Tauranga bus drivers are being subjected to an "alarming" and rapidly escalating number of assaults and threatening behaviour, prompting a call for a greater police and security presence.
The Bay of Plenty Regional Council Public Transport Committee is expected to discuss the "alarming rise in incidents of anti-social and criminal behaviour on the bus network" in a meeting today.
The comments were made by regional council transport and urban planning manager James Llewellyn in a report to the council, highlighting the issue as a key risk that needed to be addressed.
In the report, he said incidents of threatening behaviour and assault on Tauranga buses were traditionally rare, with about one or two incidents reported by drivers each month.
"Since the lockdown period in March/April there has been an increase in this behaviour with almost 20 incidents reported by drivers in September and a further 10 in October.
"These incidents are occurring across the network, although around 30 per cent of incidents this year have occurred on or around Willow St."
The issue highlighted the risk of stress and anxiety experienced by bus drivers, which could likely lead to staff shortages and industrial action if it was not resolved, he said.
Passengers were also less likely to want to travel by bus if they feared their safety, compromising efforts to get more people out of cars and onto buses.
Llewellyn said working closely with NZ Bus and the police to ensure drivers were supported and a greater presence of police and security was needed.
First Union Bay of Plenty organiser Graham McKean said it the jump in assaults and abuse was a major concern.
"The situation that's happening in Tauranga at the moment is the worst in the country. None of the other cities have the level of incidents like we do right now."
McKean said he was expecting a call from an assaulted or abused driver every second or third day.
"The drivers themselves are quite fearful."
McKean said there was an incident as recent as last Friday where a Tauranga driver's phone was stolen, thrown on the road and the driver was punched in the head.
"It has been horrendous.
"Drivers are coming back saying 'we want some sort of protection'."
"The fact this driver was punched in the face is in itself an escalation of the abusive incidents we've dealt with before. It highlights this crescendo of abuse to public service workers."
McKean said he believed there were several factors fuelling the increase including police telling him many alleged offenders had mental health issues and had not taken their medication.
The growing footprint of gang activity in Tauranga "and rise in conflict between various factions", plus young prospects trying to earn a patch were also factors, he said.
McKean said there was a group of young people believed to be responsible for some incidents.
"The drivers know who they are. We say 'don't let them on the bus' but they are there to drive the bus. They are not there as a steward or police officer. These people are workers who want to do their job and contribute to society."
McKean said he would ideally like a better support system for drivers.
At the moment, if a driver feared for their safety of themselves or others they communicate with headquarters based in Auckland who then communicate with police.
McKean believed a locally-based communications centre with better domestic knowledge would help. He also would like to see a separate security vehicle established which could respond to incidents as back up if needed.
"It is an issue of significant concern and we are losing drivers because of it."
McKean said some drivers, especially female drivers, were did not want to work in certain areas at certain times.
"There's an undercurrent of fear and anxiety."
Western Bay of Plenty area commander Inspector Clifford Paxton said police have met with the regional council, Tauranga City Council and NZ Bus "to discuss our concerns in relation to recent activity at the bus depot area".
"Police will continue to attend jobs in the area as required and work with our partners to collectively address and manage issues raised by the community," Paxton said.
NZ Bus were contacted for comment.