On the North Shore, the Blue Bus service plays a valuable role in supporting everyday trips across the region and into neighbouring public transit systems — but its own workers have been feeling unsupported.
Ever since their contract with the District of West Vancouver expired in March, ongoing labour disputes have made things tense for Blue Bus employees.
In an updated agreement, they hope to see improved break times and better wages for community shuttle drivers — but none of West Vancouver’s proposals have been satisfactory so far.
Cornel Neagu, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 134, which represents Blue Bus workers, shares their frustration as negotiations have yet to progress.
“It's not a good thing, but people — most of them, including myself, they feel like they are trapped in a toxic workplace,” says Neagu. “And there is nothing they can do except to fight to change the conditions.”
A working strike, consisting of a ban on overtime and uniforms, has been in place since July 23. On Aug. 9, the union notified West Vancouver that it would consider escalating their job action starting on Sept. 7.
Instead of the ambulance, there’s the bus
Nineteen minutes later than its scheduled arrival time, the bus I’ve been waiting for finally pulls up to its destination stop by the Park Royal shopping centre.
It’s a major connecting point for people from the surrounding area, and for those transferring between buses from downtown Vancouver after commuting across the Lions Gate Bridge. Strollers, wheelchairs and plentiful shopping bags can be spotted as people eagerly ready themselves to board the bus.
Observing this busy scene helps me understand why the bus I’m catching, the 255 bus, is often considered one of the toughest routes that Blue Bus drivers do.
The 255 travels between Dundarave and Capilano University, and includes major stops at shopping centres like Park Royal and Capilano Mall. It also stops at Lions Gate Hospital — the only hospital on the North Shore.
“We call that run the ‘ambulance bus’ because of the number of wheelchairs and strollers and people with walkers, seniors. They try to go to the hospital and back,” says Neagu. “The work on that run, it's unbelievably hard.”
Wyatt Ewald, a driver with Blue Bus for the past decade, once had a passenger actually take his bus to the hospital instead of the ambulance during a medical emergency. “I offered to call 911 for her,” he says, but she insisted on taking the bus.
Remaining attentive to all the needs of so many passengers can be a challenge. Over the last few months, the 255 bus is the one he drives the most.
“It is one of the more demanding routes,” says Ewald. “It’s one of the tightest routes scheduled, for sure.”
I witness this for myself when I join Ewald for part of his evening shift driving the 255 bus route.
Despite relatively calm traffic and a lighter load of passengers, Ewald barely had time to run to the nearby washroom when we reached the route’s final stop at Capilano University. There was also an ongoing time deficit — after Ewald turned the bus around to head in the other direction, we were already half an hour behind schedule.
Michael Cox, another driver who’s been with Blue Bus for eight years, calls it “turn and burn,” which happens when “at the terminus of a route, the schedule really doesn’t allow you much time, or because of traffic you don’t have much time, to stop and have a break.”
While drivers are encouraged to go to the washroom as needed, it’s difficult to weigh the consequences in real time. If a bus arrives late because of bad traffic and there’s already a long lineup of antsy passengers waiting outside in the rain, the decision isn’t always straightforward.
“Now the question is, do I make myself more late according to my schedule, so that I can go to the bathroom?” says Cox. Having sufficient breaks built into the schedule, he adds, “is just humane.”
Bus drivers can’t afford to live where they work
The challenging work environment makes the days long for many Blue Bus staff, but many of their own commutes make them even longer. Most can’t afford to live in the municipality that employs them.
Some workers are lucky enough to live in North Vancouver, says Neagu. “But the vast majority of them, they have to travel from, name it — Burnaby, Surrey, Port Coquitlam, Coquitlam, Richmond, everywhere.”
Other Blue Bus employees that The Tyee spoke with mentioned that workers commuted from as far as Pitt Meadows, Abbotsford, Langley, Cloverdale and Squamish.
Arturo Buban, an electronic technician with Blue Bus, is glad that renting in Burnaby means his commute is relatively shorter. Before that, he lived farther out, near Coquitlam. “I moved closer because the traffic is eating away my time so much,” he says.
“It's very hard to pay the high price for rent or to buy something [on the] North Shore,” says Neagu. “Everyone is living everywhere else.”
By some calculations, West Vancouver is considered the richest community in Canada, with an average household net worth of $4.5 million. Census data shows that the average total household income in West Vancouver was $196,133, compared to Greater Vancouver, whose average household income was $96,423.
A ‘lineup to get out’
Despite being employed by the wealthiest municipality in the country, Blue Bus workers say they continue to face a variety of issues that haven’t improved over the years.
In addition to inadequate break times, wage parity for community shuttle bus drivers is another problem. Currently, Blue Bus shuttle drivers make $3.30 less than their counterparts at Coast Mountain Bus Co., which services 96 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s bus service.
In an emailed response to The Tyee and in previous statements issued by the District of West Vancouver, the district has reiterated a commitment to “ensuring operators have sufficient recovery time” in addition to “increasing shuttle drivers’ wages,” but stated that “there are costs associated with the union’s proposal and the District needs to ensure we are fiscally responsible managers of the public purse while ensuring our employees are given a fair overall deal.”
