Driving onward and upward

Geoff Straw

Photo By Larry Dalton

Geoff Straw, general manager of the Associated Students of UC Davis’ Unitrans bus service, never thought he’d continue to foster a career in transit after working for the small, student-run company to pay his way through college in the late ’80s. But when a larger company bought out the bicycling import business he was working for after graduation, he fell back on his transit roots and stayed there. After working for several other transit agencies in the 1990s, Straw jumped at the chance to return to Unitrans a year-and-a-half ago, when his mentor and former general manager, Jim McElroy, moved on. Now Straw says of the energy in his company, “I guess I’m being selfish, but I’m not going to give it up.”

How did you first get into transit?

I grew up in San Francisco with the bus system. Since I was about 12 years old, a couple of friends and I would—this sounds really cheesy—but we’d go with brooms down to the 6 Parnassus turnaround, and we’d sweep the buses out, and the drivers would give us packets of transfers. So, when I came to Unitrans, I had a real affection for bus systems. And when I saw the double decks, I was like, “Aw, this is so cool.” So, my roommate and I both applied at the same time. We both hired on, and I guess the rest is history.

What makes Unitrans unique compared with other large transit companies?

I think that the primary difference that I’ve seen, and I’ve worked at a number of agencies, is the energy of the students. People are young. They’re on their way up. This is a stepping stone for them. And I think in a lot of transit agencies, people feel like they’re pigeonholed. Everybody here is on their way up, and I think that’s the primary difference.

We’ve got 13 career staff and 225 students. The career staff is primarily on the maintenance side. All the driving, all the supervising, all the training is done by students.

How many passengers does Unitrans carry?

Up to last year, we had double-digit increases every year. We carry up to 3.4 million [a year]. That was kind of our pinnacle. On average, we carried 48.8 passengers every hour. So, we’re carrying large urban numbers in a small city size. We’re the second highest [carrier of passengers] in the region. [Sacramento Regional Transit] is first. We carry about 22,000 riders a day. [Our] C Line carries 83 passengers per hour. I mean, that’s [like] downtown New York. …

Our numbers are caused by the geographic makeup of Davis. It’s pretty compact. The development patterns among certain corridors are real high-density, so that’s good demand for us.

How does Unitrans help the community of Davis?

Well, I think it’s a fantastic opportunity. Davis has a lot of folks coming from Southern California. They come to a town where it’s a viable alternative. We train these people that this is an alternative, so when they move out to the real world, they understand that buses are an alternative. We’re mentoring students to become better stewards of our environment and using an alternative to the single-occupant vehicle.

It really helps me because I’m a real green person. I haven’t driven a car to work since I’ve been here. I ride my bike everyday, or I ride the bus. I’m teaching my daughter that. She’s growing up in an environment where this is a viable alternative.

Unitrans is known for its antique double-deck buses. What’s the story behind them?

In 1968, they started with two double decks. They had them shipped from London to Houston. They drove from Houston to Davis. The newest double deck is a 1954, so it’s over 50 years old. Obviously, they require more maintenance than any other vehicle, and we can’t buy parts off the shelf anymore. For the most part, those vehicles have been updated with more modern equipment, or we built the stuff on site. We have the only compressed-natural-gas double deck in the world. [It was] done by our career staff and student staff over a year period. It does cost more per mile to operate them, but they’re an icon of our system.

What other strides has Unitrans made to become environmentally friendly?

Unitrans took a really aggressive stance in trying to clean the air up. We built one of the first compressed-natural-gas filling stations in the area. We’re also experimenting with hydrogen, too. We do a lot of things with the capture of oil, with the types of antifreeze we use. We do things down to the nth degree where we bought this machine that cuts the oil filter open so we can get all the oil out of it before we try to recycle it. We recycle all of our fluids.

What’s it like working with students?

I love it. These college kids, their minds are on fire. So, they come up with a whole mess of ideas. Brainstorming here is constant. It keeps me younger—or makes me older. I don’t know.