On Oct. 10, the University of Saskatchewan began offering a temporary bus service to help students, staff and faculty get to and from campus.
The U of S has contracted Hertz Northern Bus to provide routes to 13 locations across the city and hopes to make commuting to campus easier for those who relied on Saskatoon Transit before the lockout of its workers on Sept. 20.
“It really has all come together in a matter of about four days,” said Jeff Dumba, the university’s associate vice-president of financial services.
The service is intended for those who have no other way of getting to campus. In order to use the buses, riders are asked to show their U of S ID card.
The U of S is spending $10,000 per day to provide the buses. The service, however, is completely free to students and staff.
“This money will be coming out of the operational reserve fund, so it should not have any impact on student fees,” Dumba said.
Buses to campus depart at 7 a.m., 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Monday to Friday. An additional shuttle to campus is available at 5:45 p.m. Monday to Thursday. Buses leaving campus are scheduled for departure at 12 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. every weekday, with an additional departure time of 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday.
On Nov. 10, 12, 13 and 14, the buses will be of limited service due to the first-term reading week, with one bus heading to campus at 7 a.m. and another leaving campus at 5:15 p.m.
Students and employees who have a vehicle can park at Prairieland Park for free and take a shuttle bus to campus, which will pick up and drop off continuously between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Student volunteers and university staff were stationed at each drop-off point on Oct. 10, 14 and 15 to answer questions and request extra buses if needed. The buses have a limit of 47 passengers each.
The U of S will continue to provide buses to students until public transit services resume in Saskatoon, Dumba said.
The entire transit system was conceived, designed and implemented in under one week.
“It started [Oct. 1] when I was at lunch with a couple of members of our staff, one of whom is the manager of the International Students Centre,” Dumba said. “He was telling me that the international students were starting to come in on a more regular basis saying that if they couldn’t get transportation that they were going to have to consider dropping some classes.
“As I was coming back from that lunch I ran into Caroline Cottrell from the USSU and she also expressed [the USSU’s] concern about students maybe withdrawing from classes. They were looking at solutions but the cost was outside of their price range.”
Dumba pitched the idea for a temporary bus system to senior administrators and received overwhelming support.
“Everybody thought that it was time to provide some form of solution,” Dumba said.
Hertz Northern Bus had approached USSU general manager Caroline Cottrell prior to the development of the transit service.
“The initial impetus came to me from Greg Hertz,” said Cottrell. “He came to us and asked if there was anything he could do to help with this situation.”
Cottrell and her staff met with Hertz and discussed the feasibility of a USSU-run bus system.
“It became very rapidly clear that we couldn’t do anything with it because of the charter license of Hertz buses,” Cottrell said. “They can’t take money. They are only a charter company. And we, the USSU, certainly did not have the pockets to pay for it.”
The USSU then requested funding from unused student award money, which got the attention of vice-provost teaching and learning Patti McDougall.
“We had some people looking at that, but unfortunately any student award money that’s unspent is unspent because it’s got very strict terms of reference about how it gets spent,” said McDougall. “We weren’t able to do it that way. But exactly one week ago I went to see Jeff and the vice-president finance and resources Greg Fowler and discussed how we would do this and where the money would come from.
It was decided that funding would come from the university’s operating reserve. As of Apr. 30, 2013, the operating reserve level was $10.4 million.
“There was some initial thought that we would use the U-Pass money that we’re withholding but we made a decision that that simply wasn’t going to happen because we have no mechanism for determining which students would be riding the bus and which students should still get a refund,” said Cottrell. “So we’re still going to refund all of that money to all of the students.”
The decision to lease buses from Hertz was mainly due to the fact that Hertz had recently purchased a new fleet of buses and were the only company capable of supplying the number of vehicles the university required.
“We’ve got a great partnership with Hertz buses,” Dumba said. “They’ve been very accommodating to us in making sure we have buses and drivers lined up.”
After a deal with Hertz had been reached, Dumba approached the USSU and Graduate Students’ Association looking for student volunteers.
“About half the volunteers on the ground are coming from the USSU and GSA,” Dumba said. “We’ve got volunteers that are actually at the locations to communicate between the stops and a command center that we’ve set up just so that we are aware of what volumes are out there and to see if we need additional busing, and also to communicate with the people who are waiting for buses as to how long it will be until they arrive.”
The command center — colloquially called the “war room” — is being run out of the USSU Roy Romanow student council chamber. Inside the command center are six phone lines which allow volunteers to relay information to McDougall and her team.
