Campus Cruiser adjusts to new Uber partnership

Since Jan. 16, when USC Transportation announced a new pilot program with Uber to supplement the Campus Cruiser program and reduce wait times during peak periods, the ridesharing app completed more than 1,600 calls in the first weekend of the partnership.

This new program with Uber, however, is only the latest in a series of changes since the beginning of the fall 2014 semester.

Though Campus Cruiser is not a new program at USC, the ride service has undergone many changes over the course of the fall semester, from an influx of new hires and vehicles, to an extension of the boundaries in which they operate. The transition came after an announcement by President C.L. Max Nikias early in the fall 2014 semester, declaring that wait times for a Cruiser exceed no more than 15 minutes.

“We were notified fairly late in the summer that we needed to maintain those wait times,” said USC Transportation Director Tony Mazza. “We had to very quickly get the staffing up to speed and get the cars on board. In retrospect it’s probably one of our biggest challenges.”

The department scrambled to adjust procedures and personnel in order to carry out Nikias’ promise as demand for the new, faster service increased. Now, Cruiser is experiencing record demand. By the time fall classes ended in December, Campus Cruiser had completed 94,044 calls in the fall 2014 semester, 27,809 calls more than fall 2013, with call volume up 42 percent from last year.

In the first weeks of the spring semester, Campus Cruiser has already seen similar increases in demand. As of Tuesday, Jan. 20, 9,350 total calls have been completed this spring — up 27 percent from last spring. Combined with the rides serviced by Uber, demand has increased 49 percent compared with the same dates last spring.

Now, Campus Cruiser, which employs more than 150 student drivers and maintains a fleet of about 40 vehicles, answers up to 1,400 calls on each of its busiest nights: Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

A semester after these major changes, Campus Cruiser seems to be maintaining their quickened pace, and the program will continue to evolve.


Safe travels


On July 24, 2014, 24-year-old Xinran Ji, a second-year graduate student studying electrical engineering, was found dead at his home in City Park Apartments, less than half a mile from USC’s campus. Ji had been walking home alone at 12:45 a.m. after a night of studying when police believe he was attacked with a baseball bat during an attempted robbery. Ji managed to stagger back to his apartment, where his roommate discovered him later that morning. This attack marked the third major violent incident to occur on or near USC’s campus in less than three years.

Following Ji’s death, the university enacted a round of security reforms, with the expansion of Campus Cruiser’s services included among the measures. In addition to bringing wait times for the service to 15 minutes or less, administrators also expanded the area of the neighborhood that Campus Cruiser services.

Prior to the change, wait times for Campus Cruiser had been known to last as long as 45 minutes, not including time spent on hold, which could reportedly last for 20 minutes or more.

In the first week of the fall 2014 semester, Campus Cruiser hired 29 new drivers, bringing the total number of drivers to 154. The program also acquired 13 more vehicles, and Dept. of Public Safety officers and students enrolled in the ROTC program at USC served as temporary Cruiser drivers.

During this influx of new hires, the training time for drivers was shortened from two weeks to two days, and then again to a single night.

According to Associate Director of Transit Michelle Garcia, the change hasn’t had any adverse effects.

“The boundary area is relatively small,” Garcia said. “If anything, even if you have a longer training period, on the job is where you learn … what the tricks of the trade are.”

Prior to this fall, trainee drivers would ride along with a more experienced driver for several shifts over a two-week period. Despite the abridged training, Garcia said there have been no unexpected increases in traffic accidents.

Nonetheless, Garcia said Campus Cruiser has followed up with new drivers hired this semester to iron out any remaining issues.

“I think at this point we’ve gone back through to all the people we hired in that express training and are working with them now to see, ‘Is this a training issue or are they not the right fit for the program?’ and trying to determine those things and deciding where to go from there,” she said. “For the most part, our management team has shared with me that people going through the one-day training have picked things up quickly.”

A former junior Cruiser driver, who wished to remain anonymous since Campus Cruiser sent a memo to employees not to speak with the press, was hired this fall and said he felt the shortened training period was a sufficient introduction to the program.

“I feel like even if I had been trained longer, the things that I would question, they were easily answered,” he said. “I don’t see why it would take two weeks to train actually.”

The driver said the training consisted of about two and a half hours of observing another driver, followed by three hours of supervised driving.

Because of the increase in drivers and vehicles and subsequent shorter wait times, demand for Campus Cruiser has skyrocketed, according to Mazza. In the first month of classes of fall 2014, Cruiser received almost 19,000 calls, 4,000 more calls than the same period last year.

A new phone system was implemented in mid-September to deal with increased call volume with the addition of a function that allows callers to use a call-back option, in which a caller can hang up and a dispatcher will call them back shen they have reached the front of the queue. Also, the area where dispatchers work is being reorganized in order to accommodate more dispatchers during a shift, according to Garcia.

She said call wait times now average about two minutes, and the longest call wait time she has heard of during the fall was 14 minutes.

All of these changes, however, occurred in the middle of USC’s fiscal year. According to Mazza, the Cruiser program was granted a budget amendment of an additional $500,000 in order to fund the new resources acquired during the fall semester, including new hires and new vehicles.

The road ahead

Mazza said even more changes are ahead for the program.

“Our challenge going forward, as it always has been, is that as our wait times decrease, demand increases,” Mazza said.

The activity of Campus Cruiser is closely monitored every day, according to Mazza, and a summary of the program’s activities is presented to senior administrators on a weekly basis.

Campus Cruiser receives about 1,000 calls per night, and officials estimate the number will rise to about 1,200 calls per night by February. According to Garcia, the spring is usually busier for Campus Cruiser than the fall, since the service operates an hour longer, beginning at 5 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. because it gets dark earlier, the weather is slightly rainier and freshmen who might not have known about Campus Cruiser in the fall begin to utilize it.

To accommodate this increased demand, Mazza also said the dispatch used to track and organize calls will likely be replaced next summer.

“The technology platform that Campus Cruiser operates on today has been in place since 2002, so about 12 years,” Mazza said. “It’s getting to the end of its life cycle.”

This new system will ideally be fully automated, meaning that calls will automatically be assigned to drivers, and dispatchers will no longer be necessary, according to Mazza. In the current system, one dispatcher might be managing the phone line, while another monitors radio traffic and assigns calls to cars.

“There’s definitely been some struggles due to call volume,” he said. “We want to work on efficiencies for dispatching. [Dispatching is] hard to do when it’s one or two people looking at a screen.”

Mazza said that there has also been talk of creating an app students can use to request a Campus Cruiser similar to the one used by app-based ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, and incorporating a Campus Cruiser tracker into DPS’s recently released Trojan mobile safety app, LiveSafe. These mobile technologies would hopefully be released once the current dispatch system is replaced.

According to Mazza, as they’ve investigated options for new technology for the Campus Cruiser program, USC Transportation reached out to other universities with safe-ride programs. Their research found that Campus Cruiser is the largest, most comprehensive university program in the country.

University ride programs that come closest to the size of Campus Cruiser, including the programs at University of California, Berkeley and the University of Georgia, operate using large passenger vans to shuttle students around campus, and none give students an expected wait time.

“We have not been able to find any university that does the number of calls that we do … We’re really proud of what we do and what we’ve been able to accomplish this semester,” Mazza said.

In the meantime, Campus Cruiser hired additional drivers at the end of the fall semester to bring the total number to 200 to account for the loss of senior drivers who graduated in the fall and drivers who might be able unable to work in the spring because of schedule conflicts.

“People don’t want to wait,” he said. “No one wants to wait. We are committed to that 15 minute wait time and driving it down whenever we have the resources.”