To Cambus drivers, every second counts. When they delay leaving a stop to answer questions from riders or let stragglers catch up, there’s a ripple effect that leaves riders waiting at stops all down the line. And the late start can deprive the drivers from taking a breather at the Cambus office, where, if they’re on time, they can take a three-minute break every half hour to go to the bathroom, drink a pop, talk to the dispatcher, and even grab a bite to eat.
“If the driver’s not happy, nobody’s happy,” says Tracy Lewis, graduate student in the College of Public Health and dispatcher with Cambus for three years. “Cambus is like one big family, and I try my best to keep drivers on schedule so they’re not stressed. But drivers also are devoted to safe driving and courtesy, so delays are sometimes unavoidable.”
That combination of camaraderie among employees and devotion to customers has made the University’s free, on-campus transit service tick for more than 33 years, according to Brian McClatchey, Cambus manager. The people creating that powerful combination, he says, have been students, whose involvement as drivers, dispatchers, maintenance workers, trainers, and supervisors has been key to the endurance of Cambus as one of the largest and longest-running campus transit systems in history.
“Students have made Cambus what it is,” says McClatchey, who supervises 160 students but only four full-time UI workers—a maintenance supervisor and a crew of three maintenance technicians. “When people hear that we have all these students running everything, the common reaction is, ‘Oh, that must be chaos!’ Nothing could be further from the truth. We owe everything to the hard work and creativity of students on this campus.”
A group of students created the framework for Cambus in 1972. It was an experiment modeled on a system in place at Kent State and fueled by complaints from west-side residence hall students about the need to get to the Pentacrest area more quickly. Administrators listened, especially then-President Willard “Sandy” Boyd, who helped the students procure several old school buses and set up a trailer in the Hancher parking lot to house the bus organization’s offices.
“We were playing it pretty loose back then,” says David Ricketts, director of parking and transportation services—who knows whereof he speaks, since he was one of the first students to drive a Cambus. “It was like a sandlot baseball game. There wasn’t much adult supervision but there was tremendous passion. It’s safe to say now we’re securely in the major leagues of transit. We’ve become professional and efficient.”
A few years ago, Cambus had the highest number of riders in Iowa, surpassing Des Moines’ transit system with 3.9 million riders. More recently, that number has slipped a little to around 3.5 million riders on the Iowa campus, but regardless of its size, Cambus has had a resounding impact on many people and organizations on campus, according to Phil Haddy, sports information director. He says Cambus keeps Hawkeye fans coming back.
“We’re one of those schools with a shortage of parking space, so the ability to transport large numbers of fans from around campus is invaluable,” Haddy says. “The benefit the Cambuses provide on game days is incredible.”
At 40 feet long and 16 tons, the yellow-and-black Cambuses are impossible to miss on campus, especially to the students, staff, and faculty members who have been depending on them for transportation since Jan. 24, 1972, the day the unnamed campus bus system began its service to the University community. The name Cambus was bestowed in fall 1972, after a student—whose own name is now long forgotten—won a pizza in a bus-naming contest.
Back in 1972, if you wanted to get around campus on a Cambus, you had three choices: the Red Route, the Blue Route, or the Interdorm Route. Nowadays, of course, you have more options; there are ten routes, in addition to curbside service offered with the bionic buses. McClatchey and Ricketts say a growing campus will warrant continued expansion.
Cassie Ruby, a senior music major and veteran of three years with Cambus, says Cambus is a model for other campuses.
“There are many student-run transit organizations, but I’d like to think we set the example,” says Ruby, a driving trainer who notes schools such as the University of New Mexico and Indiana University have called for advice on how to set up a student-run bus system. “It all depends on well-trained drivers. I was intimidated at first about the size of the bus. You have to learn to trust those side- and rear-view mirrors. And I tell people, ‘look at me—if I can do it, you can.’ We’re all in this together.”
The friendly atmosphere at Cambus assists in what Cambus manager McClatchey says is his most effective method of recruiting drivers: word of mouth. He also advises students that Cambus experience can boost careers after graduation, because Cambus allows students to gain supervisory experience to add to their résumés. After six months, drivers can apply for positions in dispatch, training, or maintenance; after another six months, they can apply for one of six supervisory positions.
Something about the complexity of running Cambus’s 32-vehicle fleet got under the skin of recent religious studies graduate Daniel Andrlik, who has accepted an offer from Madison (Wis.) Metro to start as a transit operations supervisor.
“I enjoy the management challenges of running a large transit organization,” says Andrlik, who worked as a training supervisor for Cambus. “And mass transit is important to the community. If just one in ten Americans took the bus, we could reduce our dependency on oil.”
Andrlik will miss the camaraderie he enjoyed as a bus driver on the Iowa campus. You can see it, he says, when drivers wave at each other as they pass on the street. His old boss, McClatchey, even thinks that because of the large number of students working for Cambus, the organization is something of the student organizational equivalent of a singles bar.
“I can’t tell you how many marriages have resulted from Cambus,” McClatchey says.
by Gary Kuhlmann