“We deserve the same amount Coast Mountain Bus drivers are making,” says Barney, a community shuttle bus driver with Blue Bus for nearly 10 years. There’s virtually no difference in the type of work they do or the kind of vehicles they drive, he explains, compared to shuttle drivers at Coast Mountain Bus Co.
Other Blue Bus staff, like mechanics, have also sought better jobs elsewhere when possible.
According to Neagu, 40 mechanics have left Blue Bus in the past eight years. “That means every single year, we had five people who left their job and moved somewhere else for better payment and better working conditions,” he says. “That’s how bad it is.”
Since the job action began last month, there’s even fewer mechanics working now.
“At this moment, there’s only two of us — one mechanic, and myself,” says Buban. “That’s why we’re having lots of backlogs on inspections and stuff.”
Geoff Devlin, a driver with West Vancouver Blue Bus for 22 years, puts it like this: “There used to be a lineup to get into Blue Bus, you could not get a job there. Now there’s a lineup to get out.”
But leaving isn’t that simple, especially not for more senior employees who have already committed themselves to careers at Blue Bus. Many staff are in their 50s or 60s and nearing retirement age, so uprooting themselves isn’t ideal.
“These guys are in here like 25, 30 years,” says Devlin. “And they are not going to go anywhere else because they’re established. They’ve got their holidays, they’ve got good seniority, they can pick and choose which shifts they want. But these guys are very frustrated.”
Where you live, where you go, and where you want to end up
As the job action with Blue Bus risks continuing into the fall season, it’s left North Shore residents wondering about the future of their commutes, and public transit in the region more broadly.
Steve Tornes has many thoughts on this as a North Vancouver resident, transportation researcher and host of the Trip Diary podcast about equity in local public transportation. He says our current separation of work, living and recreational activities in urban planning has contributed to some of the problems we’re seeing now on the North Shore — including the sense “that they shouldn't really combine because that is not our ideal of how to live.”
Isolating the different parts of our lives from each other, including through geographic distance, is sometimes held up as part of maintaining a “work-life balance.” But this line of thinking often disadvantages people who can’t afford the luxury of convenience, such as owning a car, to travel wherever or whenever they want, no matter the distance.
“How can you really have a good transit system if the entire idea of the way in which the region is set up is that there's a long distance between where you live and where you go, where you want to end up?” asks Tornes.
Other North Shore residents, like Alison Dudley, would “love to see some kind of creative planning between Metro Vancouver and the Squamish and Whistler districts” to improve public transit across the region.
Dudley, a resident of Lions Bay, regularly commuted to work in downtown Vancouver on an express bus operated by Blue Bus. But it was cancelled during the pandemic, and hasn’t returned since.
“The afternoons are brutal. It now takes me about two hours to get home, just with the way the connections work,” says Dudley. “It takes me almost as long to bike, so I've actually started biking in.”
The pandemic’s impacts were clear in the results of the 2020 North Shore Transportation Survey, with the number of residents who do not use public transit increasing from 15 per cent in 2019 to over half, 53 per cent, in 2020. Public transit was the most affected mode of transportation compared to other methods, like cars.
For Maia Lomelino, the 255 bus is the fastest route home for her commute as a third-year student at Capilano University. Even if public transit isn’t always reliable, it’s still preferable to some of her other options.
“I do know some people rely on a bike, which is great,” says Lomelino. “This is not an option for me. I have a back problem, like a small disability where I can’t actually use a bike for long periods. So it’s transit, Uber or nothing.”
In 2018, the Integrated North Shore Transportation Planning Project report, a collaboration between municipalities across the North Shore, was released to specifically address transportation issues in the region. The project, chaired by North Vancouver-Londsdale MLA Bowinn Ma, recognized that the North Shore is predominantly car-oriented and other modes of travel like public transit aren’t viable alternatives for many.
The Tyee reached out to MLA Bowinn Ma’s office for comment regarding the current Blue Bus labour dispute in the North Shore region, but Ma was not available for an interview nor to provide comment.
The uncertain road ahead
If the labour disputes between Blue Bus and the District of West Vancouver end up having to escalate into bigger disruptions of service during the fall, it’s “something that will harm a lot of people and a lot of families probably immensely,” says Tornes. Even if their routes aren’t cancelled completely, he says, longer wait times take away from precious time in their busy lives.
Many of them will be students, like Lomelino. “Uber would be too expensive. I don't know anyone with a car that could give me a ride,” she says. “So I would probably just not go to school at all.”
Despite that, Lomelino recognizes the necessary significance behind whatever action the Blue Bus workers may take. “It's always worse when there's a strike,” she says. “But I also think that the strikes are fair and necessary. If they're happening, it’s because something is not good for the workers, and if something's not good for the workers, then it's not good for everyone.”
Most Blue Bus members feel that things haven’t been good for a long time, and worsened during the pandemic when many members “either slept in their car, or in the basement, or in the garage, [out of] fear to not infect their family members with COVID,” according to Neagu.
“After two years of this tremendous sacrifice, our employer is giving us a treatment, this bad treatment which is unbelievable,” Neagu adds.
Employees like electronic technician Arturo Buban agree that improvements are long overdue for Blue Bus workers, especially after efforts were made to maintain service during the pandemic.
“For three years during the pandemic, we didn’t ask for anything,” he says. “We kept working.”