Unitrans reduces schedule, goes fare-free while running during shelter-in-place

Unitrans reduces schedule, goes fare-free while running during shelter-in-place

Photo Credits: Markus Kaeppeli / Aggie File. Unitrans buses docked at the Memorial Union Bus Terminal at UC Davis.

Extra precautions taken to promote social distancing on Davis transportation

Unitrans will continue operating fare-free, weekend service only until at least April 12. 

The reduced service has been in effect since March 18 and was announced March 9. It was made fare-free, according to Unitrans’ General Manager Jeff Flynn, so that drivers would not have to handle cash or tickets and risk potential COVID-19 infection.

Along with changes to service and cost, Unitrans buses, which serve the entirety of the City of Davis, will only accept passengers through the back door. 

These measures are the latest in Unitrans’ effort to ensure safety for drivers and passengers while buses, as “essential infrastructure,” continue to run during the mandatory Yolo County shelter-in-place order, effective until May 1. Under the order, only workers who are employees at essential businesses and those needing to get groceries, go to the doctor or leave for a place of residence outside the county should leave their house.

As of Feb. 27, Unitrans was already sanitizing all bus interiors twice a day and mandating that drivers and conductors wipe down their work space at the start of their day. It was encouraged, but not recommended, that customers “try to maintain” as much distance as possible on the buses and at bus stops and bring personal hygiene products.

Flynn, who worked at Unitrans during his five years at UC Davis, said that Unitrans has about 150 student drivers and 250 total student staff. He said no student was mandated to work, and said there were a number of people who chose not to work during Spring Quarter. 

For those who were working, he and the rest of the career staff have been consistently engaging with students to make sure they felt comfortable driving.

“We had one-on-one engagements with students and gathered their opinions through email to understand what would make them feel safe,” Flynn said. “The management team, student and career staff also had conference calls and Zoom meetings.”

Though fourth-year marine biology major Michael Brito, a driver, route trainer and supervisor for Unitrans, said he did not recall being part of specific discussions, he said he felt Unitrans career staff established good lines of communication to make sure everyone felt protected at work.

“We had to change our service and redesign it multiple times, but they made sure we were following guidelines,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s the drivers — not the career staff — who are increasing their chances of interacting with people, and they’re not in any way making sure that we have to do that.” 

With a reduced schedule, Unitrans student employees, particularly drivers, have less opportunities to work and be paid. Brito said drivers last quarter tended to work 30 hours a week, but that’s been reduced to 10-13 hours a week.

Whether workers take the quarter off or not, however, Flynn said they can use the UC-provided Emergency Administrative Leave, which offers students up to 128 hours of paid leave based on the amount of hours they have previously worked.
“Students who are still working can use that leave to supplement their income,” he said. 

Many students at Unitrans can apply for multiple positions, like Brito did. Currently, students with multiple positions can only perform duties for that job, according to Brito. 

“I’m supervising and don’t have any driving shifts for the next five weeks,” he said. “Unitrans has been good at distributing hours, since students with more than one position could potentially get more hours than a regular driver.”

He added that he feels protected when he goes to work because the Unitrans office is fairly big, with sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer stocked everywhere. 

Flynn is also showing up to work and said he still rides the G line to and from the office.

“I think it’s important for me to show, as general manager of Unitrans, that I trust and believe our service is safe to ride for essential trips,” Flynn said. 

Unitrans isn’t the only transit service for Davis students that has adjusted to COVID-19 concerns. On March 22, UC Davis Ride Sharing Facebook group administrators closed the group to new posts until April 7, the initial end of the Yolo County shelter-in-place order. 

UC Davis alum Justin Chen, who became a group administrator in 2014, said he and other administrators made that decision because they believe social distancing is the most effective way for the country to slow down COVID-19 infection rate. 

“It is nearly impossible to practice social distancing — six feet apart from people not living under the same roof — in most of the ride shares requested,” Chen said. “As [an] admin, it is important to set the group guidelines to ensure the group can comply with government policy.” 

Chen’s post announcing the group shutdown includes a list of alternate methods of transportation, including public transportation and ride hailing allowed by California laws. 

Still, Chen said the group does not encourage people to take Uber, and that, as group admin, it was a gesture meant to remind the group’s members that there are still alternative ways to get to places when necessary.

“The group will not be aiding the chances of transmitting COVID-19 while the government has already given out clear and strict guidelines of what Californians should and shouldn’t do,” he said.

Flynn said he has already seen overall ridership fall by 90-95% since the shelter-in-place order was implemented. He added that, on a typical weekday, Unitrans carries about 23,000 people, and on a typical finals week, around 15,000 people. During finals week this past Winter Quarter, he said, Unitrans carried, on average, 1,500 people. 

“Everyone needs to come together as a society and work together to make sure COVID-19 doesn’t spread,” he said. “It’s been heartwarming to see Unitrans move people to their essential jobs and medical appointments. These numbers are encouraging because they suggest people are taking social distancing seriously and using Unitrans only for essential trips.”

Written by: Janelle Marie Salanga — campus@theaggie.org