“The USSU took four stops and the GSA took two stops and said, ‘We’ll look after these.’ The other stops are being run by staff members,” said McDougall.
USSU councillors Jordan Robertson and Monica Iron are among the students who volunteered to help run the bus service.
“The buses have a 47-passenger limit, so if there’s more than 47 people we have to call for another bus,” said Iron.
Cottrell said the reason for choosing the Friday before a long weekend to begin providing the service was to “get a chance to feel it out and work some of the bugs out before there is a mountain of students needing to be on the buses.”
McDougall says the “pilot day” on Friday went exactly as planned.
“It’s going extraordinarily well, actually,” said McDougall on that Friday. “Today was an opportunity to figure out how this is going to work and if we can do this. This morning with the first buses going at 7 a.m., it was great just to know that all the volunteers were where they were supposed to be. They were all calling in at quarter-to, as we requested, letting us know that ‘I’m here, the bus is here, I’ve got this many people waiting, all is well.’ So in a sense today is about figuring out whether or not our process is going to work. We’ve got this command central set up, we’ve got people here answering phones and we can manage the communication.”
Ridership was noticeably low on Friday, with only a few students per bus showing up.
“I’m considering this extremely successful,” McDougall said. “By no means is it our peak ridership, we all know that. In a sense it’s almost better because we can try things out.”
Dumba is optimistic that the number of students using the service will increase as the week progresses.
“Students are becoming more aware and I think demand is going to continue to rise every single day,” said Dumba.
Dumba and McDougall were at the command center as early as 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 10 to coordinate volunteers and staff.
“It’s actually remarkable how people are coming together around campus,” said McDougall. “Jeff is the logistics powerhouse. Significant credit should be going to Jeff and the people in his office for putting all the pieces in place.”
Of course, coordinating an entire transit system over a few days has its challenges.
“We were initially trying to get launched on Thursday,” said Dumba. “Unfortunately some of the locations that we chose were proving to be problematic around the city particularly because some of the malls were concerned about us clogging up their parking lots so we had to adjust some of our pick-up and drop-off sites so we wouldn’t do that.”
Both Cottrell and Dumba said that selecting the locations for pick-up and drop-off zones was the most difficult part of the process.
“We had to look at our student populations and see where they were residing and try to make sure that the locations were central to them,” said Dumba.
Generally, students and staff who used the new transit system responded positively.
“I can go to my Tuesday [and] Thursday classes now,” said Kayly King in a Facebook post. “I’m excited.”
Laura Zhang, a U of S student who used the service on Oct. 10 noted that the 7 a.m. bus is very early. She has a class at 8:30 a.m. and believes that an 8 a.m. bus would be more appropriate. Since the lockout, Zhang has been getting rides or calling a cab in order to get to campus.
“The times are not perfect,” Cottrell said. “They are what Hertz buses can supply given their obligations to get school children to school. I think a good effort has been made to get times that will get people to campus.”
While the U of S hasn’t seen a sharp decline in attendance since the transit lockout, USSU president Max FineDay said he’s heard about students dropping classes because they are not able to get to campus.
“This isn’t a perfect plan,” said FineDay. “It’s not supposed to be in lieu of buses. This is making the best of a bad situation.”
FineDay says his priority is still to get city buses back on the road.
“We’ve continued to put pressure on city council to end this lockout.”
The City of Saskatoon and the transit union are making little headway, however. Both sides have said they are far from reaching an agreement and that the lockout will continue.
On Oct. 10, the city offered a plan to the transit union to end the lockout under three conditions: The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 615 must agree to work without striking until a new collective agreement is reached, the union must accept the changes to its pension plan approved by city council and the union would have to withdraw its application to the labour relations board that challenges the legality of the lockout.
The union countered the city’s offer with a proposal for a 19 per cent wage increase. As of press time, the city refuses to budge on its offer of 10 per cent.
Vince Ready, a prominent mediator who recently helped end the B.C. teachers’ strike, flew in from Vancouver to help with the negotiations but was unable to make any progress.
“People are going to get tired if it goes on a long time if they have to manage their own work as well as a transit system,” said Cottrell.
Still, Cottrell commends the efforts of the students and staff who worked to organize the new bus system.
“It’s been wonderful to watch constituents from across campus working together to make this happen,” said Cottrell. “The level of collegiality and cooperation has been really spectacular.”
Dumba also acknowledged the efforts of students and staff.
“We really appreciate everybody’s support and help and the reaction of the people who have taken the bus so far has been positive.”