For Audrey Simons, a second-year fashion textile management student at North Carolina State University, catching the university bus to class is no easy task.

More often than not, the unreliability of the Wolfline bus system at NC State has Simons glued to her phone, running across campus as she uses the TransLoc app to try to figure out exactly what route will let her make it to class on time.

While most of Simons’s classes are on Centennial Campus, roughly a 20-minute bus ride from the main campus, she spends most days on the main campus with her friends. But with the Wolfline system running at a massively reduced capacity, taking the bus between the two campuses isn’t always reliable.

Simons, like many students, has been dissatisfied with the Wolfline system and TransLoc app since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, in the university’s first full year back in person, the bus system is running with only 35–40 drivers, roughly half the number it had in September 2020, and the students are feeling the brunt of the shortages.

From full buses rolling past stops to the TransLoc app showing inaccurate times or no buses at all, some students have started to view the Wolfline as an unreliable, yet necessary, means of getting around campus. While the university’s transportation department says it could be running at full capacity if it had the drivers, the Wolfline has to regain students’ trust. According to transportation experts, it can do this by improving its programming and working conditions for bus drivers, as well as being more accessible for all riders.

At one point, Simons stopped using the TransLoc app to aid her travels because of its unreliability.

“I feel like sometimes it’s hard to figure out if there’s different routes that I can take,” Simons says. “I usually just kind of do the one that I usually know. But you’re not sure if other ones would be better, would be more direct, like [there is no way] to see all the stops that are on it.”

The Wolfline running at reduced capacity

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted employment in nearly every sector, and transportation is no exception. Early on in the pandemic, the Wolfline was still running at a full capacity of bus drivers, roughly 65–70, but now, that number is down significantly.

“Honestly, the driver shortage right now is hamstringing us for putting out more service,” says Connor Jones, the transit manager of NC State’s transportation services. “In an ideal world, this semester we could have maybe 85–90 percent of what we were running pre-COVID instead of 65 percent. We just don’t have the drivers to put on the wheel.”

Kai Monast, the associate director for the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at NC State, explains how the pandemic has resulted in fewer bus operators.

“A lot of people were able to work from home; public transportation workers were not able to work from home,” Monast says. “That started to wear on people. The risk they were taking and the contact that they were having with the public was becoming a lot. Having to wear a mask every day. So you start to see resignations.”

The reasons for leaving the public transportation industry are many, according to Monast.

“You also have an industry that has low wages to begin with,” Monast says. “And a lot of people were working public transit or a lot of them are retired from other jobs. So they’re at risk of serious COVID complications. You take all that together and, over time, end up with an operator shortage where we don’t have enough people to drive on the streets.”

According to Monast, public transportation operators left the industry for a variety of other transportation jobs.

“You need a certain license to drive a large vehicle,” Monast says. “People with those licenses can change jobs. So they can go work for schools …. Also, they could go work for a private trucking company or be delivery drivers for Amazon.”

In September 2019, the Wolfline saw 487,990 monthly riders, according to data Jones provided. By comparison, September 2021 had 333,492 monthly riders, a 31.66 percent decrease in just two years. Bus service hours also dropped approximately 30 percent between those two years, from 9,511 to 6,598 hours.

What this means for the Wolfline is that when there are disruptions to service, such as a bus driver getting sick, a common concern during a pandemic, there are no other drivers to pick up the shift. That leads to fewer buses on routes and more riders on the buses that are running.

With buses often running near full capacity, drivers sometimes roll right by students waiting at a Wolfline stop. According to Jones, the most common place for this to occur is the Wolf Village stop on Route 30, usually around nine a.m. Jones says full buses were a problem before COVID-19 as well and that “for the reduced service running now, they’re not as frequent as I would expect.”

Jones adds that a full bus rolling by stops is a standard practice, and he has seen it at similar universities to NC State.

The TransLoc app, how it works, and its role in the issue

While intended as a resource meant to help students use the buses more efficiently, the TransLoc app’s inaccuracy has made some students stop using the app entirely.

“Sometimes I feel like the times aren’t always very accurate, but I think it’s definitely better than last year,” Simons says. “I honestly didn’t use it a ton last year because I didn’t know how to use it. I felt like it was kinda always off or not as accurate …. I can usually rely on it to at least get an estimate of maybe it’s three minutes away instead of two minutes away.”

TransLoc is a bus-tracking app that allows students to get the real-time location of buses as well as maps of routes. For TransLoc to work, Jones says he creates a construct of scheduled times for stops and bus shifts, which is sent to TransLoc to create a blueprint for where the buses are supposed to be and helps determine the predicted times.

