C. Douglas Couto (BBA72) was a sophomore at Iowa in 1970 and talking with fellow members of the Associated Residence Halls, a student group that mostly sponsored dorm events like movies or pizza parties. This time, he said they wanted to think big.
“Some of us thought we should do something more useful, and we came up with the idea to run a school bus between the dorms,” Couto said. It would be a quick and free way for students to get across campus, especially helpful in nasty weather, so they started running a single school bus across campus in fall 1970.
“It was always popular and full beyond capacity,” he said.
With university support, that one-bus brainstorm would grow into CAMBUS, one of the university’s most enduring symbols that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Today, CAMBUS runs 34 vehicles and gives more than 3 million rides a year on 14 routes that stretch as far as the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex and the Oakdale Research Park in Coralville. It employs 160 students who hold driving, training, dispatching, route planning, support, vehicle maintenance, and supervisor positions. Only 10 non-student employees work for CAMBUS.
“We’re proud to be student-operated and having students in leadership positions making day-to-day decisions,” said Mia Brunelli (BBA14), operations manager for CAMBUS. “It gives them an experience that’s applicable in most any major and is great on a resume.”
Brunelli started as a driver for CAMBUS as a sophomore and moved up through dispatch and route and schedule design. After working for transit agencies in South Bend, Ind., Ames, and Des Moines, Iowa, she returned to CAMBUS as operations manager in 2018.
“I like that it’s a big puzzle, trying to get routes and schedules and everything else to work,” said Brunelli. “Public transit also provides a service everyone can benefit from, and it’s an important part of a community.”
Driving a bus provides lots of interesting stories—especially the Friday or Saturday night shifts. Students who have imbibed heavily and don’t know where they are. Overheard uncomfortable cell phone conversations. Taking several minutes to get up the Jefferson Street hill during a snowstorm, spinning your wheels but still nursing the bus along so masterfully you get a round of applause from passengers when you reach the top of the hill.
It also pays well for a student job, has a flexible schedule, and introduces employees to lots of new people, many of whom become friends for life. Kyle Cannon (BBA99) said driving for CAMBUS also gave him confidence.
“It was empowering,” said Cannon, who still occasionally has dreams of being a passenger on a bus who steps in to save the day when the driver has an emergency, à la Sandra Bullock in the movie Speed. “You were entrusted with a significant amount of responsibility with all those people on a quarter-million-dollar bus,” he said.
For James Hughes (BBA20), it meant a new career goal. An automobile aficionado, he planned a marketing career in the auto industry. But after three-plus years of working for CAMBUS, he opted for a career in transit planning and policy.
“Driving a bus made me realize there are always cars, traffic, and pedestrians interacting with our built environment—and our decisions affect that,” said Hughes, now studying for his master’s degree in urban and regional planning.
Couto said what he learned at CAMBUS as a driver and supervisor played a significant role in his success in the U.S. Air Force and as chief information officer for the Michigan Department of Transportation.
“I learned how to work with people, motivate them, and align their goals with the organizational goals,” he said. Scraping ice off the windshield of his bus at 6:00 every winter morning also taught responsibility. His experience was so meaningful he helped establish a scholarship fund for selected CAMBUS student employees each year.
And the fare is still free.