In the effort to curb emissions, alternative transit options must address the underlying habits of campus commuters, who are looking for convenience and value.
By Karla Hignite
At the University of Colorado at Boulder, the car is the alternate mode of transportation. On a daily basis, 75 percent of the university's 30,000 students travel to and from campus by means other than a personal automobile, notes Dave Newport, director of CU Boulder's Environmental Center. “This is a paradigm shift that has taken place over the course of decades through consistent dedication to reducing costs and improving quality of life.”
A primary catalyst has been CU Boulder students, who in 1991 voted to tax themselves to fund prepaid student bus passes. “We were one of the first higher education institutions in the nation to negotiate discounted ridership for an entire student body,” says Newport. Student support for the program remains strong. In the midst of a bad economy, students voted eight to one last spring to raise the bus pass fee from $58 to $74 per semester to retain the service.
CU Boulder's initiatives to cut transit-related greenhouse gas emissions are no doubt helped by the fact that Boulder is an extremely bike-friendly town. “Over the years we've developed an admirable infrastructure of bike lanes and more than 75 underpasses on the multiuse pathway system,” says Newport. “You can ride 120 miles of trails uninterrupted because of these,” making it safe and easy to get from anywhere in the city to and around campus. Currently, the university is helping to fund a $7.8 million bike and pedestrian underpass adjacent to the busiest bus stop in the Denver metro area, which happens to be located on the CU Boulder campus.
All Carbon Is Not the Same
When discussing an institution's carbon footprint, it's important to bear in mind that not all carbon is equal, asserts Newport. In essence, every college or university must contend with three different kinds of carbon:
- The carbon that you own and directly control. A good example is the fuel that institutions buy and use to power their campus vehicle fleet.
- The carbon that someone else owns but you indirectly control. Think of an off-campus power plant: The utility owns the carbon, but the institution controls its emission.
- The carbon that you neither own nor can directly control. This is the hardest kind of carbon for a campus to mitigate, and it includes commuting-related emissions.
“If I'm in the business of reducing carbon, I want to go where I have the most control, and that's over the carbon that I own,” says Newport. However, vehicle fleets in particular represent a tiny-to-minuscule contribution to the overall carbon footprint for most campuses, he adds. At CU Boulder, that's 0.8 percent versus 17 percent for commuting-related emissions (including air travel)—and a whopping 44 percent for purchased electricity. “In other words, vehicle fleets don't typically represent your game-changing carbon.”
Even so, taking action to trim emissions in this area is an important step, says Newport, because it shows that an institution is taking responsibility for what it directly controls. And that in turn may exert a positive influence over what an institution can't control. “I can't tell our faculty and staff what kind of car to drive—or whether to drive a car at all. I can only try to incentivize individuals to move in a particular direction,” explains Newport. “Key to making real progress toward sustainable transportation is giving people good alternatives.”
Rounding out CU Boulder's low-carbon transit options are ridesharing and shuttle services, car-sharing and bike-rental programs, and a university-subsidized Eco Pass for faculty and staff. The pass covers unlimited bus and light rail service as well as a “guaranteed ride home” service ensuring pass holders a free taxi ride in the event of an emergency. Other special programs for students include late-night bus service and a ski bus that operates on weekends from November through April to transport students to area ski resorts. And yet, Newport is under no illusions that what CU Boulder has accomplished with its initiatives is transferable to every institution.
Every Campus Is Unique
Miles of uninterrupted bike trails from anywhere in the city to and around campus.
University of Colorado at Boulder
For starters, the location of campus populations largely defines an institution's key transportation challenges and probable solutions. CU Boulder has a relatively large local population, with the majority of students living on or within four miles of campus. Not so for Delta College, University Center, Michigan.
Strictly commuter. Like many community colleges, Delta is a 100 percent–commuter campus. The average trip for its 11,000-plus students and for faculty and staff is about 12 miles one way, says Linda Petee, Delta's sustainability and risk management coordinator. That's also the approximate distance between Delta's main campus—located outside of town adjacent to area farmland—and the campus centers located in each district within the tri-county area that the college serves.
For Delta, as for most colleges and universities, a first step in tackling transportation-related emissions is gaining a sense of where students, faculty, and staff live and how they travel to and from campus on a daily basis. Commuter surveys and greenhouse gas inventories help form important baselines for understanding traveler behavior and the impact of transportation-related emissions on an institution's total carbon footprint. They also help identify where the biggest opportunities exist to reduce these emissions.
Delta has been analyzing data from the past eight years to formulate a multifaceted approach to cutting its commuting-related emissions. According to the college's 2008 greenhouse gas inventory, these are second only to electricity in terms of their contribution to the institution's overall carbon footprint, at 37 percent versus 44 percent, respectively. What is encouraging is that five years ago commuting accounted for 41 percent of emissions, says Petee. “And that reduction coincided with a 21 percent increase in enrollment during the past four years.”
During the past two years, bus ridership among Delta's faculty and staff increased by 1.75 percent of mode share and ridesharing by about 4 percent. Surveying of students shows a slow shift from individual rides to carpooling, up about 1 percent of mode share each year over the past eight years, notes Petee. “I think a number of factors account for a lower commuter footprint,” she explains, “including higher gas prices and the fact that we are pushing awareness about the impact of commuting and promoting the benefits of alternative modes of transportation.”
Urban split campus. The University of Illinois at Chicago, an urban public research university, is primarily a commuter campus, serving 25,000 students and employing more than 10,000 faculty and staff. At any given time there are as many as 12,000 cars spread across UIC's 43 parking venues, notes Cynthia Klein-Banai, UIC's associate chancellor for sustainability. Geographically, the university is located near the intersection of major highways and public transit, but the campus itself is split into east and west sides about 1.5 miles apart. “Because of this distance and safety concerns, we've always operated a shuttle service between the two sides,” says Klein-Banai.
