For many students, getting to and from campus means being uncomfortably close to strangers.
Unitrans officials say they have not recorded a significant increase in ridership over the past couple of years, but many students are complaining that the buses are packed.
“It’s very, very crowded,” said Jason Lai, a junior managerial economics major. “It takes five minutes just to get on the bus.”
Lai is one of nearly 20,000 daily Unitrans boarders. He takes the G and J Lines, which along with the W and M lines, have the most frequent occurrences of what Unitrans officials call “crush loads.“
Though Unitrans riders like Lai are all too familiar with squeezing in next to strangers to accommodate more riders, the practice is safe and legal, said Unitrans General Manager Geoff Straw.
By law, riders are only required to stand behind the white safety line at the front of the bus, ensuring that the driver has full visibility. The buses‘ brakes are designed to withstand heavy loads and most Unitrans lines only cover roads with very slow speeds, Straw said.
The average Unitrans bus has about 40 seats, but drivers, who are required to keep passenger counts, have reported as many as 90 riders on a bus.
Some manufacturers have assigned maximum capacities to their buses based on seats, standees and square footage, Straw said. However, since Straw said Unitrans riders tend to be younger and smaller than the average adult, students “seem more willing to accept a ‘crush load‘ situation given the short duration of travel time on Unitrans routes and the crowds normally encountered throughout the day on a university campus.“
Some students told The California Aggie that they have observed students standing in front of the white safety line during peak hours. One Unitrans driver, speaking on condition of anonymity, said leaving students behind due to full capacity is “definitely frowned upon,” but employees have never been told to allow students to stand past the safety line.
Ryan Lung, a rider on the G and J lines, said he frequently observes buses so overcrowded that some riders are standing in front of the safety line.
“It doesn’t just happen occasionally,” said Lung, a junior chemistry and history double major. “It happens all the time.“
Unitrans Assistant General Manager Anthony Palmere said drivers try to get as many passengers on the buses as possible, but no one should be in front of the safety line. If a bus is so full that it could not safely accommodate someone, drivers are supposed to radio for an extra bus, called a “tripper,” Palmere said. Unitrans has several trippers on-hand during the day in case of overcrowding.
However, heavy radio traffic can delay dispatch of trippers by several minutes. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that a tripper or extra driver would be available, Palmere said.
During peak hours, Unitrans operates 35 buses. It has 49 total buses, 42 of which are full-size transit buses, three are small shuttle buses, and four vintage doubledeckers.
Data provided by Unitrans indicate that there has not been a significant increase in ridership compared to last year. In the fall quarter, Unitrans had 19,128 daily riders, compared to 18,380 in the 2007 fall quarter – a 4 percent increase. In the first week of this quarter, Unitrans reported an average of 22,035 daily riders, compared to 21,213 daily riders during the first week of winter quarter 2008.
Still, Unitrans officials have discussed a number of measures to reduce passenger loads.
Unitrans officials have discussed adding more buses to impacted evening routes, but Straw said he hasn’t heard complaints from riders. In addition, each additional bus costs $60 per hour and buses require downtime for maintenance.
“We don’t have unlimited buses – [adding buses] would mean reducing service elsewhere,” Straw said.
After the admission of the record-size freshman class of 2006, Unitrans ordered more buses to meet anticipated higher demand. Since it takes two years upon order for a bus to be introduced into the system, six new buses will be added this spring.
Unitrans had been leasing four buses from Sacramento Regional Transit since last summer to address higher passenger loads and to assist in driver training, though Straw said they may be purchased for spares if the price is right.
Next October, Unitrans will introduce two brand new double-deck buses for the G and J lines. They will be able to accommodate 110 to 120 passengers, Straw said.
Unitrans is also taking bids from seven contractors to introduce a new global positioning system which would allow drivers and passengers to follow buses in real time on the internet. The project should be completed by next fall, Straw said.
Unitrans officials are also looking into the possibility of adding an electronic passenger counting system, which would be based on light beams or step sensors, to record accurate passenger numbers in real time.
Since driver counts typically have five to 10 percent error, the new counting technology would allow Unitrans to more efficiently utilize their fleet, Straw said.
But until such measures can be implemented, students may have to continue to endure packed buses – and listen to bus drivers when they attempt to keep the white line clear.
“The bus drivers are trying their best, but people still aren’t as compliant,” Lai said.
Unitrans, formed by ASUCD in 1968, has 3.4 million annual boardings and 14 bus lines.
PATRICK McCARTNEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.