Marchers on Friday.
Attendees walk toward Lighthouse Point on Friday as part of the local version of the national Transit Equity Day march.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘The time is now’: Santa Cruzans call for transit equity, accessibility

On Friday, Equity Transit held a march and rally with nearly 100 attendees calling for increased and accessible transit options throughout Santa Cruz County. “Transit inequities affect lots of people in different camps, and we’re all affected by it,” organizer Michael Wool said. “It’s a very multifaceted problem, we have to come at it from many different angles.”

Michael Wool has had to contend with many bus rides across the 12.7 square miles of the city of Santa Cruz.

Having grown up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the third-year UCSC student was already familiar with the public transportation options when he moved to campus — but says that both availability and accessibility have diminished over time.

“There’s literally no direct route from the Westside to the East Side … that makes what would be a 15-to-20-minute journey about 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the time,” he said, noting an added issue of limited buses for residents with early work times.

Close up of protest sign
One of the many signs at Friday’s event, calling for more funding toward public transit — and thus more equitable and accessible public transit — throughout Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

On Friday afternoon, the Equity Transit alliance held a march and rally as part of national Transit Equity Day — the first time the four-year-old event has been held in the county.

Held on the birthday of civil rights leader Rosa Parks, the event began where the rail trail crosses Swift Street on Santa Cruz’s Westside, with 60 to 70 attendees following the path to Bay Street then continuing to Lighthouse Point, where speakers and musicians spoke and performed. Approximately 100 attendees were in attendance for the afternoon’s events.

Issues raised included:

  • Increasing bus service — both in number of buses and in more frequent buses — countywide.
  • Providing better service to and around South County.

Danielle Glagola, public relations representative for Santa Cruz METRO, did not respond to a request for comment regarding the march or the concerns.

Another rallying cry was to build the long-planned commuter rail between Santa Cruz and Watsonville as part of the “rail-trail” project. But critics have deemed the idea financially unfeasible, and a voter initiative that, if passed, would move use of the approximately 30-mile Santa Cruz Branch Line away from rail use and toward a trail alone is likely headed for the June ballot.

Alliance director Lani Faulkner, who spoke to Lookout with Wool in advance of the event, said she’s been dealing with issues surrounding Santa Cruz transit since the 1990s, and that concerns have been around much longer than that. Now, however, there’s the added factor of environmental impact — something Faulkner says gives the movement further momentum.

Lani Faulkner, director of the Equity Transit Alliance
Lani Faulkner, director of the Equity Transit alliance, said Friday’s event showcased a very real correlation between climate action and public transit, and the need for a collective effort: “The only way we’re going to make a change is if we all coordinate together.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We now understand that we have to implement public transportation systems if we’re going to save our environment,” she said. “It’s being communicated at the global level, at the federal level, and at the state level, that we’re all having these conversations … the time is now.”

Zennon Ulyate-Crow, a first-year UCSC student, told the crowd Friday that the implications of automobile emissions on the climate have never been clearer.

“The single greatest thing we can do for our planet is to switch to greener transportation modes,” he said. “By our inaction, we are again enabling the most significant issue that detriments our future generations’ access to opportunity. Without a functioning climate, we have no future.”

Although there were concerns surrounding Santa Cruz’s public transit prior to the pandemic, the past two years have ramped up the problems. Wool said riders have to contend with long wait times for buses, planning out activities around bus schedules, and generally figuring out what to do if multiple buses blow past, completely filled with passengers during commute hours.

“Transit inequities affect lots of people in different camps, and we’re all affected by it,” he said. “We’re not advocating for one single tool to fix this crisis — because it’s a very multifaceted problem, we have to come at it from many different angles.”

City Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson — who serves on the METRO board and as an alternate for the Regional Transportation Commission — believes public transit is so much more than getting someone from Point A to Point B, and actually enlivens the community when it’s accessible, reliable and equitable.

“It’s really about contributing to community well-being — we need to take a step back and look at transit from that bigger lens, and see how it overlaps with other issues,” she said.

City Councilmember Justin Cummings — who also works as an environmental scientist at UCSC — told the crowd Friday that he’s committed to making sure the community is able to use both rail and trail, calling public transit the “next best option” for community members.

“We must do something to right the wrongs of the past to create opportunities for the future,” he said. “Public transportation is not the final solution to all of our problems, but it is a means to provide safe, reliable, low-cost and low-carbon-emitting transportation for people of all ages, income levels and abilities.”

METRO bus operator James Sandoval — who relied on the bus daily as a Cabrillo College student in years past — said he deeply understands the concerns.

“We don’t have the service needed to break that barrier to get more people on the bus because they want to and not because they have to,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go to get that to happen … we should incentivize and encourage people to take our transit, that’s where we need to go, with consistent and reliable service.”

Sandoval — who is also the general chairperson for transit union SMART Local 0023 — believes the county needs to further focus on providing more public transit options for South County, with its higher population of transit-dependent residents.

“We do have the ability to discuss changes and provide for the needs of the public — if your drivers can advocate for that, we will,” he said. “But it’s hard to adjust for needs that we don’t know where they need to be.”

Attendees at Friday's march
Attendees from all walks of life and all parts of the county gathered for Friday’s march. “Public transportation has been a lot worse, especially in Santa Cruz,” local activist Thairie Ritchie said. “Just last year as an essential worker, it was really troubling seeing a lot of routes being affected.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

And Faulkner said that public transit is so much bigger than readjusting bus routes or increasing service.

“Transit equity allows everyone to have access to jobs, to work, to school, to opportunity, and opportunity is freedom,” she said. “The only way we’re going to make a change is if we all coordinate together and start rallying to take public transit as much as we can, as frequently as we can.”