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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Campus Cruiser's Bumpy Ride Gets Smoother

Phoenix Tso |
November 20, 2014 | 6:53 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

(Charlie Magovern/Neon Tommy)
(Charlie Magovern/Neon Tommy)
It’s 6:30 p.m. on the Tuesday before the start of the fall semester. A USC sophomore working her shift as a Campus Cruiser driver gets a message on the car radio, “When you drop off your call, come get a new map.” 

The map shows Campus Cruiser’s new boundaries ordered by USC President C.L. Max Nikias in the aftermath of international student Xinran Ji’s murder on July 24. Soon, the driver gets a call to pick up a student in the unfamiliar territory near North Washington Boulevard, about 0.3 miles from the old boundaries.

“When I get there, there are no streetlights, no security guards, the street is a cul de sac tucked under the 10 freeway,” recalls the student driver, who agreed to be interviewed only if her name wasn’t used because of a Campus Cruiser edict not to talk to the media. “Half the people outside are homeless people and the rest are clearly not students.”

It’s been two months since Nikias announced no student would wait more than 15 minutes for a Cruiser and service boundaries would expand during the fall 2014 semester. Since then, calls jumped from around 600 a day to 900, sometimes even 1,000 calls a night, a 42 percent increase in call volume over Fall 2013.

Campus Cruiser ranks ballooned from 125 drivers and 30 cars to 154 drivers and 13 more cars. Campus Cruiser pay continued to start at $11 an hour, so to get the new drivers on the road, Campus Cruiser streamlined their interview process and cut training from five days to one. 

Neon Tommy gathered data over a two-month period and interviewed Campus Cruiser passengers, employees and USC transportation officials to see how they’re faring with the changes. Accidents are up, with 25 recorded so far this semester, and sometimes drivers fail to pick up students within 15 minutes, but new hires and an improved dispatching system appear to be keeping pace with the demand. 

SEE ALSO: Repairing Safety: The Struggle Between Students and USC

"We were really caught off guard by calls in areas we had never been before," said the sophomore driver. "And then we had to keep our ETAs down to 15 minutes."

Rachel Scott, a USC senior and broadcast journalism major recalls waiting 20 minutes on hold. So on a Thursday evening in September, she decided to walk to her off-campus destination instead of waiting on hold for a Campus Cruiser. 

When she reached the Taco Bell on Vermont Avenue a group of men surrounded her, catcalling, while a nearby campus security officer failed to intervene. Luckily, after a few minutes, the men went away. But Scott said the fear remained, forcing her to rely on Campus Cruiser, even when it was plagued by delays. 

“I would rather wait to get dropped off than walk on the street,” she said.

The question now is whether Campus Cruiser was forced to expand their resources and services too quickly to address renewed safety concerns in the wake of Xinran Ji’s death. Reducing wait times and dealing with increased demand remain priorities for Campus Cruiser’s management, and they say they have made substantial progress in three months.

“It’s always part of our conversation,” said USC Director of Transportation Tony Mazza. “How many resources we need to add to keep our wait times down to 15 minutes.” 

Expanding the Safety Net

DPS Chief John Thomas, in his first year on the job, set a high priority on increasing the area that his officers would patrol in the neighborhoods surrounding USC.

In 2012, two Chinese international students were murdered on Raymond Avenue, in the area north of Jefferson Boulevard and west of Vermont Avenue, outside DPS and Campus Cruiser’s official service area. The LAPD expanded its patrols there.

By the end of 2013, DPS began negotiations with the LAPD and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office to officially extend the border for DPS and Campus Cruiser. On April 21, 2014, the amendment went into effect, allowing Campus Cruiser to extend their service area.

By June, Campus Cruiser was planning to increase the number of drivers and cars to meet the demand.  However, the summer decrease in students on campus made it hard for Campus Cruiser to recruit new drivers, Mazza said. Garcia added that during the summer season, calls would only average around 200 a night.

Program officials figured they would monitor demand in the fall, while gradually hiring new drivers for a boundary expansion slated for spring 2015. 

