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Campus & Community

‘Quite a Ride’

Looking Back at Shuttle-UM’s Beginnings as Service Celebrates 50th Anniversary

By Annie Krakower

archival photo of red and white Shuttle-UMD bus

Shuttle-UM, shown here in a circa-1980s photo, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this academic year. The service evolved from an escort service run by the Black Student Union and Phi Beta Sigma to promote safety on campus.

Photo courtesy of University Archives/DOTS

Terps seeking to feel safer returning home at night have options—hopping on an after-hours Nite Ride, picking up a blue light phone to request a police auxiliary escort, or even pulling out their own phone to call a friend or an Uber.

Fifty years ago, though, it was just student Ben Gaither and other members of the Black Student Union (BSU) and the historically African American fraternity Phi Beta Sigma with their “raggedy cars” providing that service.

What they started transformed into the now-ubiquitous Shuttle-UM, with an annual ridership of over 3 million. The Department of Transportation Services (DOTS) is celebrating the golden anniversary of Shuttle-UM this spring with a temporary logo, commemorative pins and a Maryland Day celebration to honor the service’s miles-long path.

“It goes down to places that I never dreamt that it would go,” Gaither said. “It provides an excellent service to the campus community. It’s come a long way.”

archival photo of mini-bus
Mini-bus from 1972 (Photo courtesy of The Diamondback archives)

When Gaither attended the University of Maryland in the early 1970s, he remembers the campus “wasn’t the most accommodating place for Black students.” Moreover, reports of violent crime, including rape, also plagued the campus during that time. The 24-hour escort service, established primarily to promote nighttime safety for Black women, operated through three residence hall phones that BSU and Phi Beta Sigma members manned, answering calls from students.

If no one had a car—or a working car—he recalled, “then we would just walk over and escort you where you needed to go. That was not the most effective way to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish.”

Hoping for something more reliable, he ran for the Student Government Association (SGA) on the Greek ticket. He was elected, and from there, he advocated for funding for a small shuttle bus service.

archival photo of Shuttle-UM
Shuttle in 1979 (Photo courtesy of The Terrapin yearbook)

In November 1972, the SGA purchased two 1973 Dodge mini-buses, with what was then the Office of Commuter Affairs overseeing the all-campus service and its two north and south routes. “Then I blinked, and (the buses) were all over the place,” Gaither said.

The Residence Halls Association and University Commuters Association each donated another shuttle the following semester, and the fleet steadily grew over the years to today’s 60 vehicles running on 21 routes.

Shuttle-UM merged with parking services under DOTS around 20 years ago, said David Allen, executive director of DOTS, and the program has ramped up to include the curb-to-curb paratransit for riders with disabilities, Nite Ride and even charter availability. And despite a dip in service due to COVID-19, students have remained central to the operation, with around 80 employed as drivers or managers.

“It’s been quite a ride,” Allen said. “It’s a significant responsibility, and we really care about what we do.”

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