Ontario-BrantfordTransit-EdwardDjan6558

Ontario’s bus driver shortage leaves Brantford riders with few options

Riders are turning to expensive, emitting rideshare and cabs, but other Ontario cities provide on-demand options to keep people on transit

A line of buses makes its way through the Brantford Bus Terminal on a Friday afternoon, filling one empty bay after another. As the doors open, swarms of people eagerly waiting to board switch places with those waiting to get off.

After a few minutes, the terminal is empty, visible from end to end as the buses line up again to drive away. Soon, new passengers begin to arrive, waiting on another row of buses to repeat the process again.

Between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., this routine plays out every half hour. But after the morning rush hour, riders who miss their bus must wait for an hour to see another one. At the end of June, Brantford Transit temporarily reduced its service frequency from every half hour to every hour from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., saying the move was necessary because there are not enough drivers to operate buses. 

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Regular service is supposed to resume here on Sept. 4, but the driver shortage is not a problem exclusive to this small southern Ontario city — it’s affecting transit services around the province. This summer, Timmins reduced the frequency on some bus routes from every half hour to every 45 minutes. At the end of July, the city of Kingston cut frequency to every hour on some routes, indefinitely   until more drivers are hired.

In 2019, Brantford declared a climate emergency, pledging to become carbon neutral by 2050. To encourage residents to reduce their carbon emissions, the city created a Climate Action Plan, which encourages active transportation and public transit use. But riders say these reductions in service makes transit too unreliable, forcing them to turn to taxis or rideshare instead. 

Justine Roche at the Brantford Bus Terminal.
Justine Roche, a university student in Brantford, has been taking cabs this summer when bus service in the city is unavailable. “I can’t afford it on a regular basis,” she says. Photo: Edward Djan / The Narwhal

“I’ve tried to minimize the amount I use the bus,” Justine Roche says. An English student at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus, Roche relies on the bus heavily, taking it up to 20 times a week to do errands and take care of her mother. 

While Roche still tries to bike or walk wherever she can, she now has to rely on cabs for some longer trips. This not only adds to her carbon footprint, but creates a financial strain. While an adult bus fare is $3 for travel anywhere in the city of about 100,000 people, a taxi across Brantford is about $25.  

“There are just certain times when I have to take a cab, and I can’t change that now,” Roche says. “I’ve had to just calculate that in for my expenses. It’s not sustainable. I can’t afford it on a regular basis.”

Maria Visocchi, director of communications for the City of Brantford, says bus operators require six weeks of training, which is what’s causing driver shortages. “The issue is just not having experienced, qualified drivers available to us to be able to run the service at full capacity,” she says. “It’s not the kind of thing that just anybody with a licence can do.” 

Visocchi says Brantford will be prepared to return to full service in the fall, in part thanks to  hiring five new drivers who are currently being trained. But, she admits, the city cannot guarantee a shortage like this will never happen again.

“While we do think that we’ll be in a much better position in September, we don’t know what will happen with the job market going forward.”

Sona Sethi at the Brantford Bus Terminal
“If you miss one bus, you stand for one hour or call an Uber,” says Sona Sethi, who works the overnight shift at a Brantford factory. Photo: Edward Djan / The Narwhal

A quality control checker at Ferrero Rocher’s Brantford factory, Sona Sethi works a 12-hour overnight shift. And, at 6 p.m. on a recent evening, she had just missed her bus. “I’ll be moving back to Kitchener next month, thank God!” says Sethi, who is also a student at Conestoga College’s Kitchener campus. She’s counting down the days until she returns to school, where transit is much more frequent. 

“In Kitchener, every bus used to come after the interval of 15 minutes. So even if you would miss one bus, there would be another bus,” she says. “But here there’s a one-hour gap, and it’s really hard. If you miss one bus, you stand for one hour or call an Uber.” Rideshare from the Brantford Bus Terminal to the factory is about $18 using the service’s cheapest option, and that doesn’t account for surge pricing, when the company charges riders more during peak hours.

Clarence Woudsma, a planning professor at the University of Waterloo, says it’s possible for municipalities to provide better transit while limiting the number of drivers needed through hyperlocal, on-demand transit that connects riders in low-density areas to existing schedule-based systems in high-density areas. 

Woudsma points to Belleville as an example of on-demand transit. From 9:30 p.m. to midnight, instead of running scheduled bus routes, the city allows customers to request to be picked-up at fixed stops. There’s also Guelph, which uses smaller fleets of buses and also carries passengers between fixed stops, not to their final destinations. In both cities, the service costs just a regular transit fare. 

Woudsma believes that on-demand transit could act as a service enhancer for people relying on public transit in low density areas. He compares it to how people use ride-sharing companies to get to transportation hubs, such as a GO station, to make a longer trip.

“It’s very expensive to send up a full-sized city bus through a suburban neighbourhood,” Woudsma says. “There was much consternation around the introduction of rideshare services like Uber and Lyft. It was like they would spell the end of public transit. Research has shown that it actually is a good complement.”

A bus stop in Brantford.
The City of Brantford blames the driver shortage on a lack of trained bus operators. It promises to return to full service in September. Photo: Edward Djan / The Narwhal

Last March, Brantford cab driver Matthew Ruiss decided to become a bus operator. He saw the need for more drivers as ridership increased, and was attracted by the job’s pension and the opportunity for long-term career advancement. 

Even though Ruiss is confident full service will return in September, he is worried about the long-term sustainability of the transit agency’s workforce and thinks the provincial government should step in to help. 

“Full-time drivers are going on vacation, are taking sick days, we have full-time drivers that are just maxed out on their hours — how do you handle that challenge?” Ruiss says. “It would certainly help our chances if the local MPP or the Ontario government looked at smaller communities the same way they do Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa.”

In statements to The Narwhal, spokespeople for both the Ontario ministries of Labour and Transportation pointed to existing programs municipalities can use for extra funding: a $2.15 billion allocation through the Safe Restart Agreement to address the impact of COVID-19 on municipalities, for example, includes money to hire new employees. The province has also earmarked $200 million through its Skills Development Fund to help organizations and municipalities provide training to fill labour shortages  

The Ministry of Labour added that it has asked the federal government to raise the number of temporary foreign workers eligible for permanent residency under the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program and that “beginning this fall, there will be new immigration pathways available for bus drivers, subway operators and other transit personnel.”

Once Brantford hires new drivers, Ruiss wants the city to focus on retention and customer satisfaction to ensure it not only has the capacity to transport people, but also that it has the ridership to maintain bus service.

“I would hope that the city’s decision would be to locate drivers, to maintain wages and to maintain the cost of fares for riders,” he says, adding the transit system won’t go anywhere if riders think they’re being gouged.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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We’re breaking news in Ontario
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.
We’re breaking news in Ontario
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.