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Down for the count

Latest Safe Ride rumble brings to an end the non-profit program’s turbulent run.

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The general inferiority of the city of Bakersfield might sound a lot like gospel to local residents enjoying the nightlife of San Luis Obispo. Unfortunately, a few recent visitors from the valley didn't take to the news too well.

According to Ride-On Transportation director Mark Shaffer, inter town hostilities sparked a melee April 15 on the organization's after-

CLOSING TIME :  With the Safe Ride out of commission, San Luis Obispo wonders what choices students will make after finishing their whiskey or beer. - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • CLOSING TIME : With the Safe Ride out of commission, San Luis Obispo wonders what choices students will make after finishing their whiskey or beer.
# hours bus. Several innocent bystanders were caught up in the skirmish, but nobody sustained serious bodily injury or stuck around long enough to pick up criminal charges. However, much to the chagrin of many tavern operators, even more tavern goers and police, the latest episode in a series of unfortunate events for the late-night Safe Ride Home service did claim one casualty—the program itself.

Three days after the incident, Ride-On announced the termination of Safe Ride, the long-running public service effort, citing safety concerns as the primary motivation. Shaffer said Safe Ride proved a financial sinkhole since its inception, but the organization bridged the gap to keep it running due to widespread popularity among Cal Poly students. Yet a perpetual ramp-up of violence displayed by certain groups of inebriated riders culminated in the Saturday bout, and Safe Ride officially went down for the count.

"The next time it could be a knife," Shaffer said after Ride-On made public its decision to drop the program. "Who really knows? It just wasn't a safe ride home anymore."

For more than a decade, Safe Ride constituted a staple support, if not a crutch, for nightlife in San Luis Obispo. With taxi service extremely limited and city-run buses halting well before the witching hour, getting around at night presented a challenge, especially for students lacking cars or the means to afford housing close to downtown. Sgt. Rick Crocker of the San Luis Obispo Police Department walked—or biked—the downtown beat for several years and stated that program’s departure created “an obvious void.� Student leaders soundly echoed that sentiment, balking at the notion of even trying to hail a late-night cab. “The onus now falls on the students to secure their own ride home,� Crocker said. “People should be absolutely responsible.�

Establishments downtown now worry about both customer safety and the bottom line. Numerous establishments reported below average crowds this weekend—the first since Ride-On stopped the service—though, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to isolate Safe Ride as a factor. Several tavern managers also worried that the lack of this option, combined with fear of drunk-in-public situations, might prompt some patrons to get behind the wheel. Mother’s Tavern owner Paul Brown disagreed. “I think people inclined to be irresponsible will make the irresponsible choice,� he said, “no matter how easy you make the responsible one.�
 
However, even if students keep off the road, walking the streets at night creates a whole new batch of problems, particularly for women. One might fret over the proximity of the local prison or the active (to put it euphemistically) transient population as potential threats, but Aimee Williams of Cal Poly’s SAFER program said SLO’s perceived safety is irrelevant. “People think that rape and sexual assault happen out of the shadows, but it’s usually an acquaintance or somebody they know,� she explained. “Leaving a bar with someone is exactly the type of situation where an assault could occur.�

"Isn't the risk greater without Safe Ride Home?" Crocker agreed. "It absolutely is."

The program’s woes largely began when Ride-On switched from a van to a 16-seat bus to provide more efficient service. This allowed the shuttle to transport multiple groups at once, but soon proved problematic when inebriated riders starting locking horns verbally and often physically. The situation compounded when several drivers at Ride-On simply refused to run the Safe Ride route after becoming frequent victims of abuse by revelers.

Safe Ride temporarily shut down last summer when the organization sent the regular driver packing for refusing to yield to police in a bizarre downtown traffic incident. Once Ride-On managed to find a replacement, the violent outbreaks renewed. In one well-documented occurrence, a rider punched the bus driver in the back of the head before running off into the night. Other problems included alcohol consumption on the bus, sexual harassment of female patrons and one-on-one catfights—all reportedly common happenings on the Safe Ride. Shaffer commented he couldn’t believe the shockingly aggressive nature of some riders.

But many Cal Poly students believe the blame lies outside of campus—in fact, outside of San Luis Obispo altogether. It’s a question often raised when things go awry in towns reputed as after-hour hubs for their respective regions: Why would students want to soil their own roost? According to management at several local hotspots, they don’t. Instead, they pointed toward those with no real stake in the community—college-age people in town for days on the beach and nights on the town. Cal Poly Student President Tylor Middlestadt agreed a large part of the problem stems from the outright popularity of SLO’s bar scene.

“Really, the whole situation baffles me,� he said. “Still, this town is a destination for partying. I don’t want to scapegoat the folks visiting from other cities, but there are definitely some people who come to SLO looking to raise some hell.�

Jerome Strange, bar manager of Downtown Brew, lent credit to the theory of the foreign horde element breeding hostility. Though the establishment remains a relatively new installation in the downtown scene, altercations frequently broke out at SLO Brew, its immediate predecessor, in the lines and smoking area by the front entrance. Strange remarked that the fights outside of downtown bars often involve out-of-towners and tend to heighten in the summer months—an observation that seems to absolve the Cal Poly student body. “In my experience, when people come in from the valley, they’re usually only here for the weekend,� Strange said. “They just don’t care if they cause problems—it’s not their town.�

While the cause of the fights remains a matter of speculation, the effect appears as palpable as the cloud of litigation that followed the Safe Ride bus through every mishap. Ride-On Transportation has long provided shuttle services for tourists, seniors, children and patients through its hodgepodge of public-interest programs—services potentially jeopardized by a costly lawsuit. As a result, the organization’s closure of the popular, if oft-troubled, moonlight shuttle certainly seems absolute and final, despite the student outcry. "It's an age of intense liability," Shaffer said. "And we're just hanging out there."

Although it's still too soon after the program's demise for any advanced plans of a city- or university-subsidized program, most interested parties expressed the need for something, anything to fill this vacuum. Examining a similar scenario at Indiana’s Valparaiso University, where school officials put police escorts on board vans to combat after-hours disorder, Cal Poly’s student government proposed the same solution for Safe Ride almost two months ago, long before the situation came to a head. But who would provide and fund such security efforts? At Valpo, university police actually sponsor the escort program—not the case in Mustangland. “There is consensus that we need this service,� Middlestadt said. “Right now we’re at a loss for solutions.�

For nearly 13 years, the Safe Ride bus rolled through the streets of San Luis Obispo on weekend nights, shuttling bar-hoppers to and fro. But now, sloshed Slobispans must coordinate their own safe passage home, or risk a long stumble fraught with the threat of crime, inclement weather and, of course, drunk-in-public citations.

It may seem as though everything has changed, but most still agree on one thing—Bakersfield sucks.∆

Patrick M. Klemz lives a brief stumble from the bars. Send your slurred comments to pklemz@newtimesslo.com or stop by myspace.com/pmklemz.

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