Guest: Unitrans 50 years ago

KAILA MATTERA / AGGIE

President of ASUCD from 1966 to 1967 shares the story of Unitrans’ conception

In the fall of 1965, I had just returned to UC Davis for the beginning of my second year. I was 18. One September night, in 100 Hunt Hall, I heard the journalist Robert Scheer speak about the history behind the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Already skeptical about the war that was behind the drafting of several of my high school friends — the ones who didn’t go to college — I made a deeply personal commitment to help stop the war and bring our troops home.

So in the spring of 1966, I was putting together a platform for a long-shot bid to become ASUCD President. I had heard that the administration at UC Santa Barbara was running buses between Isla Vista and the campus. Since Davis had high concentrations of student housing on Sycamore, Anderson, F. Street and J., I thought a bus service was something that could work in Davis. And I thought ASUCD should run the service.

I ran for office as an anti-Vietnam-War candidate, certainly not as a let’s-have-a-bus-system candidate. In May 1966, I was elected. Soon I joined 99 other student-body presidents from across the country in signing a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the U.S. to begin the process of extracting itself from Vietnam. Although we could take out an ad, probably few of us could vote, since being 21 was a requirement.

Still, we could try to undermine the prevailing in loco parentis — in place of our parents — model of university-student relations.

In June, I met with Ed Spafford, one of Chancellor Emil Mrak’s closest advisors, and told him that ASUCD was interested in buying a couple of busses. We wanted the administration to approve the purchase and agree to maintain the equipment.

Ed Spafford was a savvy guy and he offered this: The campus would allow two of its existing small fleet of busses to be used for a trial run. This was okay with me as long as it didn’t undermine the plan for ASUCD to run the trial, and eventually the system, if it came to pass. Spafford agreed.

We ran the trial over several weeks in the fall of 1966. We totaled up the ridership. Since we had no data to measure the results against, we declared the trial a success. Then we began to plan for the service that eventually became Unitrans. In Spring 1967, at the end of my term, Rich Klecker, the incoming ASUCD Vice President, took the baton and, with Tom Matoff, the first student manager, made it happen.

Today, Unitrans carries 4 million riders a year. Without it, Davis would be very different in terms of congestion, fuel consumption, pollution and acres devoted to parking.

How do we view all of this? It’s tempting to see Unitrans through a private-sector lens, like a kind of a startup company: inspiration, concept, test-marketing, branding (How brilliant was it that the first two busses were London double-deckers? Not my idea, by the way.), business plan, seed money, going live, strategic partnerships.

It’s tempting, but that description misses the mark because it mischaracterizes the motivation at work. And it takes the inception of Unitrans out of its true historical context.

Let’s look at what was happening in the world at large around the time of Unitrans first ran on Feb. 28, 1968:

First and foremost, our friends and contemporaries were being drafted, killed, wounded, lost and traumatized in a war that made no sense;

But if you were 18, 19 or 20, you were not allowed to vote;

Phase one of the TET offensive, which exposed the disinformation about U.S. progress in the war, was just coming to conclusion around Feb. 28;

Senator Eugene McCarthy had mobilized a peace army, mainly young, mainly students, to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of deposing the incumbent President at the ballot box;

On Mar. 12, McCarthy took 42 percent of the vote in New Hampshire; Robert Kennedy joined the race a few days later; on Mar. 31, Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the race for president;

On Apr. 4, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was in the process of becoming a leading voice against the war, was assassinated. On June 5, Robert Kennedy, the only electable anti-war candidate, was killed in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles.

Richard Nixon would win. The war would drag on for six more years. Tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters were cut down, as well as more than a million Vietnamese in their own country.

We, the young, the students, the draftees, wanted a say, wanted a voice and wanted the vote. And to get those tools, we were willing to show — had to show — that we could build stuff and run things — things like Unitrans, the CoHo, the Experimental College, an FM KDVS and a daily Cal Aggie.

The 26th Amendment, declaring the right to vote at the age of 18, took effect on Jan. 1, 1972. On Apr. 11 of that year, I was privileged to be elected to the Davis City Council. At the time, public transit was on the radar in Washington and Sacramento. The City partnered with ASUCD in pursuing legislation that would allow municipal transportation funds to be passed through to Unitrans.

Again, around 1980, I was lucky to be representing Davis on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors at the inception of YoloBus, another great partner of Unitrans.

Dozens of people joined their volunteer efforts together to make Unitrans a reality. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have built it out and continue to do so. Their contributions were and continue to be profoundly communitarian. And, as they have been to me, these contributions were profoundly rewarding to all who made them.

Bob Black was the ASUCD president from 1966 to 1967.

 

Written by: Bob Black

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.