Unitrans: A Legacy of the Turbulent ’60s

Crowd shot, looking through speaker at podium
Recalling the era of Unitrans' founding, former ASUCD President Bob Black says "there was a team of dozens, scores, hundreds of students who came forward for no money, for no compensation, just to give their time and make things happen." (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Quick Summary

  • Former ASUCD President Bob Black says bus proposal was a small part of his campaign in 1966
  • "I was running as an antiwar candidate. I was not running as a Unitrans candidate"
  • Says the University Transport System grew out of students' desire "to show we could run things"

Transit wasn’t the only theme of Unitrans’ 50th anniversary celebration last week.

Among the speakers was Bob Black, who, during his successful campaign for ASUCD president in 1966, promised to establish a university bus system. But, in addressing more than 150 people at the Unitrans party in the Memorial Union on Friday (March 2), he noted that his proposal amounted to only a few sentences in his campaign brochure. “I was running as an antiwar candidate,” he said. “I was not running as a Unitrans candidate. ... And I was not expected to win.”

Bob Black mugshot

But he did win, and he and other students fulfilled that campaign promise — launching the University Transport System, as it was first called, under the auspices of the Associated Students of UC Davis. The story is well known: The ASUCD acquired two used double-deckers from London and put them into service on Feb. 28, 1968.

Black put that date in context: “As you know, the Vietnam War had been ongoing for years at that point. ... Students were dying in droves. They were being drafted. Not students, but 18- to 21-year-olds who could not vote, who had no say in how their society was being operated, except in the streets. They were, like I said, dying, they were being drafted, they were being traumatized in droves in Vietnam, and a lot of us were on fire to stop that war.

‘Desperate to have a voice’

“So, what does this have to do with Unitrans, a transportation system? We were desperate to have a voice, to have power and to get the vote. And one avenue to do that was to show that we could run things, and Unitrans was an effort to show that we could run things.”

Other examples from the era: KDVS Radio going FM, The California Aggie going daily, the Experimental College, the Coffee House. “And I don't claim credit for that, but I’d like to think that I was part of the team, and there was a team of dozens, scores, hundreds of students who came forward for no money, for no compensation, just to give their time and make things happen.

The Red Buses That Could

First operations manager recalls: “We were just trying to make it through to the end of spring quarter!” Read more from Unitrans’ 50th birthday party.

And that, he said, is “probably the proper context to understand the founding of Unitrans.” Another might be students’ desire to be entrepreneurial, “and, yeah, that does have some relevance, but I don’t think that was the motivating factor. What was really the motivating factor was the desire of students to get out from under the ‘in loco parentis’ system that existed at that time, the desire to say ‘no’ to certain things that they had moral objection to. And it was a communitarian enterprise, maybe even one might say a socialist enterprise, to found Unitrans.”

Black would leave school early, to protest the war (he eventually returned, earning his undergraduate degree in 1973 and a law degree in 1976 — and would serve as a Davis councilman and mayor, and as a Yolo County supervisor). Other students took the reins of Unitrans, demonstrating without a doubt that they “could run things,” as Black had hoped — and students are still the backbone of Unitrans today.

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