All those plans changed when Xinran Ji was killed at 12:45 a.m. on July 24, 2014, just north of campus. The murder renewed safety concerns and prompted four meetings between international students and administrators.

SEE ALSO: Safety: The Trojan Compromise

They voiced their concerns about campus safety, as well as their frustration over what they saw as the administration’s blasé attitude towards Ji’s death, according to Yuanzi Xie, co-president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). They criticized Provost Elizabeth Garrett’s campus-wide letter characterizing his murder as an “isolated incident,” and the unqualified interpreter USC hired for Xinran Ji’s memorial service.

“As for the Campus Cruiser, that’s where more people complained, because of the response time,” said Xie, whose group was instrumental in negotiating new safety measures. “For them, the attitude might not matter much, but the actual response and action will matter more because there have been cases where they didn’t even come.”

In response to the association’s pleas, senior administrators on July 28 asked USC Transportation to devise a plan to extend boundaries and reduce wait times at the start of the fall semester. On Aug. 19, the first day of operations for the academic year, management informed the returning drivers of the change. “It happened very quickly from ‘It's coming’ to ‘No, it's today,’” Garcia said.

Throngs of Unprepared Drivers

This sudden boundary expansion blindsided student drivers. "I know for us we were all shocked,” said a USC senior and Campus Cruiser driver and dispatcher. "We were actually telling students we couldn’t pick them up or drop them off [outside the old boundaries], but in fact we should have.”

Campus Cruiser managers John Zajac and Kaelah Gildea said they offered to take drivers around the new boundaries, but most said they were comfortable finding them on their own. 

Keeping wait times down was especially hard when demand increased astronomically in September. “I’ve never worked a night before where call volume went over 1,000 calls,” said Gildea, who has worked for the program for almost five years. “All of our non-peak hours are becoming peak hours, and the peak hours are becoming super-duper peak hours.”

Students have noticed this increase in demand, especially during the weekend. “On a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, I’d often be on hold for 20 minutes, and then they’d tell me the wait is 20 minutes,” said Alexa Liacko, a senior broadcast journalism major at USC. “I usually take Uber on those days instead.” 

Other students have said that they often get a busy signal after waiting on hold for a few minutes, giving them no choice but to redial Campus Cruiser’s number until they get through. 

On the dispatching side of the equation, at any given time of night, Campus Cruiser usually has only three employees to "kick" or answer phones, which creates a bottleneck. “Even if they have 20-30 drivers out on the road, there’s nothing you can do about [the call waiting times], if you have only three people in the office receiving all these calls,” the senior driver said. 

These dispatchers also have to account for sudden call increase. "Sometimes, you can go from zero calls to 22 of them waiting in the space of 10 seconds. Even with three dispatchers, people will likely have to wait for 7-8 minutes," said the sophomore driver.

To fix this, Campus Cruiser upgraded its phone system in mid-September, Michelle Garcia said. Now five dispatchers can work at one time and students can request a call back from a dispatcher instead of waiting. While there are still usually only three dispatchers, supervisors monitor for how long callers are placed on hold, with Gildea getting notifications if those times exceed five minutes. “In those cases, I’ll often fill in as the fourth dispatcher to get those times down,” Gildea said.

Dispatchers have picked up 7,100 calls within three minutes. The average call waiting time is now 2 minutes. In addition, drivers are now picking up 87 percent of passengers within 15 minutes and 96 percent in 20 minutes. Despite this, some students are still reporting long wait times and dropped calls, usually during the weekend.

Training for the new fleet

Campus Cruiser hired 50 students within the first few days of school this year and cut training time from five days to one day to get the new drivers integrated as quickly as possible, Garcia said. 

According to the senior driver, this meant teaching new drivers addresses, radio codes and other procedures and then having them learn less essential locations and tricks through experience. “Especially with the new boundaries, you can’t learn everything within four hours,” he said. “Still, people usually do pretty well within a couple of weeks.”

