Long-running intercampus shuttle to be replaced with public electric bus service, leaving many riders frustrated

Long-running intercampus shuttle to be replaced with public electric bus service, leaving many riders frustrated

Photo Credits: QUINN SPOONER / AGGIE FILE Caption: UC Davis Health Center's shuttle delivers passengers between the UC Davis Medical Center and the Silo on September 26, 2019.

Current riders feel ignored by administrators regarding objections to the changes

A shuttle service provided by UC Davis and relied upon by staff, faculty and students will come to an end, effective April 2020. The shuttle will be replaced by a public electric bus service that will run as part of a partnership between Yolobus and the Sacramento Regional Transit District (SacRT). The new buses will have smaller capacities, less bike storage and no seatbelts. 

The route for the new buses will add additional stops — likely two in Davis and two in Sacramento, increasing an already long commute. These changes have left many riders questioning the reasons for the change and left many feeling ignored due to the lack of timely communication from the team in charge. 

“Our input is not being valued,” said Rachel Ray, a managing attorney at the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center and a rider of the shuttle. Part of the input Ray mentioned consists of a survey of 59 riders along with a list of recommendations, put together by riders and sent to the UC Davis administration on July 19, 2019. 

“We believe that open dialogue and inclusion of our voices in the planning for the new buses will help ensure changes that truly have a positive impact on the environment and the daily lives of the students, faculty and staff who use the shuttle,” states a letter addressed to Provost Ralph Hexter and staff in charge of UC Davis transportation. The letter also informed its recipients of the existence of a listserv which, at the time, included 90 shuttle riders from several different campus departments. 

The survey was conducted after Rose Cabral, executive assistant to the Assistant Executive Vice Chancellor and a shuttle rider, saw that the new electric buses had already been purchased and were being tested over the summer.

After the letter was sent out, Kelly Ratliff, vice chancellor for Finance, Operations and Administration of UC Davis, and Brad Simmons, interim chief executive officer of the UC Davis Medical Center, responded, saying that “ongoing efforts to expand and improve the intercampus shuttle will definitely benefit from additional input from existing shuttle riders.” 

Their response also said that riders could expect to hear from a team leading the outreach effort in early August 2019, but this communication did not occur until early September. At that time, Matt Dulcich, director of environmental planning and local government relations manager for UC Davis, informed riders of upcoming round table meetings where riders would have the opportunity to provide feedback on “ideas for future service options.” 

These round table meetings were not publicized to the listserv until a rider that did receive information about the meetings forwarded it out and several riders then posted information about the meetings at shuttle stops. This led to confusion about the lack of widespread communication.

Four meetings were held between Oct. 1 and Oct. 4 on the Davis and Sacramento campuses. At the Oct. 4 meeting in the Davis Transportation and Parking Services (TAPS) office, multiple riders said that they had purchased their home specifically with the availability of the shuttle in mind. People also expressed their concerns about no longer being able to do work on the bus. Ray, in a later interview with The California Aggie, said that her ability to work on the bus allows her to “be a more productive employee.” 

The main problems that riders expressed during this meeting concerned decreased bike storage, rider capacity and reliability of the buses — all grievances previously addressed by the riders in documents sent to UC Davis officials back in July. According to the survey, bike storage and punctual service were the two most important aspects of the buses to riders. 

Riders also expressed discontent with the fact that, if new stops are added, the commute time would increase significantly. Those in charge of the round table meeting, which included Dulcich, TAPS Transportation Analyst Anthony Palmere and representatives from Yolobus and SacRT, proposed the idea of having an express service with fewer stops during peak hours. This option, however, is not present in a proposal to the board of SacRT dated Oct. 14. According to the SacRT website, the proposal “will be presented to the SacRT Board of Directors for approval on November 18, 2019.” New stops must be added because the bus service must be open to the public and no longer be a charter service in order to be eligible for the grants given by Electrify America.

Another issue brought up at the Oct. 4 meeting was the question of why UC Davis has decided to discontinue the shuttle service it provides for its employees. The shuttle has been operating since at least 2006, and, according to the survey conducted over the summer, most people ride it everyday as their “primary or only means of transportation.” 

Dulcich, who is in charge of the project from the UC Davis side, has said that the service changes are due to declining ridership rates in recent years — a statement which some riders question. 

Doubts among riders concerning claims of decreased ridership was amplified by data recently shared on the riders’ listserv. Jason Moore, a faculty member in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and frequent shuttle rider, requested and received access to view the proposal to receive a grant to purchase the electric buses. He also received the data used to justify the purchase of the new buses and shared this information with the riders listserv. Postdoctoral researcher Derek Young analyzed the data and found several inconsistencies. 

The data received came in the form of three different data sets, all with different methodologies and missing data points, making it difficult to draw conclusions using the information. 

Data from 2006-2017 came from an average of five or sometimes four days per month and data from 2017-18 provided only monthly estimates. But perhaps the biggest inconsistency came from data collected from February, June, July and August of 2019. During these months, ridership data was collected almost daily, except for days left blank and days that report zero riders. For much of the summer months, the total ridership was taken only from the monthly pass users, leaving out day pass users entirely. Both of these issues brought down the average for these months. 

Dulcich did not directly respond to questions about the data inconsistencies. 

For now, riders await answers to their questions and attention to the input that they have given. According to Dulcich, riders should receive information this week.

“Written details about the service expansion, routing options, the new buses and further opportunities for input will be ready next week,” Dulcich said via email. These details, however, were not available at the time of publication of this article.

For many riders, the longer commute on the new bus due to added stops means they will simply switch to driving, meaning that the electric buses meant to reduce pollution will put cars on the road that were not there before. For others, the shuttle is their only way to get to work or school on time.

Chue Xiong, a research administrator at the UC Davis School of Medicine and an hourly employee, said via email that the current traffic already causes her to occasionally be late for work and she now worries that the future number of stops would make her late for work everyday. 

“I believe that students and employee(s) would be discouraged to take public transit if it is not going to be reliable,” Xiong said.

Russ Zochowski, a disability specialist at the Student Disability Center, said via email that he relies heavily on the shuttle and its current stops as someone who is blind. 

“If/when this money-driven change occurs next April as anticipated, then getting from home to work […] will be much more difficult […] for many other faculty, staff, & students with disabilities who rely on the current shuttle service for independent travel,” Zochowski said.

Written by: Andrea Esquetini — campus@theaggie.org 

Update: Since the print publication of this article, four more feedback meetings have been scheduled for Nov. 6 and 7 on the Davis and Sacramento campuses, according to an email sent to the riders’ listserv. A website for the service was also recently launched, which states that the reason for discontinuing the shuttle service is that “the high cost of running a private charter is not sustainable.” The times and locations of the feedback meetings are also available on the website.