Transportation Update – School Start-Up 2021-2022

Last Updated on: 22nd September 2021, 08:39 am

Like last year, OSTA has faced many challenges due to COVID and the ongoing driver shortage. Staff continue to work on solutions and communicate changes to affected parties promptly. 

Despite the severe driver shortage, OSTA provided regular and alternate transportation services for 95% of eligible students. Parents are working together to get children whose transportation has been cancelled to school by carpooling, walking, riding their bikes, or making other arrangements.

Route Planning

OSTA distributed the proposed routes to Operators at the end of July 2021. As Operators began to formalize their employment agreements and assign routes, it became clear the existing driver shortage was worsening.  Based on the initial count, at least 60+ drivers would not be returning to work.  By school start-up, the number grew to 80+ drivers.  This is similar to last year’s start-up driver situation.

As of today, more than 102 permanent yellow bus drivers have quit since July 2021, or 16% of the driver fleet.  Recruitment is ongoing, and operators have deployed 46 new drivers.

The west end of the city has had the least successful hiring rate of all areas in the city.

As drivers become available and staff work towards finding alternate solutions, OSTA has prioritized coverage of yellow bus routes in the following manner:

  1. Rural routes
  2. Low-income school communities
  3. Elementary schools over secondary schools
2021-2022PlannedRevised
Large Vehicle Routes639573
Small Vehicle Routes13121379
Presto Passes11,00014,000
WSB Routes/Leaders99

There are 9 Walking School Bus (WSB) routes, a reduction from 14 last year.  Due to a lack of student registration, we cancelled several routes.

Route Coverage vs Driver Shortage

Since the middle of August, OSTA has worked diligently to re-plan part a large part of the system:

  1. Reassigned 3000+ students in grades 7 to 12 to public transit, making room for elementary students on those yellow buses – worked with OC Transpo to create over 50 new service runs to accommodate the location of students and schools.
  2. Re-designed more than 300 routes (550 runs) to combine new groups of students, add stops, re-direct buses to areas without service, incorporate delayed service, combine busloads
  3. Implemented shuttle service using yellow buses to certain schools with delays built-in
  4. Implemented congregated stops with coach buses
  5. Switched runs/routes between operators to accommodate driver needs and schedules
  6. Reassigned pockets of students with no access to transportation to vans
  7. Allowed route-doubling and route-splitting, so Operators had the flexibility to cover short-term driver book offs
  8. Allowed spare driver coverage using the skills of mechanics, dispatch staff, managers, and those with a Class B license designation
  9. Encouraged parents/guardians to opt-out of transportation resulting in 1300+ opt-outs to make space on buses
  10. Engaged 12 student volunteers to call parents/guardians to confirm ridership.  6200+ calls were made on 133 buses, resulting in 650+ opt-outs to make space on buses and to determine who actually needed transportation and planned on using it

We also explored:

  1. We approached other local coach companies; unfortunately, they did not have drivers or the capacity to help
  2. We reached out to retirement home shuttles – insurance issues prevent the transport of non-resident riders

Cancellations, Delays and Reinstatement

Long-term route cancellations occur when the regular driver quits or goes on extended leave, and there is no other driver to cover the route.  Historically, the west end has had the most significant difficulty recruiting and retaining drivers. This is due to the large geographic area being covered as well as the demography of its population. 

The west end is experiencing tremendous population growth. The need for transportation services from new families exceeds the number of available drivers. 

New drivers are interested in working within their community.  Many new drivers live in the centre of the city or the east end and are unwilling to drive to the far west end to work 2-3 hours, twice a day.  As new drivers are trained and licensed, they prefer taking on positions within the area that suits their needs.

Thus far, we cancelled 114 routes and 484 runs during re-planning and start-up.  Some were permanently removed from the system, and students were reassigned to alternate transportation.  After achieving more than 526 solutions, OSTA could no longer sustain its tracking mechanisms as complex changes were occurring at a tremendous pace on a daily basis.

OSTA continues to work on covering routes that remain in the system, which are on the long-term cancellations lists. There were 685 delays recorded between September 7 and September 19, 2021.

Parents/guardians and schools have been encouraged to check the bus planner web page for delays and the long-term cancellation list for the latest information.

Students with Special Needs

This year, van and wheelchair bus operators have also experienced a driver shortage and a vehicle shortage. Capacity has been reduced in many vehicles to minimize the potential transmission of COVID. Recruitment of drivers is ongoing, as is the search for available vans to purchase.

