By Cindy Ho and Sandra Fernandez
Though interactions between students and bus drivers at UC Santa Cruz are brief and often eclipsed by the daily rush, two words let the bus drivers know that there is a mutual respect between them and the students.
“I get a lot of thank-you’s,” said campus bus driver R.C. “On one day, I counted 800 thank-you’s.”
For many campus bus drivers, this job means more to them than most driving jobs. There are 32 campus bus drivers who work for Transportation and Parking Services (TAPS) — some drivers are working after retirement and some are working full time.
“It’s a lifestyle job,” said bus driver Kevin Robinson. “It allows me a lot of opportunity to travel during the summer. For a driver, it’s the best you can find.”
Robinson is a UCSC alumnus who has worked with TAPS for 25 years. Mostly, he enjoys the scenery and views of Monterey. He said the students are wonderful and their appreciation for him and his job is what encouraged him to stay with TAPS for the last 25 years.
Andy Rivera, a third-year electrical engineering student, uses the bus system every day and recalls memorable conversations with drivers.
“When I’m on loop or upper campus buses, I socialize with each bus driver,” Rivera said. “They play good music. They never disrespect students. In general, they’re great people.”
Difficulties with Shortages
Steve Walker is a campus bus driver who has worked for TAPS since 1995. Walker has a degree in recreation administration with an emphasis in outdoor recreational resources. He works with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299, a union representing all of the workers on campus.
Through his work with the political arm of AFSCME, Walker helps the students he sees every day and supports anything that has to do with improving the quality of education.
Walker has been a driver for 19 years and said the job helped him establish relationships with students and professors. The most difficult part of Walker’s job is having to turn students down when buses get overcrowded, causing students to miss the beginning of class. He attributes this to a shortage of drivers, which causes shifts to be dropped.
“[Students] know we can only put so many people on the buses,” Walker said. “I try to make them feel like it’s a team effort to get everyone on.”
Jasmine Vuong, a fourth-year business management economics major, agrees with Walker’s concerns about overcrowded transportation.
“It would be helpful if there were more bus drivers, because buses do get crowded, especially during passing period. It makes it difficult for students to get on and off the bus,” Vuong said.
TAPS administrative director Larry Pageler recognizes the driver shortage, citing a number of reasons for the small pool of drivers.
“We’ve had drivers who took other positions at the university, who left for health reasons and two people who took off-campus jobs,” Pageler said.
Another reason for the lack of drivers has been disinterest in the offered hours, like the Night Owl shift. This UCSC bus service operates every 45 minutes from 11:45 p.m. to 1:15 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and every 20 minutes from 11:30 p.m. to 2:50 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. The Night Owl picks up and drops off UCSC students and employees on the corner of Cathcart Street and Pacific Avenue, across from the University Town Center.
“Every quarter, the drivers bid on the shifts they’re going to do and it goes by seniority,” said TAPS assistant director Susan Willats. “People who are in the low-end of seniority, often it’s their turn, and all that’s left is the Night Owl and it’s a bummer.”
For more than a decade now, the transit fee charged to students hasn’t been enough to cover expenses and wages for bus drivers. Willats said this is causing the permanent and on-call drivers to take other job offers.
“If we’re not a reliable source of income for them, wthey’re going to find other ways to make a living. This varies from time to time, and right now we’ve got a relatively small pool of limited drivers and we’d like to expand it,” Willats said.
Easing the Overcrowding Through Technology
While TAPS is working to expand the limited driver pool, it is also working to improve the campus transit system by installing a new bus tracking system called BTS 2.0, which tracks the location of loop buses on campus and how long you have to wait before jumping aboard.
“It transmits a signal that you can look at on a web browser or a smartphone app that shows an orange dot, which is the shuttle moving through campus,” said TAPS administrative director Pageler. “It’s a homegrown student project, and it will work well on the UCSC campus. We hope to have many in place by the end of this quarter.”
TAPS is attempting to increase the number of shuttle drivers and improve the system flow on campus by adding more tracking technology for students, but operating costs keep rising.
“We may have to decide what’s more important: keeping those loop shuttles running over the course of the day, or keeping those Night Owls running on weekends to get students home safely,” Pageler said. “What are the priorities? We need to hear that from the user group that pays for it — the students.”