“We see it as an injustice”: OUSWC organizes protests to reinstate Bear Buses


Ayman Ishimwe

Students hold their signs out toward traffic at the OUSWC organized protest to bring back the Bear Bus on May 5.

The Oakland United Student Workers Coalition (OUSWC) has continued their advocacy for student jobs in the month of May with a pair of on-campus protests arguing for the return of the Bear Bus student shuttle program.

Wednesday, May 5 — on a chilly afternoon, students congregated in the northeast portion of the Human Health Building parking lot. Beside the hibernating Bear Buses now parked indefinitely in that lonely corner of the lot, the group hoisted their signs and began their march westward toward the intersection of North Squirrel road and East Walton Boulevard where the protest would take place.

During peak traffic, from the hours of 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., protesters waved signs that read “make OU accessible,” “support student workers” and “make OU sustainable.” All these sentiments reflect the OUSWC’s position on the value of the Bear Bus system and why they should be brought back. A similar protest has been announced on the group’s social media for May 28.

In the document stating their policy position, OUSWC argues that reimagining and reinstating the Bear Bus program is essential “to improve on-campus accessibility and sustainability.” OUSWC organizer Jeremy Johnson echoed these sentiments as reasons why the group is protesting.

“This is something we’re focusing on, because we think it’s an issue of accessibility, sustainability and campus equitability,” said Johnson. “[Bear Buses were] vital for a lot of communities on campus. It’s especially important for college students, those that may not have access to cars or licenses, students with physical disabilities, international students, low income students, commuter students … it’s an issue that we want to continue advocating for.”

The Bear Bus service was discontinued after ten years of service in the summer of 2020. Reasons given at the time for the decision included: declining ridership, aging buses and increased operating costs. Director of University Housing Jim Zentmeyer reiterated those factors in a statement responding to the protests made last week.

“We have learned that a group of students have voiced their concerns about the discontinuation of the Bear Bus,” Zentmeyer said. “We also know that a group of students benefited from the service. However, when you look at the declining ridership numbers over the past several years and the costs associated with bus maintenance and operations, it became clear that this was the fiscally responsible course of action for the university to take.”

OUSWC is aware of the financial implications and why the shuttle system was shut down. Protesters contest that the impact of what the service offered to the campus community is worth the costs. Jacob Eckelson, a former Bear Bus driver, had this to say on the matter.

“I [hate] to admit it, but yeah, we had pretty low ridership, [especially in comparison to] the heyday of Bear Bus in like 2013 or 2014,” Eckelson said. “The decline over the years also goes with all the housing jobs and kind of the housing communities that were cut. [And now] there’s that lack of community. People maybe don’t realize … Bear Bus would do special drives for various student groups on campus, whether it was clubs or classes, or housing employees too, there would be special drives to events … it was a good way to bring communities together for special occasions.”

Along those lines, Johnson also acknowledges the finances while making his case about the value the shuttle service had for the campus community and student jobs.

“We definitely understand that when it comes to finances … you got to make ends meet somehow,” Johnson said. “Although budget cuts will have to happen, they shouldn’t come at the expense of students [or] student workers. We see it as an injustice that students are having an essential service taken from them as budget cuts.”

One of the students directly affected by the end of the Bear Buses is junior engineering student Mia Lewis. For students like Lewis, the shuttles were a lifeline of accessibility that allowed them to participate in the campus community. She has joined in the protests to speak up for people like her and other students who benefited from the buses.

“[The Bear Buses] would also be incredibly helpful during the fall and spring when it is raining,” Lewis said. “I cannot hold an umbrella and wheel myself at the same time so without the Bear Bus, I would be showing up to class absolutely drenched. [Using] the Bear Bus on my own creates more of a sense of independence, responsibility and freedom. Having the opportunity to go to any of the bus stops and take a trip … on my own, with little to no help — it makes me feel less reliant on other people. A fair share of these talking points are personal, as a disabled individual, but I believe all these points would benefit every student. Not just myself, not just other disabled students. Every student.”

While COVID-19 still hangs a cloud of uncertainty over what the campus will look like in the fall, the OUSWC feels a strong urgency that now is the right time to reinstate the buses. 

“At this point, when we’re hopefully coming out of the pandemic, I think it’s a perfect chance to start thinking about reinstating the Bear Bus and giving that program back to students,” Johnson said. “I [want to add that] none of what we are trying to do, or what this coalition has ever done, is ever meant to be anti-OU. Everything we’ve advocated for has been pro-OU, we’re trying to fight for the students. Sometimes we can be a bit sharp with our rhetoric, but it’s always because we’re trying to improve the community … we think that the Bear Bus falls directly in line with [those] values.”

At this time, OU’s administration maintains their position on the Bear Buses, with Zentmeyer ending his statement saying “There are no plans to bring back the Bear Bus as a campus transportation system operated through University Housing.”