Students may now have to wait longer to catch the bus. Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit announced its bus service cut last month, and since then almost all bus routes have been reduced due to a driver shortage.
The reductions took effect on Aug. 22 and will last at least until Jan. 21, 2023, spanning the duration of the Fall 2022 semester and 2023 winter break.
In a special board meeting on Aug. 17, TCAT bus service’s Board of Directors voted to approve major reductions on routes 11, 13, 20 and 82, where services to distinct geographical areas have been reduced by 20 percent or more. Only two routes — 14S and 15 — remain unchanged in their frequency and scheduling.
TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool explained that TCAT considered many factors in evaluating how to cut specific routes. Their strategy was to reduce the frequency of the overall routes to avoid entirely eliminating any specific routes.
“We elected to cut some of the night routes at Cornell. … We looked at the data on certain routes, 90 and 92, that run through Cornell between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” Vanderpool said. “And we said, ‘we’d better not cut those because there’s a lot of people riding them.’ … So that’s one of the factors that we used [in our decision].”
Vanderpool emphasized that, while unfortunate, the service cut is necessary to improve bus drivers’ working conditions and mitigate driver shortage.
“[Bus drivers] do have to work six days a week over and over and over again, and that would be a safety concern because everybody’s tired of one thing. That’s just not sustainable,” Vanderpool said. “We’re going to lose more people because they want to spend time with their families as well.”
TCAT drivers are mandated to work six days a week, normally for 10 to 14 hours a day. According to Vanderpool and a local press release, the organization had 84 drivers before the COVID-19 pandemic. This past February, the number dropped to 66. Now TCAT employs about 70 full-time drivers.
In TCAT’s Aug. 15 public hearing on the proposed service cut, members of FreeCat Campaign, a political initiative under the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America, called for improving TCAT drivers’ working conditions.
John Monkovic, a community liaison and one of the campaign’s main organizers, explained that the campaign focuses on fair fees and bus service expansion.
Monkovic explained that the campaign is also seeking to negotiate with Cornell — 75 percent of TCAT ridership is Cornell-affiliated, and Cornell is on TCAT’s board of directors and benefits disproportionately from its bus service, but has not negotiated in good faith.
“They refuse to adjust their bulk payment to account for inflation. Negotiators representing Cornell [are] playing hardball and withdrawing funds from the TCAT budget,” Monkovic said.
TCAT has also been hurt by issues surrounding bus driver retention. Monkovic said that other career paths with similar skill requirements and higher salaries than bus driving are pulling away drivers and exacerbating TCAT’s staffing shortage.
“In order to drive a TCAT [bus], you need a CDL — a commercial driver’s license — and then once you have the commercial driving license, you will find that there are much more lucrative opportunities,” Monkovic said. “You can be a truck driver and make significantly more money. It’s just an example of one decision that many drivers will opt to make, which makes retention very difficult.”
TCAT is currently negotiating with United Auto Workers over driver working conditions and pay. Vanderpool said that he hoped the negotiation would close by the end of October and that TCAT would be able to resume parts of its original service by January 2023 — the next driver sign-on period.
“We’ve got an October class already started with drivers that are applying and [training],” Vanderpool said. “Once negotiations are over, the driver rate is obviously going to go up, and [it’s important] to have these negotiations to get to a better place and be competitive as well.”
Although the changes to bus routes had been confirmed, many students had difficulty navigating the new bus routes during the first week of classes. Coco Wen ’26 used Google Maps — which often lists inaccurate times — to track buses and found herself waiting for much longer than expected.
“[This year] is my first time taking the bus. Because [Tuesday] was my first day of internship, I decided to wake up early and wait at the bus stop early at 9:40 [a.m.], just in case there was a delay or anything happened,” Wen said. “Ten minutes before my internship, [the bus] still didn’t arrive, so I just decided to take an Uber there.”
Wen also expressed concern that the reduction of night service would impact her traveling to and from night classes.
“I have night classes that end around 10:30 p.m., and [it would] be late and inconvenient if there aren’t night buses coming in,” Wen said. “I will probably have to walk for around 20 to 30 minutes to get back to my dorm, and it’s unsafe [to walk alone] at night .”
Ribo Li ’24 said he thought that the night service cut would also affect students returning to Ithaca on the bus, which drops students off in the Commons.
“[The last bus] departs from New York City at about 6:40 p.m. and arrives in Ithaca at about 10:30 p.m.,’ Li said. “[If] they reduce night shifts, and if there are potential delays for the NYC bus, I will have to call an Uber at night [to get back to Cornell]. … I find it especially hard to call Uber in downtown Ithaca at night.”
Despite service cuts and scheduling issues, Wen and Li expressed appreciation for TCAT’s drivers, whom they find friendly and empathetic.
“There was one time I didn’t have a mask, and they gave me a mask,” Wen said. “Sometimes students ask for an earlier stop for some reason, and [the drivers] are really happy to do so.”
Vanderpool encouraged students to communicate any schedule disruptions to TCAT.
“I’m hearing that [schedule issues] are going to be corrected one way or the other — whether it corrects itself, or we’re a part of contacting Google and making sure that gets corrected,” Vanderpool said. “We are very good about getting back to people and gathering information to determine what the problem is. So, my message would be [to] please communicate with us, and we’ll do our best to get this fixed.”
Roman LaHaye ’23 contributed reporting.