Quick Take:

Santa Cruz Metro is in the early stages of making major changes to the county’s bus services, including providing much more frequent service in high-demand areas and improving service along major corridors. With a shortage of housing spreading students across the county, the Reimagine Metro effort also focuses on speeding them to and from campus.

Santa Cruz Metro is aiming to offer trips every 15 minutes on major routes, including around UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College, in a bid to double the transit system’s ridership and respond to the area’s challenges in building student housing.

On Friday, the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District board of directors approved big changes to its bus service as a part of a major restructuring dubbed Reimagine Metro. Those changes include more frequent service in areas with high demand — most notably on main arteries in the city of Santa Cruz and around the UCSC and Cabrillo campuses — more direct routes and more frequent service in Watsonville, and better transfers with shorter wait times and no additional fares.

Now, Metro is preparing for more drastic changes that could be implemented as early as April. They include buses running every 15 minutes on corridors such as Soquel Drive and Capitola Road, a service extension from the Eastside through downtown Santa Cruz and to the UCSC campus, and another new 15-minute route down Highway 1 connecting Watsonville to Cabrillo College. Currently, many of these routes see buses every 30 minutes at best.

“If I’m a student and I live in Santa Cruz, Live Oak or Capitola, I just have 15-minute all-day headways coming not only into downtown, but continuing on to the university,” Santa Cruz Metro CEO Michael Tree said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s a one-seat ride.”

Metro isn’t planning to cut back routes as of now, and it is coordinating with the city to plan future housing around the enhanced transit corridors. That way, Tree said, the city can effectively connect housing to its revamped transit system while avoiding increased traffic congestion even as it adds more residents.

Tree said the efforts to improve ease of use and frequency of buses between the UCSC campus and various parts of the city are key to providing more convenient public transit options for students, who often live spread out across the county because of a shortage of on-campus housing. That should help alleviate traffic from students driving their vehicles to and from school.

“The university has not been able to put housing on their campus to the extent that they wanted to, so students are spreading out across the county,” he said. “That’s why this transformational system should be a partnership between the university, Metro’s partner agencies and Metro itself, because it mitigates and offsets a serious impact on the community.”

Students wait for the bus on campus at UC Santa Cruz
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Tree added that the overhaul of the transit system will be the best way to double Metro ridership to 7 million rides annually, up from around 3.5 million this year. Metro also recently purchased 57 hydrogen-powered electric buses, the largest single acquisition of fuel cell electric buses in the country. Tree said that will be a major help for increasing efficiency, as the buses’ batteries can be charged in as little as 10 minutes, allowing them to stay in service at nearly all times. He added that Metro will retain most of its current natural gas fleet in case of emergencies or any unforeseen issue with the new buses.

Santa Cruz County's current bus routes
Santa Cruz County’s current bus routes and wait times (top) and what those will look like when Phase 1 changes are implemented. Credit: Via Santa Cruz Metro

Another way Metro has tried to increase ridership is its Youth Cruz Free program, which allows K-12 students to ride the bus for free with a valid student ID. Tree said the program has been successful since it began on March 1, with Metro seeing youth ridership quadruple compared to before the launch.

He said the transit system is working to better align the bus service with school bell times to ensure that students who ride public transit can get to school on time.

Tree also acknowledged safety concerns among some young riders on public transit. Last month, Pajaro Valley High School student Izabella León, 16, a former Lookout intern, wrote that she was sexually harassed during her commute via Metro between Watsonville and Santa Cruz and was frustrated by the lack of safety measures for young women.

Tree said staff will soon post new signage on buses and at transit stops with a phone number and QR code that goes directly to a website where riders can report a safety incident. Metro is also looking to increase the number of security officers who patrol its transit centers.

“Safety is something you do for everyone, but having a particular sensitivity for youth is really important for us,” Tree said. “We’re talking about it actively with drivers, that if they are ever approached by someone with any fear or reason to believe someone is harassing them, they’re to call dispatch immediately who can engage a supervisor and the police department.”

Metro will launch a monthlong comment period to get public input on its planned route changes following an Oct. 27 board meeting. If the board approves the changes, the new service could launch as a pilot project as early as next April.

Tree said that the pilot would run for at least a year. “It could be two or three years, and those are things we’re working with the board on,” he said. “They’ll start discussing in their finance committee meeting and really take a look at what the detail is from a financial perspective.”

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Max Chun is the general-assignment correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Max’s position has pulled him in many different directions, seeing him cover development, COVID, the opioid crisis, labor, courts...