How Do Bus Drivers Pick What Routes They Drive and How Does the Selection Process Help Us Improve Our Transit System?
Unlike other blue collar jobs, each job that a bus driver does is a unique combination of routes, times of day, and days of the week. Because of this uniqueness, drivers select their runs in a process known as the bid . In a bid, drivers report one at a time, usually in seniority order, to select their runs at a central location. There are as many bids in a year as there service changes - most transit systems have two to four service changes a year but a few, notably the Toronto Transit Commission which has six service changes a year, have more. Often, a printout of all the runs is posted on a wall, with runs previously taken crossed out. There are two basic types of bidding currently used in the transit industry:
Cafeteria : In cafeteria bidding, drivers select different runs for each days that they would like to work and their days off. In some cities with cafeteria bidding, drivers must pick the same run for all weekdays; in others, they are allowed to choose a different run for each weekday.
Roster : In roster bidding, the scheduling department has already assembled runs into weekly work assignments of forty hours. The driver merely selects one of these assembled runs. Drivers have a strong preference for cafeteria bidding, as it gives them more flexibility over their schedule. The flexibility can result in them giving themselves a weekly schedule with lots of overtime or a weekly schedule with lots of penalty time. Penalty time in a run refers to a run that is less than eight hours long; because most union contracts require that full-time drivers be paid eight hours a day, they end up being paid for hours that they do not work in a penalty-time run.
Because of the possibility that drivers will pick runs that have a lot of overtime or penalty time, management strongly prefers roster bidding. In roster bidding, runs with overtime can be combined with runs with penalty time to create weekly schedules that are close to forty hours and thus more efficient financially. Of course, financial savings would only be realized if the union contract allows overtime to be calculated only on a weekly basis and not also on a daily basis. In addition, cafeteria bidding takes significantly longer to complete than roster bidding, even when taking into account the extra time schedulers need in Hastus to assemble the roster positions.
The clash over bidding style has resulted in several major labor conflicts over the years. In 2008 in Ottawa, Ontario and in 2012 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for example, the style of bidding was the direct cause of transit operator strikes. Interestingly, at the times of the strike Ottawa and Halifax were the last Canadian transit systems using cafeteria bidding - now both use some form of roster bidding. In the United States, in contrast, many transit systems still use cafeteria bidding.
While many transit systems use operation supervisors to conduct the bid, some use the service planning and scheduling departments. Due to the wealth of information about the day-to-day operation of the system that can be learned at the bid, I believe that using the service planning and scheduling departments at the bid results in more value for the transit agency. The best transit plans in the world can fail if they do not work in their implementation - and there is nobody more appropriate to ask about how a particular schedule or route change is doing than the drivers themselves.
Some companies have certain days in the year when the planning and scheduling department travels to the garage for an open house; at these events drivers can approach the staff with any complaints or comments they have about the service. However, these situations present one driver versus four or five staff members - some drivers may feel uncomfortable discussing any problems they may be having. In my opinion, it is preferable to ask drivers questions about their work in the one on one setting that is often present at the bid. Asking drivers specific questions worked out beforehand works better than asking general questions such as "How is your run going?" Apart from specific discussions with the drivers, observation of the order in which runs are selected can offer suggestions to transit planners about areas of the system to look more closely at for adjustment. If a specific route is left until the end - for the new drivers to take - then it could signify some problems with the route, such as additional running time being needed. Runs that are selected first are often picked because they have the most break time and/or they have a very light passenger load. In either case the routes that make up the runs could be examined to see if efficiencies could be found.
The operator bid is sometimes looked at by management as a necessary evil that has to be done to honor union contracts. However, the bid can offer a wealth of data for the intrepid planner who can spend time observing it.