Editor’s note: This story discusses themes including sexual violence.
The sun had already disappeared behind Madonna Mountain, and Van Nguyen, a software engineering sophomore, waited in the dark across Kennedy Library eager to get home after a long day of school. In her first year living on campus, Nguyen said she isn’t entirely comfortable walking around alone — especially after the recent reports of rape on campus.
“I live in Gypsum in PCV, which is at the back corner, and there aren’t a lot of people walking around there,” Nguyen said. “So, I feel kind of unsafe walking home every night.”
Now, instead of a 15-minute walk in the dark, Nguyen waits for a ride on the new Mustang Shuttle service, which launched Nov. 1 and is operated by Campus Transportation and Parking Services (TAPS) and SLO Safe Ride.
“It wasn’t a direct response to the reports, because we’d already been talking about it,” Cal Poly Police Chief George Hughes, who is also assistant vice president of the campus’ Public Safety Unit, said. “But of course, we were listening to the students’ concerns and that did help us certainly prioritize some timing on the service and get it off the planning books and into action.”
Mustang News reporter Blas Alvarado sat down with Hughes to discuss more details about the shuttle service.
Q: Seeing the Mustang Shuttle service appear so suddenly made me think that it was a direct response to the reports, but if that’s not the case, when exactly did the idea for shuttles begin?
It’s been something we’ve been talking about for months. As you know, we first started the Mustang Patrol service and we believe that both are complementary to each other. Initially, we were hoping that Mustang Patrol would be able to take care of all of our nighttime needs, but that doesn’t mean we hadn’t considered having a shuttle service on top of that.
Q: But The Mustang Shuttle service only runs from 7-11:40 p.m., which leaves the campus without shuttle service for most of the night.
In order to fit the budget, we knew we wanted to start with a five-hour time frame. We were trying to not start too early or too late so that we could provide people who are getting out of their evening classes or labs a way around campus.
Also speaking with the shuttle service themselves, we wanted to make sure people are not waiting more than 10 or 12 minutes for a shuttle because then they might not use it and walk instead.
And as you can imagine, there’s a lot of hoops that we need to jump through since we have to worry about finances on this very expensive program.
Q: How much does this service cost TAPS?
On average it is around $200 an hour to operate. And that is going to cost us $33,000, just to finish out this quarter. Plus, another $180,000 or more to finish out the academic year making it over $200,000, just for this academic year.
Q: That seems like a lot of money.
It really is. It comes out of the same budget as the bus subsidy we pay for all students, faculty and staff to be able to ride the city transit system for free. We pay about $600,000 or so a year for that bus subsidy, and with another $200,000 from the shuttle program, we’re getting close to spending a million dollars to provide shuttle services to our students on and off campus.
Q: Wasn’t there a shuttle service in past years where students were able to ride for free around campus?
You know, I wouldn’t call that a similar service to this one. What we are doing now is something that is completely different since we’ve never had an outside vendor provide this type of service on campus before, except during large special events. The previous one was limited. It was limited in hours. It was limited in the scope. It was limited in the routes.
Q: What else was different?
Well the shuttles were mainly operated by student employees, and sometimes with student employees, you know, things will come up, where they might not be able to make a shift unexpectedly because of class or they might be feeling sick. So then all of a sudden, we have a lack of service, when people are relying on the shuttles at a certain time.
Now with a transportation company like SLO Safe Ride, who has backups to their backups, if someone calls in sick, they call in the next person, making it so much more reliable.
Q: What about safety on board? How are the drivers vetted in order to work on campus?
TAPS has a good relationship with SLO Safe Ride and we’ve used them in the past for many other events, so they have already been on campus. But I am unsure on how the drivers are vetted, but I can tell you that they have to go through a background process to be able to get their driver’s license for this program. The license it’s a lot different than your or my driver’s license because SLO Safe Ride gives rides to juveniles which takes a whole different certification process.
Q: With the sun setting earlier, will more students want to use the shuttle service later at night on the weekends? Could the hours or route change as the year goes by?
Well, that’s why the Mustang Shuttle service is a pilot program that we will look at and check that hours and routes are meeting the needs of the community. And if we need to make some adjustments, we’ll certainly look at it and find out where we can make the adjustments.
I’ve already talked to student government leadership about helping with getting feedback, and approaching the campus to know what we want to do with this program.
Q: Will the Mustang Shuttle service be available to students next year?
We are still working things out quarter by quarter and figuring out how we might continue it. What would it look like? Where does the financing come from? You know, possibly next year we could have a partnership with say ASI to help us design the program, and then also possibly assist with some funding.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.