By Sarah Welsh
City on a Hill Press Reporter
UCSC fourth-year Charles Lewis often has trouble getting from campus to his downtown home.
Like many UC Santa Cruz students, Lewis often has to stand in the dark, the cold, or the rain after his late afternoon classes, as crowded buses pass him by. More often than not, after long days on campus, when all he wants to do is head home, relax, and get on with his night, he simply can’t — at least, not in a timely fashion.
“I see people almost every day get on a city bus on campus, to go somewhere else on campus,” said Lewis, an earth sciences major. “A lot of the time I can’t get a bus to go downtown.”
UCSC’s student ridership is up about 6 percent this year compared to last year, said Larry Pageler, director of Transportation and Parking Services (TAPS). According to October 2008 figures, more than three-quarters of the approximately 15,000 students on campus ride the buses on a daily basis.
TAPS is currently looking for cost-cutting measures within campus transit operations because they are unable to meet the high fuel and maintenance costs that the shuttles demand.
“These are likely to include elimination of the Long Marine Lab Shuttle — which carries very few people and costs a lot to operate — and possibly some reductions to Day Shuttle services that overlap with SCMTD routes through the campus,” Pageler said. “The high cost of maintenance and fuel has hampered the fiscal sustainability of the Day and Night Shuttle operation, and we’re looking for ways to reduce those costs while maintaining service.”
The Santa Cruz Metro Transit District (SCMTD), which is funded by the state and the university, does not expect any cuts, but it also remains unable to expand service.
“Our management plan is to get through 2010 without cuts,” said Les White, director of SCMTD. “The downside is we have serious overcrowding and service needs that we’re not able to respond to.”
Campus transportation faces the same issue of not being able to expand services, even in areas some think are vital.
“The Highway 17 bus is standing-room only, and we don’t have the money to expand service,” Pageler said.
In a desperate bid to close the state’s budget gap, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently diverted $3 billion out of the State Transportation Assistance Fund (STA), which provides money to public transportation systems statewide. For SCMTD, this means a loss of $6 million — a big chunk of its total funding.
The California Transit Association filed a lawsuit, claiming that the diversion of funds was illegal. The suit cites various propositions, including Prop. 116, passed in 1990, and Prop. 1A, passed in 2006 by voters wanting to keep money in the Public Transportation Account for mass transportation.
“It’s really frustrating,” White said, “especially after voters have said they want money to go to those services.”
According to the California Transit Association, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most recent budget proposal would eliminate funding to the STA altogether, meaning $536 million in cuts to public transportation throughout California.
These cuts come at a time when public transportation is becoming an increasingly popular option for commuters.
Pageler said that he has seen a decline in personal vehicle traffic on campus to levels comparable with fall quarter of 1997, when 5,000 fewer students were enrolled than in the fall quarter of 2008.
“Much of this [decline] was due to higher gasoline prices early in fall quarter, but also people’s concern about global warming and the economics of owning and operating a car,” Pageler said.
There are some things UCSC students can do, and some pieces of information they should know, that will make transportation run more smoothly and efficiently for everyone while dealing with this simultaneous lack of funding and increase in ridership.
The Cost of “Free” Bus Rides: $2.5 Million
The idea that riding any bus is free with a student ID is a common misconception. When students get on a Metro bus and ride for miles, like from downtown to campus, or blocks, like from college to college, TAPS is charged a flat rate of $1.20.
Last year, UCSC had to pay SCMTD $2.5 million for all student bus riders in the county.
When hopping on a city bus to go from one campus location to another, students may be taking a valuable spot from someone else who needs that bus to get home.
“We hear a lot of complaints from transit commuters trying to get off campus who find their particular bus — say, a Route 19 headed down Bay Street, or a Route 20 down Western — full of people traveling only as far as Porter or Oakes,” Pageler said.
Instead of taking these seats away from the students who really need them, Pageler suggests walking or biking when traveling across campus instead of riding the Day Shuttles or SCMTD buses, especially when “between classes” comprises only a short distance.
“Humans walking produce a lot less greenhouse gas emissions than a shuttle or bus,” Pageler said. “And you’ll get some healthy exercise at the same time.”
Putting the Bike Pedal to the Metal
Because of the unique geography of the UCSC campus, riding a bike up the many hills doesn’t always represent the most desirable mode of transport, especially for students housed downtown.
Nonetheless, Metro bike commuter numbers increased significantly during fall 2008, rising from 1,000 riders a day at the start of the quarter to 1,800 per day near the end, most likely due to rising gas prices and increased concern about global warming.
These numbers mean that competition abounds for the limited number of bike racks on buses. But those who plan ahead and venture to and from campus at off times are often able to find room for themselves and their bikes on the buses.
John Williams, a third-year American studies major, often buses his bike up to campus, then rides back down after classes.
“Usually if I want to take my bike, I ride to the Metro station downtown. You have a better chance of getting on a bus there,” Williams said, referring to the fact that many bus routes start and end downtown, which means open bike racks for bus riders.
Frank Jacinto, an SCMTD bus driver, shared some advice for transporting bikes via the city and campus buses.
“I want to emphasize that there’s a protocol when loading and unloading bikes,” Jacinto said. “A lot of students exit through the back and don’t even mention that they’re getting their bike. You don’t want the bus to drive off with your bike, and you certainly don’t want to end up under the bumper.”
The campus bike shuttle is another increasingly popular option for those who want to have bikes with them at the end of the day, but are not prepared to make the uphill trek to campus.
Bike shuttles have large racks which hold many more bikes than buses, attached to the backs of vans, and take an express route to select upper campus locations. Students can then lock bikes near classes, ride to lower campus locations and pedal home on their own schedule, often past mobs of students waiting for crowded buses.
Long-Lost Lesson: Look Before You Leap
Both city and campus buses run on schedules. Sometimes traffic makes buses late, sometimes weather does, but more often than not delays are caused by the very people who complain about them most: students.
Specifically, disrupted bus schedules are often the result of students walking in continuous streams across the street, many of whom fail to notice the packed buses halted at a standstill waiting for a chance to move.
“Both SCMTD and the Day and Night Shuttles take longer to travel around campus because of the high number of pedestrians and traffic delays caused by people in the crosswalks,” Pageler said. “I’m all for pedestrian travel — it’s healthy for each of us and for the planet — but it’s amazing how much of a delay a half-dozen individuals can cause when crossing the street.”
According to TAPS driver Steve Walker, known to many students as “the funny bus driver,” these streams are often the result of impatience on the part of students.
“Students have this crowd mentality where they see the first bus come and they get on that bus,” Walker said. “They don’t know that there is another Metro bus or another Upper Campus bus right behind them, pulling up in a matter of seconds.”
Walker wishes students realized that they have a choice in which buses to take.
“When you’re at a bus stop and you see the first bus pull up, and it’s a Metro bus, don’t assume it’s the only bus coming,” he said. “Do you want to get into the sardine can, or the empty bus behind it?”
Campus driver Timon Read offered advice as well.
“If one door is totally crowded, I recommend going in the empty door,” Read said.
And a final tip for the majority of UCSC students, nearly 12,000 in total, who rely on the services of bus drivers to get to and from class every day: Show a little love.
Almost all bus drivers say that they have noticed a new appreciation among students for the availability of transportation and the services offered by drivers.
Jacinto noted that, compared to previous years, students this year show a lot of gratitude, all of which is valued.
“Everyone says thank you,” Jacinto said, “I appreciate that. It makes my day.”
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