FAAC Commercial


Using Sim-based Passenger-Interaction Training to Prevent Bus Operator Burnout

Using Sim-based Passenger-Interaction Training to Prevent Bus Operator Burnout

As with nearly every other sector, COVID drastically—and unpredictably—affected public transit. In April 2020, a month into lockdown in much of the U.S., ridership had declined to 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels. But by March 2024, ridership rebounded to 79 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Public transit ridership was 7.1 billion total trips in 2023, a 16 percent increase from 2022 to 2023. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of transit jobs will grow by 15 percent or higher, much faster than average. This will create roughly 24,600 Bus Operator vacancies each year during the next decade.

But the workforce of bus drivers has not rebounded. In fact, the number of drivers continues to fall. Bloomberg Media reports that, in a recent American Public Transportation Association survey of 117 transit agencies, 71 percent have either had to cut transit services or delay service improvements because of worker shortages. More than 90 percent of transit agencies reported difficulty hiring new employees, with nearly two-thirds struggling to retain workers.

The need for services is great—and the workforce is not keeping pace.

Why Are Transit Operators Leaving?

There are two primary causes of this worker shortage: Operator retirements, and difficulties recruiting and retaining new workers.

“From an agency perspective, it is really about making sure job quality improves,” according to Chris Van Eyken , the director of research and policy at TransitCenter (a New York-based foundation dedicated to promoting safe and abundant public transportation options). Van Eyken further noted that “over time, the conditions that Operators work under have just slowly gotten worse and worse, and it’s made it a much more unattractive position for workers.”

Concerns for personal safety are a major factor: Operator assaults per passenger trip increased fourfold from 2009 to 2020, according to a report from TransitCenter.

All these hardships and obstacles lead to one destination: employee burnout.

Shortages, absenteeism, and high turnover are all symptoms of Operator burnout, according to Christina Maslach. Maslach is a noted social psychologist and professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, where she also serves as a core researcher at their Healthy Workplaces Center. She’s known for her research on occupational burnout, and has found that employees in the public service sector experience burnout at a much higher rate than others. Maslach cites job stressors and workplace conditions among the factors that most affect attrition in these jobs.

The best way to combat the mass exodus of Transit Operators is to address those stressors head on, and give Bus Operators the tools they need to confidently de-escalate tough situations.

Improve Employee Retention with Training and New Skills

Bus drivers are in daily contact with a large, diverse ridership that often includes vulnerable populations (e.g., the elderly, people experiencing homelessness, and people living at or below the poverty line). We can’t address the underlying social, cultural, and economic circumstances that put bus drivers on the front lines. But we can better prepare them for those interactions.

Charlotte DiBartolomeo is CEO and founder of Red Kite Project, a resiliency building firm that works with the transit industry to mitigate the impact of burnout. DiBartolomeo has trained thousands of Bus Operators across the country, in an effort to support bus drivers as they face unforeseeable, chaotic, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous situations. Training efforts like these have yielded promising results. A major metropolitan transit authority in the northeastern U.S. piloted programs that addressed Operator stress while teaching skills that help bus drivers interact with a diverse ridership. They saw significant reductions in Operator assaults, customer complaints, patterns of reported illness, rule violations—and a 50 percent reduction in absenteeism.

FAAC’s Transit Response Situational Simulator supercharges these sorts of training initiatives. With Transit Response, Transit Operators have the opportunity to practice de-escalation, emergency response procedures, and passenger interactions, all in a safe, realistic, simulated environment. It’s the only way to safely and efficiently practice the complex situations bus drivers need to manage: safely piloting a vehicle while simultaneously navigating a complex interaction with a distressed individual or emergency situation.

FAAC Transit Business Manager Jason Francisco says, “In Transit Response you are addressing whatever it is—a medical emergency, a fight, an agitated passenger, an accident—right from the Operator’s seat: assessing the situation, getting information from passengers or over the radio, relaying information, giving instructions, safely controlling the vehicle. All with your eyes on the road, keeping a clear mind and making sure you cover every important item—Did I radio in? Did I secure the bus? Is the bus in a safe location?—while in the fray.”

Intense situations and interactions grow less stressful with repeated exposure. When Operators are able to remain calm and follow their training throughout these situations, the body’s natural reaction to induce stress is greatly reduced. By creating a “safe space” for working through these potentially stressful workplace situations, Transit Response helps foster confidence, allowing Operators to prove to themselves that they are ready to handle difficult situations by following prescribed company policies.