Staff Q&A/John Gustafson

John Gustafson, assistant manager of Penn Transit Services Photo credit: Mark Stehle

For more than two decades, John Gustafson has helped transport Penn staff, faculty and students from one end of campus to the other, shuttling them from transit stops across Center City and West Philadelphia, to offices, dorms and every point in between.

Most recently, Gustafson was also responsible for putting Penn’s transportation contingency plan into effect during the early November SEPTA strike.

“Once we know that a strike is a possibility, we basically sit down and dust off the plans from years past and look and see what worked, and what didn’t work,” he says.

When he started working at Penn 21 years ago, Gustafson was a part-time driver. Through the years, he worked his way up to Assistant Manager of Penn Transit Services. His present-day duties include overseeing the University’s charter services, Penn Accessible transportation and vehicle maintenance for various departments, including Parking, Mail Services, the LIFE program, Civic House and the College Houses. Penn Transit Services also runs the Penn Shuttle and Penn Bus, which transport PennCard holders along selected routes.

Gustafson is so respected by the 13 staffers who report to him that he was a finalist for the 2009 Model Supervisor Award, an honor bestowed on the best leaders at Penn who make constructive contributions to the University’s success.

For his part, Gustafson says it’s the people at Penn who have kept him at the University for so many years. “I love the people I work with, and the people we serve,” he says. “That’s always been my biggest joy.”

Q. In this SEPTA strike, the workers walked off the job at 3 a.m. Was that your worst-case scenario?
It was absolutely worst-case scenario. They caught us completely blind. I mean they caught every single person in the city blind, with the exception of the people who stayed up to watch the events after the World Series.
I actually woke up, as usual, early in the morning and went downstairs and saw that there was a message on the phone and called the office right away. Our dispatcher told me SEPTA went on strike at 3 o’clock, and I pulled it together. I got the call around 6 a.m., and by 7:30, we had buses on the street.

Q. What was the contingency plan?
It was shuttle buses from 7 to 9:30 a.m. from the PATCO station at 16th and Locust streets and from the subway depot at 69th and Market; and then in the afternoon, from 4:15 to 6:15 p.m., taking people from campus back to those terminals. There were also operations run by the Health System that ran shuttles along Spruce Street and Baltimore and Lancaster avenues.
The first strike I came into was the 1995 strike. The plan was already in place. For every strike it’s just a matter of implementing [the plan] and then refining it, because there’s always something different each strike. During this strike it was traffic.

Q. Was anything complicated by the South Street Bridge being closed?
No, we knew that ahead and made alternate arrangements. During the last strike, actually, the main pickup location was the Gates entrance to the hospital, which is directly across from Houston Hall. We actually moved that at the end of the last strike to 33rd and Walnut. If we had stayed there, traffic really would have hindered us because traffic during this strike was the worst I’ve ever seen. Rush hour started at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and didn’t end until almost 8 p.m.

Q. Was Penn’s plan a success? Have you gotten any feedback?
I think so, absolutely. We actually got three letters saying, ‘Thank you very much. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t run the service.’ Another one said: ‘Do you think you could keep this service? We’d rather pay you than SEPTA.’ We can’t move the public and charge for it, unfortunately.

Q. Handling strikes aside, what are some other big projects coming down the pike?
One of the biggest ones that we just came through is the GPS system.

Q. Talk a bit about that project.
We installed the GPS system in July of 2008. For our established routes in the evening, our Penn Buses, our shuttle vans, it gives a real-time look at where vehicles are in reference to where you are, and it also gives approximate times of when it will arrive at the stop you’re at.
Let’s say you’re at one of our stops, and you’re waiting for the Penn Bus East to go to Center City, and it’s during the hours of our service operation, and you have a mobile device—a cell phone, an iPhone, BlackBerry, PDA, anything that’s internet capable—you can actually go to our website and see where our vehicles are along the route, or request an approximate time of arrival at the stop you’re at. The system updates every six seconds so it’s as close to real time as you can get.

Q. What other projects are on the drawing board?
The next one that we’re looking at is our relocation project. At some point, probably in 2010, maybe 2011, this parking lot [at 32nd and Walnut] will cease operations [to make way] for the nanotechnology building. We will have to relocate and we’re in the process of figuring out what that will look like, moving the operation center and all the vehicles and equipment.

Q. Any other initiatives coming out of your office?
We’re looking at alternately-fueled vehicles—biodiesel or hybrid vehicles. They do sell hybrid transit buses; SEPTA just started transferring their fleet over. Unfortunately, with our 15-passenger vans, there are not a whole lot of companies out there right now. We’re looking at more alternate fuels than actual hybrid technology. We’re looking at biodiesel or propane, compressed natural gas.

For more information on all Penn Transit services, visit the website at

Originally published on December 3, 2009