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'Ghost buses' haunt transit agencies and frustrate riders

Jenni Bergal, on

Published in News & Features

Noah Appelbaum was freezing on a bitterly cold evening as he stood waiting at a Chicago bus stop in January. He was headed to work and didn’t want to be late.

The bus-tracking app on his smartphone kept showing that the next bus would be there in just a few minutes. But that time kept being pushed back, and the bus never showed up. He ended up boarding a later scheduled bus that finally arrived after he had been shivering for 40 minutes.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Appelbaum, 34, a guitar teacher and actor. “There’s not just the unpleasantness of waiting in the cold. It also throws off your whole schedule. It’s not only a matter of getting myself to work, but also of communicating with everyone waiting for me at work.”

Such “ghost buses” show on online bus-tracking apps and websites that they’re on their way, but they never arrive. Sometimes, it appears that they’re nearly there, but then they just vanish.

Riders who’ve been ghosted say they can’t feel confident about planning their trips because they never know when — or whether — a bus will come.

The ghost bus phenomenon stems largely from two problems: a bus driver shortage that agencies have been grappling with since the COVID-19 pandemic and technology that doesn’t give riders accurate, up-to-date information.


Transit agencies that have ghost bus problems say they’re aware of riders’ frustrations and are trying to address them, by updating their tracking systems and by hiring more drivers.

“One missed trip has a significant impact on customers. They depend on us to get to their doctor’s appointments, work, school,” said Leroy Jones, senior vice president of bus services at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in the District of Columbia, which has had ghost bus issues.

In some areas, the ghost bus problem can have a disproportionate impact on people of color and those with lower incomes, who often make up a big chunk of ridership and are more likely to rely on that form of transportation.

The Chicago Transit Authority and some other transit agencies use a bus tracker app with a mixture of scheduled service data and real-time information, which comes from transponders on buses that share their locations through GPS. If a trip listed on the schedule has been canceled because there are mechanical problems or too few drivers, the app may pull that data anyway, show that the bus is on its way and give a time estimate. Then the bus will disappear.


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