(April 10, 2015) Is that your gun, or are you just as happy as everyone else riding the bus home at 2 a.m.?
Some other passengers might not be going home, but are on duty and keeping an eye on the crowd’s behavior.
The presence of more plainclothes police officers on Ocean City buses was one of two subjects discussed this week by the city’s public transportation commission. The commission was also pleased to hear that the city expects greatly improved bus service this summer.
“One of the big goals this year is to improve the safety perception of transit without being heavy-handed,” said Capt. Kevin Kirstein, Patrol Commander for the Ocean City Police Department.
This summer, the city has arranged for a considerably larger pool of bus drivers than it has had in the past in reaction to a shortage of staff last year that resulted in too few buses on the road and overcrowding at critical times.
By the end of 2014, the city was down to 120 available bus drivers. Although the service starts with a larger pool, many drivers suffer from burnout during June, when buses can be particularly rowdy. Many drivers are older, retired persons who are only willing to work if they can set their own hours, making scheduling difficult.
This year, through intensive recruiting efforts, the city is starting with a pool of 188. Assuming that drivers average 32 hours per week, 155 employees would be needed to cover the peak of the summer according to Steve Bartlett, who is in charge of transit scheduling for the city.
Bartlett warns this figure is a rough estimate that does not take into account attrition, which he estimated at 25 percent.
“Again, you can’t sit here and say ‘how many drivers do you need?’ That’s not how it works, because we’re dependent on cumulative man-hours and we don’t know how much each person is willing to work,” said Public Works Director Hal Adkins.
However, a larger pool of employees will provide a better buffer when drivers cancel shifts.
“If we have absenteeism, we’ll be able to seat that shift if we have more people on the roster,” Adkins said.
The city’s bus system is scheduled to provide 10-minute service 21 hours per day, between 6:00 and 3:00 a.m., and a bus every half-hour between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., Bartlett said. However, this requires a minimum of 490 deployments per week, with a deployment defined as one bus and one driver for an eight-hour shift.
Keeping more drivers on the payroll to fulfill this will cost more, but the city is hoping that better service will boost ridership and fare revenues.
“It’s going to increase ridership when people have more confidence in the bus system,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “If we have that reliability, we can get out there and publicize it a little more as well.”
Going hand-in-hand with helping rider confidence and reducing driver dropout, the OCPD plans to conduct more plainclothes bus patrols this year.
“Transportation asked for a certain level of police presence and we were able to meet that,” Kirstein said. “They asked for specific dates and times, which I’d prefer to keep close to the vest.”
However, Kirstein said the department is planning a public campaign to let riders know about the presence of undercover officers. The ads will feature officers in uniform as well as in street clothes featuring the tagline “Can you spot the cop?”
Improved bus service should also help cut down on issues with drunk and disgruntled visitors who become agitated by long wait times.
“Some of the disorderly and assaultive behavior is because people don’t like to wait at the bus stop,” Kirstein said.
Under the program, Bartlett said, police will be able to request an empty bus be sent directly to specific stop if they see people becoming particularly anxious.