022 with the union representing BCT bus drivers, a 14 percent pay raise was offered and accepted putting entry-level drivers at a starting salary of $20.61 per hour. Avis says this puts Battle Creek in a competitive wage and benefits range with cities such as Jackson, Kalamazoo, and Lansing.
A vehicle in the fleet operated by BC Transit.
“We focused our efforts and recruitment and negotiations with the union as a way to provide service. We have expanded our van service and reduced our hours of service on fixed routes, but increased our demand-response vans and short buses,” she says. “Our applicants want to drive for our BCGo Calhoun County service.”
Drivers with more seniority and those who aren’t able because of physical issues to perform the duties that go along with driving a regular full-size city bus are assigned to drive the vans and short buses.
In 2022 there were 30,000 requests for rides throughout the County with 19,000 of those requests that could be fulfilled through BCGo Calhoun County
, a pilot public transportation service funded through a three-year $1.1 million grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation
. BCGo, operating as a revamped version of one that initially began in 2019, was launched in March 2021, allowing residents to book a ride in as little as 30 minutes via a smartphone app or a telephone call. The re-designed version maintained the service area that had been expanded from 78 square miles to 718 square miles under the first model.
The three-year MDOT grant, which was extended through September 2024, covers the cost of purchasing and operating two minivans for the program that BCT manages. Avis says the program has been “wildly successful," but unable to meet increasing ride requests.
Smith says she was among those requesting rides who were unable to get them.
“I used to tell the City Commission that bad transit doesn’t affect anyone except those who need it,” she says.
Getting off the bus
Despite the competitive wages and benefits offered by BCT, Avis says there are other factors that potential candidates take into consideration, such as the hours they are expected to work, the training required, and fear of threats to their safety.
“They are working in an industry where they interact with the public. Our drivers put up with a lot of stuff out there on their own. They’re dealing with people who are intoxicated, have mental health issues and physical disabilities,” Avis says. “It can be draining.”
The Federal Transit Administration says that in recent years there has been a 121 percent increase in transit worker assaults.
A vehicle in the fleet operated by BC Transit.
“Serious assaults on bus and rail operators have tripled in the past 15 years, causing operators to fear violence on the job, seek transfers off the frontlines or just quit — adding to operator shortages, according to a new report examining incidents at transit agencies across the country.
A study by the Urban Institute released earlier this month
found major assaults rose from 168 in 2008 to 492 in 2022. The data was culled from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database.
On top of this, Avis says, “Our drivers start at 5 a.m. and there’s not a lot of childcare available at that time so that limits our applicant pool for those who have to leave for work at 4:30 a.m. Prior to our service cuts, we operated until midnight. Currently, we end at 7:30 p.m. and there’s not a lot of options for childcare that fit with these work schedules. We know that childcare is an issue for those drivers who have children.”
The lack of childcare options is one of many obstacles that also include earning a CDL which Avis calls a “challenge” and not something people are always interested in obtaining.
The CDL requirement took effect in 2022 which means that candidates have to go through an actual course “and part of that is classroom-based and behind the wheel. The law makes sense but it came at a really bad time as we were coming out of the pandemic. Even if someone has had it in the past if they let it lapse they have to go through the training again. They’re also required to have an airbrake endorsement,” Avis says. “In the past, they could take a quick test to get that endorsement, but it’s not an easy test, and once you tell somebody that, they’re not interested anymore.”
"While once a desirable and valued middle-class job, transit operations jobs have increasingly failed to keep pace with how work has evolved," according to the Transit Center
in one report, citing low starting salaries and slow pay growth as primary barriers to attracting new staffers.
BCT currently has about 26 applications and of those only 10 of those are for CDL positions.
“Let's say we hire all 10 of those applicants,” Avis says. “We’ll lose close to 50 percent through the training process,” which takes six to eight weeks and costs BCT between $5,000 and $7,000 per applicant.
“We train them in-house. We provide the bus so they can do their skills testing and they’re paid while doing all of the training,” Avis says.
After their training is completed, trainees spend another four weeks learning bus routes and the fare collection system.
Battle Creek Go is a polot prgram demonstrating the feasibility of an on-demand transportation system in Calhoun County.
“You’re looking at a pretty significant investment, but the retention rate is only about 50 percent,” Avis says.
This month, BCT will host an event with Michigan Works where they hope to have an audience of potential applicants to fill vacant positions. Avis says this will be an opportunity to bring in current employees to have candid conversations with applicants.
The wheels on the bus need to keep going round and round
Smith says if there’s a place she needs to get to that’s within walking distance, she’ll do that if she has the stamina. She says she recently borrowed money to buy an electric bike but stays home a lot more than she normally would.
When using the bus, she figures out what her earliest appointment is and works backward from there.
She says she knows what good public transit looks like and feels like after three years she spent teaching English in Takasaki, Japan, which is Battle Creek’s sister city.
“It really opened my eyes to what a luxury it is not to have a car. I enjoyed riding a bicycle and using mass transit which comes every 10 minutes. I realized when I came back to the States that nothing was set up for Americans to get around without a car.”
In his book “Better Buses, Better Cities
,” Steven Higashide, a transit expert, explores questions like why the bus hasn’t been embraced in the United States. He says he thinks that part of it has to do with “our obsession over new transportation technologies and the idea that we will somehow innovate our way out of traffic. For example, Elon Musk proposed a Hyperloop for Chicago that would carry 2,000 people an hour, which is actually much less than you can carry in a regular bus.
“A lot of it also comes down to political power,” he writes. “Most people who ride buses in the U.S. today are lower-income and people of color. These are people who have always been, to a large extent, shut out of the political system. What it takes to make transit better involves organizing those riders and building a new kind of transportation politics.”
In his book, Higashide writes about how in U.S. media, tends to portray those who rely on the bus to get around in unflattering ways.
“In the FX show, 'Atlanta,
' one of the early scenes is the main protagonist on the bus complaining that his life hasn’t gone the way that he wanted it to. We associate the bus with being down and out. When you look at popular media in Asia or Europe that’s just not true. There are a lot of scenes with buses that don’t seem to have any special significance because the bus is just part of the ordinary fabric of life and it doesn’t have some broader connotation.”
Higashide points out that the most direct way to improve the perception of buses is just to make bus service better.
“If you make the bus better, then more people start riding the bus, and when more people start riding it changes the perception of the bus. It creates political energy to improve the bus even more and it becomes a virtuous cycle.”
Smith says she will continue to be the squeaky wheel in her quest to get others to see the benefits of using the bus as their preferred mode of transportation.
“I don’t want a car. They’re isolating for one thing. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to ride a bus and talk to people. It’s just so calming to be taken somewhere,” she says. “But this is viewed as un-American because we’re a car nation and we’ve turned into consumers and not citizens.”