Quick Take:

Sebastián Valdez, a third-year psychology major, loves UC Santa Cruz, but is frustrated by the high student fees for transportation ($171 per quarter) and the poor bus service students receive. He describes long waits, regular breakdowns and dissatisfied drivers. The 16 campus buses, he learned, are more than 30 years old and are breaking down at a consistently alarming rate. He thinks they are unsafe for drivers, inconvenient and unreliable for students and need replacing. The university’s Transportation and Parking Services, he argues, knows about the issues, has money and is not doing enough to fix the problems.

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I just recently started my third year at UC Santa Cruz and am excited to be back to academic life among the redwood trees. But, as beautiful as life at UCSC is, it can also become frustrating when you don’t have good transportation.

I don’t have a car, and we all know that when you have classes far away and it’s raining, a loop bus is your only salvation.

Unfortunately, the loop buses on campus are not only unreliable and overcrowded, but in my opinion, seriously unsafe.

This hasn’t always been the case. The loop buses used to be much more reliable. During my first year and the beginning of the last one, the worn-down white buses would show up at bus stops more consistently than they do now.

A student boards a TAPS bus on the loop route at UC Santa Cruz
Student board a TAPS bus on the loop route at UC Santa Cruz. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Last year, UC Santa Cruz’s TAPS (Transportation and Parking Services) abruptly cut loop bus hours for students because of mechanical issues and the resignation of several drivers. I have yet to see an updated, accurate schedule, which makes planning for a bus impossible. We have more students on campus than we used to (400 more first-years than in 2022-23), but fewer buses to transport them.

First- and second-year students are not eligible for parking permits, which cost $500 per academic year. That hefty price also means many older students — even if they are lucky enough to own a car — also can’t afford to park.

So, like me, they are forced to use the buses. Here’s what really bothers me: At UCSC, we pay among the highest student transportation fee in the country ($171 per quarter right now) and our service is terrible.

The official schedule claims that loop buses cycle every 15 minutes from about 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. from Mondays to Wednesdays, with reduced service on Fridays and weekends.

But it’s not been accurate since last winter quarter’s service cuts.

Personally, I have waited more than 30 minutes at bus stops. That has given me plenty of time to wonder just why such an elite, public institution — one that prides itself on serving first-generation and Hispanic students — can’t provide proper transportation to the students who pay to attend.

So I started talking to the bus drivers. I wanted to know why they took so long to come.

What I learned about the state of our buses and the way that workers are being treated by the university simply shocked me. Having first come to live in the United States from Mexico during seventh grade, I used to assume that a prestigious (and expensive) institution like the University of California would have been at the forefront for proper labor conditions.

  • Seat covers patched together with tape on a TAPS bus at UC Santa Cruz
  • A UC Santa Cruz TAPS bus with a "Not In Service" sign in the front window

The 16 current 35-foot buses, I learned, were manufactured in 1993 and first used by San Mateo County Transit for 16 years before TAPS purchased them, making them more than 30 years old.

The Federal Transit Administration considers that 12-14 years is the minimum service lifetime for heavy-duty transit buses of this type. It admits that most transit agencies discontinue their buses at around 15 years, which would mean that UCSC has trailed behind industry standards by around 15 years.

Since then, loop bus drivers regularly have to navigate around the problems that come with such antiquated equipment.

According to drivers, this translates to regular breakdowns due to mechanical failures in the buses’ cooling systems, transmissions, air brake systems and several other parts.

As a result, TAPS has to search for replacement parts on eBay and Craigslist because the parts are so old, they are no longer manufactured. This takes time.

Drivers also talked to me about workplace lower-back and spinal injuries and pain coming from the actual drivers’ seats. Because of this, many have come up with do-it-yourself solutions, such as shoving pieces of cardboard under the seat to slightly mitigate the stress they cause. These drivers earn less than Santa Cruz Metro bus drivers, but also can work part-time shifts.

In addition to physically hurting workers and reducing their available driving hours, these older, breakdown-prone buses also affect students who find themselves struggling for transportation whenever a mechanical failure happens.

The AFSCME 3299 labor union (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), which represents over 30,000 University of California employees, points out that UC Santa Cruz’s TAPS is currently operating with a budget reserve of close to $13 million.

With so much money available, why aren’t they buying new buses? (A new bus — hydrogen or electric — would cost around $1.2 million.) Should students wait such a long time for a mechanically unreliable bus? Should drivers’ livelihoods depend on parts from eBay and Craigslist?

In June, the AFSCME 3299 asked TAPS to increase bus service hours and highlighted the antiquated state of the buses. Unfortunately, the university dismissed the requests.

These conditions should concern students. We should know better than to allow workers to suffer such conditions. They are the backbone of our UCSC experience.

  • A TAPS bus navigating the loop route at UC Santa Cruz
  • A TAPS bus parked at UC Santa Cruz

UCSC students fund TAPS through a Santa Cruz Metro and TAPS student fee that has been periodically increasing for years. The only other two sources of funding are $3 of every parking ticket issued on campus and via external grants.

So, student fees almost fully fund TAPS, and yet our experience with the loop buses is generally negative. Worrying about catching a bus, waiting for a bus and missing a bus takes up way too much of my undergraduate experience.

For an institution that claims to be “leading at the intersection of innovation and social justice” on its website, this fleet of buses doesn’t scream “innovative” or “just.” I’m pretty sure I would be much more successful if I spent more time in class and the library than standing at bus stops, or cramped in a bus that could potentially break down at any given moment.

I think TAPS should set up sufficient service hours with safe equipment for both bus drivers and students. AFSCME 3299 has been trying to get better working conditions and job security for drivers, without a sufficient response from the university thus far.

I found out about these issues simply by asking. I think if more students understood the problem, they would act. We need more solidarity from students on this issue.

UC Santa Cruz third-year student Sebastián Valdez.
UC Santa Cruz third-year student Sebastián Valdez. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The people who help make our campus experience a good one, like our bus drivers, are unfortunately not often acknowledged or humanized. The campus needs to recognize their importance, their need for a reliable livelihood and safe working conditions. Our tuition dollars pay their salaries. We should have some influence on how our funds are distributed.

This university may be a transient home for many, but by committing our lives and wallets to UCSC, we all share a stake in fighting to improve our own living, studying, working and bus-riding conditions and the conditions of the workers who make our college experience possible.

Sebastián Valdez is a third-year student and AFSCME 3299 intern at UC Santa Cruz. A proud native of Tijuana, México, his previous piece for Lookout ran in May.