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CAMBUS, the University of Iowa’s free transit service, celebrates 50 years on campus


CAMBUS Celebration and Alumni Reunion

Friday, Oct. 28, CAMBUS Maintenance Facility, 1-5 p.m.

CAMBUS Alumni Tailgate

Saturday, Oct. 29, Parking Lot 11, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.


CAMBUS picks up students on Clinton Street on Oct. 27. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

CAMBUS began as six borrowed school buses, carting University of Iowa students east to west and back again across the Iowa River. Fifty years later, CAMBUS has 34 transit buses that give 3.5 million rides a year. And it’s still student-operated and fare free.

“CAMBUS has become viewed as an essential service for the university, and one that’s a very favorable service in the eyes of students,” said Brian McClatchey, the CAMBUS manager. “You will continue to see CAMBUS operating and just being responsive to the current and changing needs of the university.”

In the early ‘70s, students from the Associated Residence Halls (ARH) and the student government advocated for a campus transit system. The university test-drove the system with rented school buses in 1971. The experiment worked, so the student government agreed to fund the service with a student fee.

The punny name came the following year. The UI’s student busing committee held a contest, parsing through suggestions like Shuttlecock, Shuttle Bug, Scuttle Shuttle, Winged Wheels, Campus Cannonball, Sole Saver, Day Tripper, Magical Mystery Tour, Hawkeye Express: Keep on Truckin’ and so on. But the winning name and emblem came from graduate student Rodney Speidel: “Cambus Shuttle,” in gold and black letters on wheels. Speidel’s prize was two free pizzas.

“I spoke to him here a couple weeks ago, and he said yes, he actually did get the pizzas,” McClatchey said.

Courtesy of The Daily Iowan Archives, from March 24, 1972.

Over the next 10 years, the fleet doubled in size. In 1975 it became eligible for Federal Transit Administration funds, which led to buying its first new buses in ’77. CAMBUS joined the Parking and Transportation Department in 1984.

A “significant turning point” in CAMBUS’s history was the purchase of full-size transit buses with wide rear doors in 1989. This increased the buses’ capacity, which made the system faster and more reliable, McClatchey said.

CAMBUS has worked to make the service more accessible to both students and community members since its inception, starting first with a specially designed Bionic Bus to transports people with disabilities in 1977, to replacing bus lifts with a low-floor fleet and ramps in 2019.

When the university faced natural disasters like the flood of 1993 and tornado of 2006, CAMBUS was there. During the 2008 flood, CAMBUS provided transportation to the relocated university facilities, like the music and arts buildings, for about eight years. And during the pandemic, community members relied on CAMBUS for safe rides.

“CAMBUS, over the two years of the pandemic, really modified our services many times, in response to the needs of the people that were still working on campus,” McClatchey said. “Everyone can attest to that resolve of our employees who really came through … I think it all showed that we can be very responsive to the unique needs of the university that might come up.”

Fiscal year 2021 saw the lowest ridership, a 65 to 70 percent decline, as students and drivers went virtual. But CAMBUS isn’t designed to maximize ridership and revenue, McClatchey explained.

“We’re a no-fare system. So, the design of our services is really just to address the needs out there,” he said.

The transit system is still recovering from the lost hiring and training cycles. While the Parking and Transportation Department has hired enough people, drawing in applicants by raising wages and offering a hiring bonus, the training period can last six weeks, especially with commercial driver’s license backlogs at the Iowa Department of Transportation.

But students make CAMBUS’s wheels turn. Around 160 students work at CAMBUS — as drivers, dispatchers, trainers, supervisors or maintenance assistants. The degree of student operation is “highly unusual” compared to other university systems, McClatchey said.

“The students keep you on their toes. They stay highly motivated. They’re always bringing in fresh ideas and perspectives, and they’re just a lot of fun to work with,” said McClatchey, a CAMBUS veteran of 35 years and UI alum. “It’s just been a joy to work with them over the years. I just tend to be amazed and impressed by what our employees have taken on even while they’re actually attending school.”

CAMBUS picks up students on Clinton Street on Oct. 27. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

In the “not-too-distant future,” CAMBUS will submit applications to the FTA to purchase electric buses to replace its fleet, a shift already started in Iowa City’s public transit system. The department is currently determining what infrastructure it needs to incorporate for electric buses.

Until then, CAMBUS will continue providing free rides across campus for classes and orientation, for basketball and football, and any transportation need that arises.

CAMBUS will commemorate its long history with a 50-year celebration and alumni reunion this Friday at the CAMBUS Maintenance Facility from 1 to 5 p.m. Unlike previous anniversaries, the Parking and Transportation Department is inviting everyone: current and former CAMBUS drivers, UI students and alumni, and the general public.

“It’s really the first time we’ve ever had an event where we’ve essentially invited everyone who’s ever worked at CAMBUS,” McClatchey said. “It should be pretty fun just seeing all these past CAMBUS-ers get together.”

C❤️MBUS comin’ through beep beep! — Drew Bulman/Little Village

The event will have tours of the recently renovated maintenance facility and the main office; speakers including one of the CAMBUS founders and then-RHA president; CAMBUS swag; bingo, giveaways and a photo booth. There will be snacks and hors d’oeuvres, and some activities for kids, like coloring and word searches. But mostly, the celebration will help people reconnect and reminisce. McClatchey expects between 200 and 300 CAMBUS-ers in attendance.

On Saturday, the Parking and Transportation Department will host a homecoming tailgate in the parking lot across from the maintenance facility from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. All CAMBUS employees and alumni are invited to pre-game, eat food and take a shuttle to Kinnick Stadium to see the Iowa Hawkeyes face Northwestern starting at 2:30 p.m.

Editor’s note: Brian McClatchey is the father of Little Village managing editor Emma McClatchey.


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