Like a Well-Oiled Machine,
a Student-Run Bus Service
Serves Town and Gown

By Lawrence Biemiller

Davis, Cal. -- The noon run of the weekday P begins like so many other bus trips here, with a gaggle of Unitrans drivers laughing and chatting by the traffic circle behind the University of California at Davis's Memorial Union. As students arrive from classes ending at 11:50, the silent buses fill -- a B, a D, an ancient double-decked G, and so on around the circle to the P, a modern Orion Bus Industries product powered by compressed natural gas. At 12 o'clock the distinctive buzz-and-rumble of a bus engine's starter scatters the drivers to their vehicles. "Last call!" cries Janine Aurensan as she reaches the red Orion's doors. "P line! Last call!"

A moment later, the bus grumbles to life and the doors hiss closed. Ms. Aurensan, a computer-science major, checks her mirrors and eases the 40-foot Orion around the circle, taking her place in a parade of outbound buses. Air brakes whoosh and squeal at two stop signs in quick succession; the woodwind whines of eight engines rise and fall in a serendipitous octet for large, wheeled vehicles.

At Russell Boulevard, Ms. Aurensan turns her bus right, heading downtown. Although Unitrans is owned by the university's student government -- the Associated Students of the University of California at Davis -- it is also the public-transportation provider for the city. It serves primarily undergraduates, but it operates several routes, the P among them, to meet the needs of local residents.

This dual role, however, is only one of the features that make the bus service unusual. Unitrans, which was founded in 1968, is believed to be the biggest student-run bus service in the United States. All of its drivers -- 146 this semester -- are undergraduates, as are most of its other staff members. The drivers don't wear uniforms, and they can sign up for shifts as short as an hour, sandwiching them between classes. The 15 career employees focus on maintenance, safety, and long-term planning; policy decisions are made in consultation with student managers who have advanced through the ranks, as well as with representatives of the city government.

Unitrans is also the only American bus service operating authentic double-decked London buses on regular scheduled runs, as it has done since the very beginning. Three of the stylish, wood-framed antiques are used daily on some of the busiest routes; a fourth is currently being refurbished in the Unitrans shops, getting a new, automatic transmission and a state-of-the art engine that runs on clean-burning natural gas. Although the drivers sit on the wrong side and the double-deckers can be hard to steer when they're full, they're the pride of the Unitrans fleet, and their runs are claimed by the drivers with the most seniority.

On the other hand, the plush Orions have power steering. Ms. Aurensan spends the first part of the P's run dropping off students, but then the route -- "Davis Perimeter via South Davis" -- ventures far from the campus. It winds through neighborhoods, barrels empty along a road separating a housing development from farmland, then ambles past shopping centers, the post office, the hospital, and the public library. Along the way, the bus collects students and nonstudents, including an elderly lady who thanks Ms. Aurensan sweetly for stopping close to the curb.

It's an uneventful trip, but what with one thing and another the bus rolls back into the traffic circle at Memorial Union a couple of minutes behind schedule. "We really work to be on time, because people are going to class -- because we're going to class," Ms. Aurensan says as she parks the Orion and shuts off the engine. In fact, however, she is not going to class herself right now -- she's taking a shift as a conductor on a double-decker, which riders board from a platform in the rear. She'll ask which stops they want, signal the driver accordingly, and -- because the platform is on the wrong side of the bus -- she'll hold back traffic with a bright-orange flag while people are getting off and making their way to the curb. "A lot of the time," she says of working for Unitrans, "it doesn't feel like a job."

"I love driving a bus," agrees Nicki Courts, a physiology major. The pay is good -- about a dollar an hour above other campus jobs -- and drivers get to meet a lot of people. What's more, she says, the staff is "like a huge family" -- a family whose members often socialize together, during Unitrans parties and trips as well as in smaller groups.

Indeed, the hardest part of a driver's job is usually squeezing people onto buses during peak-hour trips, when drivers have been known to pack 100 or more riders on vehicles with seats for only 43. "We are the masters of maximum capacity," says Ms. Courts, who uses the public-address system to invite riders to "make a new friend." Especially on rainy days, when people who normally bike to class take the bus instead, there's some truth behind the bus service's campus nickname: "Unicram."

While classes are in session, Unitrans carries 16,000 to 18,000 riders on the average weekday, says James H. McElroy, who began working as a student driver in the early 1970's and is now the general manager. He says about 85 percent of the trips are taken by undergraduates, who pay a mandatory $24.50 fee each semester that lets them board just by showing their registration cards. The fare for non-students is 50 cents.

Unitrans has taken advantage of its role as the city's public-transportation provider to apply for transportation subsidies and grants under a variety of federal programs. And Mr. McElroy is not shy about applying for Congressionally earmarked money. A combination of formula-financed and earmarked money will pay for a planned $5-million expansion of the Unitrans maintenance facility.

Among other career Unitrans employees are Debbie Mobley, the safety-and-training supervisor, and Hurley Atchison, the operations supervisor, who together see that more than 50 new drivers a year are thoroughly trained. Behind-the-wheel instruction is done by experienced student drivers -- and done well enough that Unitrans teams have taken first place in a regional bus-driving competition called the North Bay Transit Rodeo three times in the past 10 years.

Students handle a variety of other responsibilities as well, from planning new routes to washing buses to running the early-morning shuttle that brings first-shift drivers out to the Unitrans yard to pick up their vehicles. Michael T. Murrill is a shop assistant with an evening shift and responsibility for routine servicing; he's the easygoing guy who puts a Gillig bus up on a lift so he can fix a brake assembly, then takes it out for a late-night road test that features some hard stops. Devin J. Braun is the history major in charge of specialized transportation services, like charters and the Tipsy Taxi service, which ferries students to and from parties for $1 a ride on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays ("You get 14 drunk people in the van," he says, "and it's really fun -- people enjoy driving it"). Tony Ruiz is one of the veteran drivers who also cover road-supervisor and dispatcher shifts. Some of the shifts are eventful, but many involve nothing more serious than crashing the dispatch-desk computer while playing online video clips from the TV show Will and Grace.

"We get masses of passengers that are nice," says John Schlosser, a civil-engineering major who is the Unitrans operations manager. "We hardly ever have any serious incidents." The drivers have a special radio code -- "5150" -- that would alert the dispatcher to a "crazy guy on the bus," but it's almost never used. When drivers do have problems, they're likely to be equipment-related. One night this year, a chartered bus began leaking fuel on the highway to Sacramento, 20-some miles away. Then another bus bottomed out and broke its air-tank drain, and the natural-gas fueling station had to be shut down, and it was 5 a.m. before the exhausted students finally left the Unitrans lot.

But a two-hour shift in the road supervisor's car suggests that Unitrans is usually a well-oiled machine -- which is the key to putting 31 buses out on 14 routes every weekday morning. Dave Thomas, a civil-engineering major who is the shift supervisor, spends part of the shift taxiing drivers to their vehicles, taking items left on buses to the lost-and-found desk at the Memorial Union, and making a spot check to see that the G line is running on schedule. Later, he takes advantage of the calm to make a coffee run, then joins Mr. Ruiz in the dispatcher's office for the end of a Family Feud episode ("Playboy bunnies vs. the World Wrestling Federation").

Then it's back to Memorial Union for the shift change. The red buses are gathered around the circle, with another gaggle of drivers laughing and chatting beside one of the double-deckers. The buzz-and-rumble of a bus starter scatters the drivers; a conductor cries "G line! Last call!" from the rear of a double-decker. A final passenger races across the circle. Air brakes whoosh and squeal, engines whine, and the parade begins again.

Copyright © 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published March 31, 2000.