Passengers say the new drivers are doing well. “I’ve never really had to give directions,” said Brinda Sreedhar, a graduate student in USC's Marshall School of Business. “I haven’t been able to identify which ones are the new drivers and which ones are old. That’s a good thing.” 

Campus Cruiser employees note new drivers' involvement with car accidents ranging, in their words, from fender benders to more serious damage. According to managers Zajac and Gildea, Campus Cruiser let go of new drivers involved in accidents, even if the damage was minimal. As Garcia told Neon Tommy, Campus Cruiser drivers have been involved in 25 accidents so far this semester, compared to 20 for all of fall 2013. “At times we have had up to 50 cars on the road, including nine passenger vans that are more difficult to drive,” Garcia said. “It isn’t accepted but the correlation shows that it’s more vehicles rather than the new drivers.” 

The decrease in training means new drivers sometimes miss out on key safety information. "At our semi-annual meeting last Sunday, there was a review of the 10-88 radio code, which means 'I don't want to pick up this student,'” the sophomore driver said. “You can use this code if the dispatcher assigns you to pick up an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend or someone you have bad blood with, and you'll get reassigned, no questions asked. That was the first time most new drivers had heard of this." 

SEE ALSO: Chinese Students Grill USC, LAPD Reps On Shooting And Safety Issues

Another challenge is the high driver turnover, a regular feature at Campus Cruiser. “We have about a 10 percent attrition rate in Campus Cruisers,” Mazza said. “So we’re constantly hiring to keep up with people who might be leaving because, you know, the job wasn’t what they thought it was or they have some other priorities.”

This year, according to Zajac and Gildea, Campus Cruiser has hired many more drivers, a significant amount of those students don’t want to tie themselves down and so they leave. This has made it difficult for Campus Cruiser to maintain a full staff to keep up with demand.

Still, Campus Cruiser employees say operations have become smoother, with less hiring needed and with an option for drivers to train for more days, if needed, Garcia  said.

"The system was efficient before, and we're getting back to that," the sophomore driver added. Still, that efficiency has come at a price. "It's because we bought all these new cars and because we're only training for one day. After that, you're on your own in your car for the entire shift."

Higher demand, more money

Wait times on the phone and for cruisers have dropped since the school year began. Yet Campus Cruiser personnel continue to look at ways to improve service. “There’s still a significant number of people being picked up outside of that 15 minutes,” Mazza said. “Michelle and I talk constantly about additional resources to do that.” 

In August, Campus Cruiser received a $500,000 increase over its $1.5 million budget to hire the 154 drivers and purchase the 13 cars they thought they needed. That hasn't been enough to account for demand. Last month, Campus Cruiser’s call volume increased 5 percent each week, according to Garcia. As a result, she and Mazza are planning to ask for another budget increase to hire even more drivers and incorporate the technological upgrades needed to keep up with this ever-growing demand. 

It’s undecided whether improvements will extend to summer. After Xinran Ji’s death, Yuanzi Xie and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association asked for USC to extend Campus Cruiser summer hours, which are from 6 p.m. to 12:45 a.m. to 2:45 a.m, the same as the academic year.

“I wouldn’t anticipate that the hours would change during the summer time,” Mazza said. But, he added that the hours could be extended if the need arose even closer to the summer months.

Until then, Campus Cruiser continues to deal with staff turnover and call volume increases. “The only thing I feel bad about is that I don’t want to deceive the students. Because there’s that idea that now we’re supposed to guarantee those [15 minutes wait] times, when we actually can’t at this point,” the senior driver said. “Maybe in the future, but just with the high volume of calls we receive these days, it’s just impossible to meet that, especially on the weekends when everybody is out.”

Perhaps this will always be an issue for Campus Cruiser. “What we’ve noticed over the last six or seven years is that as we drive the wait times down by adding new resources to the program, then the popularity of the program continues to increase,” Director Mazza said. “We find that we’re constantly chasing a number.”

Contact Staff Reporter Phoenix Tso here or follow her on Twitter here



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