Thaddeus Zeno rides the bus on his way to work at a grocery store. This time it’s 15 minutes late. Lafayette Transit System is training a new bus driver. He’s used the service his entire life and now takes it to work when his wife can’t drive him.
“There can be more drivers and more buses,” Zeno says, pointing out that the buses do not run on Sundays, and the night bus takes longer because it only stops to pick up passengers every hour.
More than two years since the first case was reported in Louisiana, COVID-19 still limits the number of drivers, says Michael T. Mitchell, transit and parking manager for the Traffic and Transportation Department at Lafayette Consolidated Government.
LTS is budgeted to employ 25 bus drivers but only has 15 full-time drivers post-pandemic. The night shift is covered by eight part-time drivers who are also employees of the school board.
“To get people to apply for the positions is very difficult now,” Mitchell says. ”It’s not just within this division. It is city-wide. A lot of companies are having a hard time getting people to fill vacant positions.”
The pandemic has also caused LTS to cut the number of buses it has on the road.
Pre-pandemic LTS had 13 buses running during the day shift. There are now only 10 buses circulating throughout the city. Buses run 30-minute headways during the day and one-hour headways at night. By contrast, in larger cities, the buses run seven to 10-minute headways.
Adding more buses and drivers won’t fix that issue, according to Mitchell. “The way that we operate, we try to service a larger area, most of the city, and in doing so we cannot do so any more frequently than that,” he says.
The key issue: ridership. There aren’t enough riders to justify additional buses and drivers. Mitchell explains that putting more buses on the routes will not necessarily fix the problem. LTS has made changes to routes and started the system’s schedule earlier in the morning, strategies that generally work better than putting another bus on the road, he says.
Making using the bus more comfortable could improve ridership. Riders like Zeno often wait near uncovered stops, unable to escape the sun, rain or cold. The bus stop at St. Julien and Johnston, where the bus idles while Zeno waits on board, is marked by a sign pinned to a telephone pole.
LTS is currently working with the Adopt-A-Stop initiative monthly to discuss new areas for shelters. The shelters will significantly make the wait of passengers more comfortable.
In her first term, District 3 City Councilwoman Liz Hebert saw the need for shelters at bus stops in Lafayette. At the time, the LTS budget only allotted for 10 to 12 to be built a year, and there were more than 360 stops that needed shelters.
“I would notice people standing in the rain or Louisiana heat while waiting for a bus,” Hebert says. “It prompted me to ask the director of transportation what it would take to get more bus stops covered.”
Hebert established the Adopt-A-Stop Fund after discussing the idea with a friend who was willing to pay for a shelter to be built. Soon after the fund was started, local businesses began to get involved in the project. “At the end of 2018, we officially launched with five or six different organizations that agreed to spearhead the initiative with me,” Hebert says.
Local businesses, schools, and organizations such as McDonald’s of Acadiana, UniTech Training Academy, and UL Lafayette have committed to building shelters.
To date, the Adopt-A-Stop initiative has successfully built 30 shelters along the Lafayette bus routes. “The more shelters we can put up there within our right of way, the better it is for the riding public,” Mitchell says.
Hebert sees the system as a way of helping people get from place to place — and reducing traffic.
“We can build all the roads in the world, but we are still going to have traffic in the main corridor of Lafayette on the major roads,” Hebert says. “The more people who take buses, the more people who ride bikes, there are less cars on the road and less traffic for everyone.”
Along with working with Hebert’s program every month, LTS is focusing on several additional improvements to the transit system, work that includes UL Lafayette and the city of Carencro. While resources may be thin, LTS has nonetheless been growing its service area and who it serves. UL Lafayette is leasing several buses from LTS that shuttle students from Cajun Field to its campus, and this week the City Council approved a plan to use reserve buses to operate routes in Carencro, expanding the already large LTS footprint.
“We are very cautious about how we disseminate the buses to cover the city,” Mitchell says. “We want to try and make sure we are getting the best bang for our buck with how we do the bus routing.”