Jones also says there are GPS systems on each bus, which feed into the TransLoc app and provide what students see on the app.

According to Monast, TransLoc discloses bus changes through a banner on the app.

“If you go online and try to look at the schedule for public transportation in the Triangle at least, they’ll often see a disclaimer,” Monast says. “The printed schedule may not be what we’re offering today. So there’s a lot of uncertainty. You actually have to go and look at your TransLoc app or the other apps that you use to navigate public transportation to see if the vehicle trip that you’re looking for is actually running.”

Merrietta Boachie, a third-year student studying computer engineering, also moves frequently between Centennial and the main campus. To get to and from Centennial Campus, she uses the TransLoc app.

“It’s kind of bad with tracking the times and like where the buses are,” Boachie says. “Like, ‘Oh, great, it’s gonna be here in like, 12 minutes,’ and then it won’t come for like 30 or something …. Sometimes we’ll be looking for a route and it just won’t show it.”

Other problems students mention include floating bus icons, bus icons going black and disappearing, inaccurate times, or buses not showing up at stops at all, despite the predicted times.

“When you reload the app, rather than showing where the bus’s updated location is, [the icons] just kind of slide across the screen, so you could miss the bus because of it,” says Bradley Clardy, a second-year student studying computer engineering.

Clardy adds that students don’t need fancy animations, they just want the app to be accurate.

Christof Spieler, author of Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit, former board member of Houston METRO, and senior lecturer at Rice University, says transit users should not expect 100 percent accuracy in bus-tracking apps because there is no perfect way for algorithms to predict how long it takes transit users to get on a bus or bus drivers to get back on the road.

“It may be that what happened is at the next stop before you, that bus stopped and there were two people in wheelchairs waiting at that stop,” Spieler says. “So the bus operator had to lower the ramp and let them both on, strap them both in, and that took the operator three minutes or something. So the prediction was wrong, but there’s no way to make that prediction correct. There’s no way the app could have predicted that those two people were waiting at the stop.”

A TransLoc spokesperson declined to comment for this story but directed requests for information about “TransLoc’s technology and how college campuses use it” to the app’s website where a page, “Key Solutions and Features,” provides more details.

What’s next for the Wolfine?

According to Jones, the issues are getting better, with more drivers being hired and less service missed, but the transportation department is still short on drivers.

“We had kind of a more comprehensive system that we tried to roll out and we just couldn’t cover everything with the drivers, and we scaled back,” Jones says. “That was kind of what we wanted to run, and then we realized, a few weeks in, that we actually couldn’t do it, but we are hiring more drivers, it is getting better. We have less missed service each day, but still we’re short on the drivers.”

According to Spieler, bus routes primarily catered to the nine-to-five workday schedule until the COVID-19 pandemic caused a sharp drop in ridership. Now that ridership has come back with a bus driver shortage and a decrease in people following the nine-to-five workday schedule, transit institutions have recently focused on improving service.

“It also speaks to the fact that driving a bus is actually a really hard job,” Spieler says. “And agencies are starting to do a lot of good thinking about how you can actually make that job better, how you can improve working conditions, and how you can pay bus operators better.”

With massive improvements in GPS and wireless technology over the past two decades, Spieler says bus-tracking apps have come a long way. According to Spieler, problems with software like TransLoc happen due to improper programming from either users or developers.

“Frequently, if you’re using a bus-tracking app and there’s basically a missing bus, what they call a ‘ghost bus,’ where a bus shows up that wasn’t being tracked, it’s probably because either the on-board tracking system on the bus isn’t working properly or because the on-board tracking system was improperly programmed,” Spieler says.

However, Spieler says, transit companies should be less concerned with technical problems found on apps like TransLoc. According to Spieler, transit companies can better combat discrepancies in bus-tracking apps by making bus stop infrastructure and public transit vehicles more accessible and easier to board for all riders.

“The solution to the wheelchair boarding issue really ought to be bus stops which makes it much quicker for wheelchairs to board and buses which are designed to be much more convenient for wheelchair users to use,” Spieler says. “There is a data problem, but I’d say there’s a much bigger problem, which is the basic reliability problem.”

Currently, Jones says the university’s transportation department is figuring out how to get more buses on Wolfline routes to mitigate the high demand, and students should not expect changes to happen right now. Instead, Jones recommends students ride the bus earlier if possible in order to spread out demand during peak hours.

“We try to tell students that instead of taking the bus five minutes before the class starts, try to take the one that’s 15 minutes before,” Jones says. “Just to spread everyone out a little bit.”

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