At this time, OSTA is prioritizing services in the following manner, with students remaining on a waiting list until service is available:

  1. Students with special needs in specialized programs – i.e. ASD, DD, BIP
  2. Students in CAS or shelters
  3. Students in regular programs with mobility issues
  4. Students with special needs in regular programs
  5. Students in gifted, arts, IB or other specialty programs and that do not have mobility or cognitive disabilities

The Operator must assess every van run individually to see if timings will work with available drivers. OSTA is working with various stakeholders to look at alternative transportation options, with parent/guardian involvement and agreement:

  1. Some students in OCDSB’s GLP program are being reassigned to public transit.  OC Transpo provided free training passes for parents to help their secondary-aged children practice how to take public transit.
  2. Provided school boards with a list of students residing within 800m of their school to evaluate their ability to walk to school, with parent supervision
  3. Provided school boards with a list of students on solo transportation to evaluate their ability to ride with other students
  4. Reached out to Para Transpo to set up secondary students for independent transport
  5. Reassigning runs to alternate operators with capacity in that area or with the timing required
  6. Put a hold on modified schedules and respite transportation

Single Ride Voucher Program

OSTA has implemented a Single Ride Voucher Program to provide public transit fare for families who wish to take their elementary-aged children to school on OC Transpo or Para Transpo while their regular transportation is cancelled.  Parents/guardians, or their school, can apply for SRV’s via the online form.  Orders are automatically fulfilled every two weeks for as long as transportation remains cancelled—the program launched on September 17, 2021.

Communication

The Parent Portal opening was delayed to August 27, 2021, giving OSTA time to re-plan routes and have the most accurate online information. We actively encouraged subscription of email notification of delays and other messages, and we currently have 72,482 email subscribers (an 18% increase over last year). @OTTBus has 29.7K Twitter followers.

The website received 88,528 individual visitors from August 15 to September 19, 2021.  Last year OSTA’s website received 1.3M page views.

OSTA has implemented an internal call centre setup, much like last year.  The call centre was open as of August 23, 2021. 

Schools and Operators can access OSTA via the emergency school/operator lines or OSTA staff direct lines.  They also have access to OSTA’s web-based school portal.

Next Steps – Driver Shortage

OSTA is collecting data relating to the causes of the driver shortage and will work with its member School Boards to develop a plan for the next steps: 

  • Average driver compensation in the Ottawa areas compared to other jurisdictions and other similar jobs in the market
  • The unemployment rate in Ottawa compared to other Ontario cities
  • The relative increase in wages versus Operator contract increases
  • Money spent on advertising and other recruitment incentives this past summer
  • Changes in demographics and potential driver pool due to COVID and other circumstances

Student Volunteers

OSTA engaged 35 student volunteers to perform a variety of tasks to offset some of the operational pressures within including:

  • Preparing Kindergarten ID tags for schools
  • Packaging COVID signage for Operators’ buses
  • Preparing Presto School Board Cards
  • Calling parents/guardians to confirm ridership

Over the summer, OSTA provided 1080+ student volunteer hours.

School Bus and Pedestrian Safety Day

We cancelled School Bus and Pedestrian Safety Day this year due to concerns with large group gatherings. We distributed safety materials and videos to schools through OSTA’s channels to help prepare first-time riders for their bus riding experience.

Health, Safety and Seat Assignments

Seating plans are prepared by schools that group siblings together or classroom cohorts together.  Students are assigned a seat number that is clearly marked within the bus.  The seating plan is given to the bus driver to enforce.  Ottawa Public Health will use the seating plans to conduct contact tracing if a COVID case is identified.

All SKG to Grade 12 must wear masks on yellow buses, vans, and public transit.

Public Transit Training

OC Transpo revised its online video to help familiarize first-time transit riders with health and safety protocols on public buses and trains. OSTA distributed these resources through school channels and OSTA’s social media.

OSTA’s Presto Transportation Assistant also worked with schools new to Presto distribution to ensure a smooth deployment to new students assigned Presto cards.

School Zone Safety

OSTA anticipated many parents would choose to drive their children to school rather than using transportation services, leading to more significant traffic and safety concerns around the school site. OSTA has communicated several times, directing parents/guardians and schools to OSTA’s online resources for school zone safety and students in the Walk Zone.

Reports to OSTA Board of Directors

OSTA will be holding its regular Board meeting on Monday, September 27, 2021.  Staff will present an Operational Update as well as a report relating to the ongoing Driver Shortage.