Getting Home for the Holidays: The Case for Expanded Highway 17 Bus Service

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A typical Sunday night on the 17 Express bus, standing room only with lots of luggage.

 

When it comes to the Highway 17 Express Bus (which goes from Downtown Santa Cruz to Diridon Station in San Jose and connects to CalTrain, Amtrak, and Mineta Airport), you can expect it to leave once every hour. That is about all you can bank on. No guarantee that there will be enough seats (or even standing room) and no guarantee that you’ll arrive in the scheduled 52 minutes.

The Highway 17 Express plays a critical role for connecting Santa Cruz with the rest of the Bay Area’s public transportation network. Nearly 20,000 commuters make this trek over the hill via car everyday – the connection is no less important for those without a car. What’s more, Santa Cruz is home to a UC campus and many students like myself do not own cars, making the Highway 17 Express the only way we can get home for holidays. With its relative infrequency, high volume of ridership, and chronic maintenance issues, the current Highway 17 Express service does not meet the demands of the Santa Cruz area.

It’s time we did something about this.

The Highway 17 Express has proven to be a challenge for me many times in many ways. Now, I know the basics of giving myself sufficient time when traveling with public transportation, just in case something goes wrong. However, a standard level of precaution most likely won’t cut it when it comes to the Highway 17 Express. Take, for example, one of my first experiences riding the route. I was heading back to Santa Cruz in the morning after a holiday break and I had to be at work in the afternoon. My train pulled into the station. I got off and waited for the Highway 17 Express. When the bus pulled up, a flood of other students jostled to get on, but luckily for me the other students were sympathetic that I needed to get back for work and gave me a spot. Yet for my punctuality and fellow students’ generosity I was still rewarded with being 2.5hrs late for work that day.

Right in the middle of the commute over the 17, the bus breaks down and we are stranded on the shoulder. First, a mechanic comes out to try to make enough repairs to get us through the rest of the journey. This takes about an hour. Then he determines that too much needs to be done for the bus to make it back. Alternative transportation needs to be arranged. This means waiting on an available bus and bus driver to come to the rescue – another hour and a half. By the time I get back to Santa Cruz, I don’t even have time to stop at home, but instead have to rush to work. After this experience, I travel take the 17 Bus with the motto “prepare for worst.”

The trip home for Thanksgiving last November reinforced my motto. Luckily this time I was ready. I arrived at the metro station downtown 30 minutes before the 17 was scheduled to depart for San Jose. I had to be at Diridon Station by 8:30 pm that night to catch a train for the rest of my journey home. I had given myself enough time so that if I missed the first Highway 17 Express I would still have enough time to catch the next one. Upon arriving at the station I found myself last in a line of 60+ students. The bus arrived on time, but with so many people trying to get on, it did not depart on time. As anticipated, I had to wait for the next bus to come. Others were not so lucky. The girl I was standing next to started freaking out because, being an hour late, she would probably miss her flight home to Oregon.

My experiences with the Highway 17 Express highlight the core issue: more busses are needed, particularly during the holidays. During the holidays the existing problems with this bus route are amplified and those who are frequent riders throughout the year experience even greater hassle.

Want a better 17 bus? Vote on this proposal to Increase Highway 17 Bus Service.

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