One Ride at a Time

Art on local buses signals a paradigm shift in Santa Cruz Metro’s commitment to environmental activism.

By Brian Upton
January 2, 2024
Santa Cruz METRO bus driving along Highway 1 coast with wallpaper of whale's tail
Photo: Frans Lanting

At the outset, the article you are reading was intended to be a Santa Cruz Vibes visual “eye candy” piece revisiting the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District’s ‘One Ride at a Time’ campaign. The partnership includes METRO, Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC), Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, Bay of Life Fund, and renowned photographer-writer team Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom. All that was needed would have been a couple of updated pull quotes from those key contributors, a quick proofread, and off to the printers it would have gone.

The interviews with Frans Lanting and Michael Tree from METRO, aimed at securing those quotes, instead unveiled the tremendous passion and dedication that are at the heart of the campaign. This left me eager to delve deeper into the story.

Earlier this year, to grow ridership and protect the environment, buses wrapped in wildlife photos by Frans Lanting were unveiled and were met with immediate fanfare when the mobile art pieces began traversing the streets of Santa Cruz County. The intention? To showcase the environmental benefits of transit, encourage bus ridership, and protect Santa Cruz County’s extraordinary natural resources.

“Every one of these buses is a visual confirmation of this beautiful place we live in.” The first answer to the initial question clarified that Lansing did more than lend his art to the METRO.

“We worked very closely with Santa Cruz Metro on the art direction, the image selection, and messaging to make it a truly comprehensive campaign. Every image you see on a bus was carefully chosen to represent an aspect of the unique biodiversity of Monterey Bay,” says Lanting.

15 wallpaper designs for buses all with environmental themes

Born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Lanting is a renowned wildlife photographer and environmental advocate. His striking images of the natural world have graced the pages of numerous publications, including National Geographic. Lanting’s work reflects his passion for conservation and our planet’s beauty, often inspiring others to protect it. From the savannas of Africa to the tundra of Antarctica, Lansing’s global perspective on the world’s environments seems to have resolved his love and commitment for his second home of over 40 years here in Monterey Bay. The images he lent to METRO are intended to connect the community to the fragile and diverse ecosystem surrounding us.

“Every image represents a subject or a theme, serving as a direct call to action for conservation and awareness, and this message is extended through our tagline: ‘Protecting One Ride at a Time.’ For example, we have whales, redwoods, mountain lions, monarchs, and so on.”

Lanting worked directly with METRO’s CEO, Michael Tree, to ensure the buses were more than just cool images rolling around town.

“Chris & I were intentional in connecting the dots for the public, associating each bus with a specific cause and highlighting the solutions local nonprofits are providing. It is a significant campaign.”

Frans Lanting
A Santa Cruz Metro bus with a whale's tail wallpaper drives on West Cliff
Photo: Frans Lanting

A mass transit operation would be something other than a traditional environmental conservation and activism partner. Across town, sitting in the administrative offices at METRO with CEO Michael Tree, it becomes easier to correlate how this unique partnership came to be.

“I view public transit differently than most people,” says Tree, who has previously been named Transit Manager of the Year by the California Association for Coordinated Transportation and the California Transit Association.

Tree has more than 27 years of experience in the public transit industry and city management and holds a master’s degree in Transportation Management from San Jose State University and a bachelor’s degree in Business Management from Brigham Young University.

“Public transit brings a direct opportunity to protect the environment. On anybody’s scorecard, the environment is losing, so for me, this isn’t just a ‘welfare to work’ or moving students. It ends up being about moving people that understand when you move as a group the environmental impact is lessened.”

When Tree took the position with METRO almost two years ago, his first order of business was to get out in the community and talk with many local opinion leaders: politicians, chamber executives, business leaders, students, locals, and more.

“I wanted to know two things. What keeps you here in Santa Cruz, and what keeps you up at night?” The consistent answers from the diverse cross-section helped form the ‘One Ride at a Time’ program. “It was the Monterey Bay. They love it here because of everything that surrounds them. From diverse marine life, walks on the beach, surfing, and the redwoods.”

“I immediately realized I had landed in a community that aligns with my vision that public transit needs a drastic paradigm shift.”

Michael Tree
A Santa Cruz Metro bus displaying a wallpaper of monarch butterflies parked in front of Natural Bridges
Photo: Frans Lanting

Tree was challenged almost immediately by an ambitious directive from the board of directors: double METRO ridership initially from 3.5 million per year to 7 million. Additionally, concepts are on the table to move that number upwards of 9 million riders annually.

“It takes some real out-of-the-box thinking,” says Tree, who is excited for the future. “There is a path for all of this. I am up for the challenge; we know how to get there, and the board is moving forward with a purpose. It’s exciting.”

