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The Red Buses That Could — and Did

By Dave Jones on March 6, 2018 in University News

Quick Summary

  • The University Transit System, as it was originally called, turns 50
  • Tom Matoff, first operations manager, hoped the bus system would last through spring quarter 1968
  • General manager Jeff Flynn thanks “amazing, dedicated student employees”

Unitrans celebrated its 50th birthday last Friday (March 2) without any of the system’s iconic double-deckers or any other bus in sight, after rainy weather forced a moved inside.

But that didn’t dampen the spirits of the 150 or so people who had gathered in the alternate location, the Memorial Union’s east wing lounge. Outside, Unitrans buses kept right on working — just as they have since the Associated Students of UC Davis launched the “University Transport System” on Feb. 28, 1968.

Chancellor Gary S. May made reference to the MU Terminal where the celebration was supposed to have been held. “I pass by nearly every time I walk to work,” he said. “There’s always motors running and students ready to grab a seat on a red bus.

Chancellor Gary S. May at podium
Chancellor May addresses Unitrans birthday party.

“It’s clear that our students and Davis residents depend on Unitrans more than ever,” the chancellor added, noting that the bus service provides daily rides for almost one-third of the university’s undergraduates who live off campus. He lauded “the enduring partnership between Unitrans and the city,” saying it “exemplifies the strength of our ‘town-and-gown’ relationship.”

The gathering included student employees and alumni — drivers, mechanics and others — and former general managers from Unitrans’ five decades of service, people like Tom Matoff ’70, the bus system’s first operations manager, who at the time was an undergraduate and a teacher at the Experimental College.

Double-deckers on a roll

Matoff is the Unitrans manager who told anxious students, wondering when the buses would start rolling for the first time, to “stick your head out the window after 7:15 and see if there’s anything resembling a double-decker moving down the street,” according to an article in The California Aggie, Feb. 26, 1968.

He saw his work for the new bus system as a natural extension of what he was already doing with the Davis Railroad Club, which wasn’t about model trains, but about maintaining and increasing passenger train service. (Remember: The Capitol Corridor did not exist.) Today, Matoff is still working in the field, as transportation planning director with the national firm LTK Engineering Services.

Asked at Friday’s party if he thought Unitrans would last, Matoff said, “We were just trying to make it through to the end of spring quarter!”

Bob Black, the ASUCD president who steered Unitrans into existence, said he didn’t really think about whether the bus system would last, but he’s not surprised. “I thought it would be a success," he said. “We had the right formula, serving concentrated student housing populations around the campus.”

Unitrans started with two buses — used double-deckers from London —on two routes, and today has 49 buses and 18 routes serving the campus and the city, carrying more than 22,000 people on a typical day.

‘Amazing, dedicated student employees’

“This vision would not have been possible without ASUCD and the students,” said Jeff Flynn ’05, a former Unitrans student employee who became the general manager last summer.

A pile of red double-decker buses, squeezy toys
Our iconic double-deckers, in squeezable form.

“It really is the students. Unitrans has 250 amazing, dedicated student employees,” he said, while also acknowledging the alumni in attendance. “Without you guys working your butts off, covering uncovered shifts and keeping 4 million people moving, none of this would be possible. So, thank you so much for everything that you guys do, day in and day out.”

Kyle Gayman, who drove for Unitrans for four years, graduated in 2014 and subsequently returned to campus to work as a communications specialist for the Academic Senate, described Friday’s event as “a wonderful birthday party for Unitrans.”  

The range of speakers — current and past Unitrans and ASUCD affiliates, the chancellor and the mayor of Davis, and other officials — “goes to show how important Unitrans is to our campus and the Davis community,” Gayman said. “The face of our campus and city would look different without it.”

Indeed, Unitrans “has blazed its own unique trail” in higher education, Chancellor May said. “Unitrans built a foundation of transportation that’s guided UC Davis through a half-century of growth.”

Proclamations and a boy’s drawing

Representatives of state and federal legislators presented official proclamations congratulating Unitrans on its anniversary, and Davis Mayor Robb Davis presented a city proclamation as well.

Mayor Robb Davis displays framed drawing.
Mayor Robb Davis shows his grandson’s Unitrans drawing.

But he had another gift, a piece of art he commissioned from his grandson, Jaime Davis, age 8, who lives in Pennsylvania but is very familiar with Unitrans. Davis said his grandson told him: “Grandpa, I'm just telling you, when I grow up, I’m gonna go to UC Davis and I’m gonna drive a bus.”

Jaime drew a picture of a Unitrans bus (a double-decker), a Yolo Bus, an Amtrak train and a blimp, “because ... for every important event, Jaime has to have a blimp,” Davis said.

“Thank you for the influence you’ve been on my grandson. ... This kid is growing up in a way that I never had a chance to, with the idea that transit ... is the way he’s going to get around, transit is the way he’s going to organize his life. (It’s been) a huge impact on him, and I hope that he comes to UC Davis, and I hope he drives a bus.”

Follow Dateline UC Davis on Unitrans.