The costs and quirks of the Santa Cruz Metro

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Santa Cruz Metro buses pick up passengers at the downtown station. Photo Courtesy of Richard Masoner/Flickr

On a misty Wednesday afternoon, I mapped out a foot-and-bus transit route to Cabrillo College in Aptos, seeking to understand the community college perspective on transportation in Santa Cruz County. I soon found myself frozen mid-crosswalk as a van ran the red light and nearly hit me, the first of many insights into the safety, strangers and surprise in a day of using alternate transportation.

After a 17 minute walk from my home to the bus stop, my heart was still pounding from my frightening intersection encounter. I waited for the 91X “Commuter Express” bus to take me to Cabrillo at 1:52 p.m., joined only by a man who stood at a distance, eating a cup of Thrifty’s ice cream.

When a 91x bus picked passengers up on the other side of the road, I felt my stomach knot up. “This bus goes to Cabrillo, right? I’m on the right side of the street?” I asked the man with the ice cream, and he reassured me that I was in the correct spot.

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The 91X  bus stop at Water/Poplar Street. Photo Courtesy of Maureen Wolff 

Boarding the bus, I shoved my two dollar bills into the slot and took a seat at the front. Riders of all ages stared silently ahead, from a solitary tween boy to an elderly couple in the back.

The ride was a straight shot on the highway—a convenient, efficient route to the Cabrillo campus. However, the lack of interaction inside the bus made it no different than driving a car alone. Thus, I decided to take the 71 bus home, a longer ride that returned to the same street where I had boarded the 91X.

As I waited at the stop across from Cabrillo, I met a student named RJ, who takes the bus home regularly. RJ lamented her prolonged commute, dreading her walk home in the cold after getting off the bus. Her bus is often late, preventing her from starting homework as early as she wants to.

“It literally takes me 15 minutes to drive home, but when I take the bus, it takes me an hour,” RJ told me.

I said goodbye to RJ and boarded the 71, which picks up passengers on its way through Aptos, Soquel and Santa Cruz. Unlike the 91X, the slower-paced 71 featured several exchanges of conversation and kindness. A man helped lift a woman’s bike onto the front of the bus, and the bus driver allowed a woman to board even though her pass wouldn’t swipe.

While the Metro offers interesting interactions with fellow riders, it can also provide a less expensive alternative to driving a car. A 2015 AAA study estimates the cost of owning and operating an average sedan at 58 cents per mile. Based on this number, a Cabrillo student driving from Santa Cruz to the Cabrillo campus could expect to pay over $300 per semester to cover gas, maintenance and insurance, plus $40 for a campus parking permit.

In contrast, a student could opt to renew a 31-day bus pass throughout the semester at a discounted price of $52, leaving semester transportation costs at $208.

However, getting around town via bus may not be as easy for college students come fall.

“METRO IS CONSIDERING MAKING MAJOR CUTS TO ITS BUS SERVICES IN SEPTEMBER 2016,” a sign on the 91X read. The words “MAJOR CUTS”—printed in bright red ink—refer to the $6.5 million dollars being cut from the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District operating expenses for the 2017 fiscal year.

The “Metro Forward” plan will downsize the bus network while promising to strengthen partnerships with colleges in the area. Metro’s Board of Directors will finalize plans this summer.

By the end of my journey, I was thankful for the opportunity to share in other bus riders’ life rhythms, but wondered how these rhythms would be affected by budget cuts.

When a man entered the bus struggling to find his money, the man across from me handed him a dollar bill and smiled wryly at me. He told me he had a meeting downtown in 12 minutes, and couldn’t afford to lose any time—he’d be locked out if he was late. He’d been offered a well-paid position that would require him and his girlfriend to move to Central California after living in Aptos his whole life.

I was surprised by how much information he would offer to a complete stranger, but just as I became invested in his story, the bus arrived at my stop. Stepping onto the street, I wished him luck as he advised, “Count your blessings!”

Not wanting to be caught out alone after dark, I speed-walked the rest of the way home in the fading daylight.

 

 

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