The exact meeting that included the ridership goals also came with a new directive for METRO that Tree feels is the most profound commitment yet to the local environment.

“The board told me, ‘Don’t buy another tailpipe on these fixed route busses.’” Tree realized the magnitude of the ask. “I was like, ‘dang’ that’s even more ambitious (laughs). A battery electric bus or a hydrogen bus…they are very pricey. But we took on the goal, which has become part of our commitment to protecting the environment in conjunction with ride-sharing and One Ride at a Time.”

A quote from Steve Jobs often inspires Tree: “People don’t know what they want until I show it to them.” He feels people don’t completely understand how public transportation can work until you show it to them.

“I told the board, let’s get the routes straight, fast, frequent and reliable. Let’s get the buses running every 15 minutes; that is the gold standard of all world-class transit systems. That is how you earn the trust of the public.” Tree also thinks the new buses will help create buy-in from locals. “Finally, let’s replace all these buses with modern, reliable, and environmentally friendly models.”

The commitment is broader than buses, riders, and route efficiencies. METRO recently adopted a policy incentivizing vendors for competitive bids, resulting in a financial boon for local non-profits championing the environment.

“We have a 60 million dollar budget.” Tree details how they were able to turn those contracts into activism. “Our board of directors has asked vendors for a 5% discount on bids, which will help them score better in the proposal process to get work at METRO. In turn, take that 5% discount from the winning bid and give it directly to our community partners to further their work.”

Like a delicate and connected ecosystem, we come full circle with this story. One of those community partner non-profits benefiting from that 5% vendor model Tree references is the Bay of Life Foundation, a foundation created by Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom, who donated their time, talents, and imagery at the outset for the METRO bus wraps.

“When Michael Tree came to us with this idea, we knew it needed to be done in a specific way to make a difference and elevate everyone.” Lanting reflects on how the partnership with METRO has bridged a long-term and deep commitment to environmental stewardship from the global stage to the literal streets of a beloved hometown for him and his wife, Christine Eckstrom. A renowned writer, editor, and videographer whose work also celebrates the wonders of the natural world while exploring the coexistence of people and wildlife, Eckstrom is deeply invested in the project.

“Christine and I raise our voices when we see a need to do so, but we are just two people. This eventually is in the hands of the citizens of Santa Cruz County to be motivated and support the organizations working hard every day to maintain the quality of our shared natural environment.”

One Ride at a Time is not a passive campaign; METRO is looking for the community to participate. Bus riders must create an account on the online ridesharing portal administered by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC)’s GO Santa Cruz County program ( or through the Commute Tracker app ( Once enrolled, riders will use the portal to log their bus trips, earning 10 points for each trip with a maximum of two rides per day that count towards point accruals. When riders reach 250 points, or 25 rides, they can use the portal to select one of the nonprofit partners to receive a $10 donation. Riders can also see the greenhouse gas emissions reductions they’ve made by riding public transit and compete against each other to see who can make the most significant impact.

A Santa Cruz Metro bus with redwoods pictured on the side and in back of the vehicle
Photo: Frans Lanting

About Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom

Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom are partners in life and work. They promote knowledge and understanding about the Earth through images and stories that convey a sense of wonder and concern about our living planet. Their work and alliances create leverage for conservation efforts, from local initiatives to global campaigns.

Learn More at

About Santa Cruz METRO

Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District (METRO). Established in 1968, METRO’S mission is to provide environmentally sustainable transportation to Santa Cruz County. METRO directly operates county-wide, fixed-route and Highway 17 commuter service, with connections to Santa Clara County and Monterey Salinas Transit at its Watsonville Transit Center. The agency also operates ParaCruz paratransit service. Today METRO operates a fleet of 94 buses on 24 fixed routes and 32 paratransit vehicles.

Santa Cruz METRO Website
Santa Cruz METRO logo of sun and ocean with bird flying in front

METRO to Purchase 57 Zero-Emissions, Fuel Cell Electric Buses

In September, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District’s (METRO) Board of Directors unanimously approved the purchase of 57 hydrogen-powered, fuel cell electric buses (FCEBs). This procurement will be the largest acquisition of FCEBs in North American history.

The move exemplifies METRO’s commitment to environmental stewardship, innovation, and a greener future.

METRO expects to start taking delivery of the 57 new FCEBs in late 2024, which includes forty-eight (48) 40 ft. buses and nine (9) 60 ft. articulated buses. Most of these will be deployed in the Watsonville service area, which the agency has committed to fully serving with zero-emissions vehicles from this historic purchase.

The new vehicles will replace aging compressed natural gas (CNG) and diesel buses, converting 59% of METRO’s fleet to zero-emissions. This will support the transition of 100% of METRO’s fleet to zero emission technology years ahead of the deadline set in the state’s Innovative Clean Transit (ICT) Regulation.

Read Official Press Release