Based on ZIP code analysis, UIC has determined that about 25 percent of its students live within a few miles of campus, including 15 percent who live in UIC residence halls and another 10 percent in nearby apartments. On average, the commute for faculty and students is 15 miles each way, while staff have the longest commute, at 16 miles. Overall, commuting accounts for 16 percent of UIC's carbon footprint, evenly distributed between students and faculty and staff.
The university is currently reviewing public transportation availability by ZIP code to overlay with UIC commuter locations to see which centers of population aren't being well served by mass transit options. “This will help us target specific areas for ridesharing programs and pinpoint where we might try to partner with city and suburban transit to increase and extend certain routes,” says Klein-Banai. UIC is currently developing a campus master plan that, among other things, will propose solutions to problematic intersections; improve bike and shuttle bus routes; and make the connectivity between campuses more pleasant, convenient, and safe.
Widely dispersed. The University of Rhode Island, Kingston, would like to give busing and carpooling a boost. Approximately 50 percent of URI's undergraduate students currently live on campus. Recent and planned residence hall construction should bring that to about 52 percent of undergraduates, but that still leaves a substantial proportion of students who commute. And, Kingston itself isn't a typical college town, explains Rachel Sholly, the university's energy fellows coordinator and cooperative extension administrator. While many other URI students live within a 10-mile radius, they are dispersed throughout a wide region of suburbs and rural areas.
More so than faculty and staff, however, URI students do tend to concentrate in particular locations. For instance, the largest population of commuting students—approximately 3,000 of the university's total student population of 16,000—rent single-family beach homes in the nearby town of Narragansett. “Depending on the neighborhood, students living here commute anywhere from 6 to 10 miles one way,” says Sholly. That provides real leverage for enhancing bus service to the area and cultivating a ridesharing culture among the town's inhabitants.
URI recently completed an in-depth analysis of six surveys conducted within the past four years to lay the groundwork for specific programs university leaders might consider implementing to encourage shifts toward greater use of alternative transit. (For survey details, see the article “Data-Driven Transit Policy,” in this month's Business Briefs.) For most institutions, crunching commuter data is an essential first step for developing alternative transportation plans that provide traction.
Take the Bus
When it was developed in the late 1960s, the Evergreen State College was designed as a commuter campus, located six miles from the center of Washington's state capital in Olympia, yet within two miles of freeway access. The 300 acres that comprise Evergreen's built footprint consume less than half of the college's 1,000 total acres, many of which remain forested. One byproduct of existing slightly off the beaten path is that the closest commercial retail development and services are approximately four miles from campus, notes Scott Morgan, coordinator of Evergreen's office of sustainability. While the college currently has on-campus residential capacity for approximately 25 percent of its 4,600 students, with plans to provide more, a significant portion of students are working adults who make multiple-destination trips every day.
According to Evergreen's most recent greenhouse gas inventory, 27 percent of the college's total carbon footprint can be attributed to transportation, notes John Hurley, vice president of finance and administration. “However, since we buy renewable energy credits to offset 100 percent of our purchased electricity, transportation emissions actually account for about 43 percent of our footprint,” he explains. The college's goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020 will require significant work and investment into transit options, land use, and closer housing opportunities for students, faculty, and staff, adds Hurley.
In addition to its annual greenhouse gas inventory, the college has been gathering data for several years on commuting behaviors, observing traffic levels and parking lot use, and tracking parking permit applications and transit ridership. Travis Skinner, Evergreen's student transportation coordinator, is in the midst of analyzing a comprehensive geographic information system (GIS) mapping of faculty, staff, and student home addresses to assess the distance and locations from which everyone is traveling during their daily commutes. “Our hope is to use this information to examine where our remaining challenges exist and which alternatives make the most sense—whether that means increased vanpools, expanded bus transit, better biking routes, or special incentives,” says Steven Trotter, Evergreen's executive director of operational planning and budget.
Five-year change in commuting-related emissions as a percent of institution's overall carbon footprint.
Delta College, Michigan
Free rides for everyone. One big investment Evergreen has already made has been to build strong ties with its countywide bus provider. Currently the college is served by two Intercity Transit bus routes. In 2009, these were the most popular routes of the provider's service area, with demand increasing 70 percent over the past five years. Intercity's service to the Evergreen campus operates on a hub system, with a steady stream of buses arriving from the main hub to campus every 15 minutes. The college wants to explore direct point-to-point service to certain neighborhoods with heavy ridership to make the trip more time-efficient as well as expand some routes to make it easier for those in outlying rural areas to take the bus instead of drive, says Hurley.
Ironically, because Intercity Transit is funded by state sales tax, as the economy has lagged the provider's budget was reduced by 9 percent in both 2008 and 2009, leaving expansion of bus routes at a standstill and even curtailing frequency of service. “Once the economy picks up and expansion of routes is again possible, the results of our GIS mapping project should provide important data to make the case for our requests,” says Hurley.
Despite the contraction of services, Evergreen's students voted to tax themselves to retain late-night weekend service from downtown Olympia to the campus. That fee is on top of the self-imposed student fee of $1.10 per credit (up to $12 per quarter) allowing all Evergreen students to ride free on Intercity Transit buses when they flash a current student ID. Evergreen employees, including part-time and temporary workers, are eligible for free state-funded bus passes.
Bio-buses to the rescue. At Elon University, Elon, North Carolina, about 60 percent of the institution's 5,000 students live on campus. The university recently adopted a campus master plan that calls for increasing residential capacity. “Near term, we plan to add 1,600 beds, which will get us closer to 70 or 75 percent of students on campus,” says Gerald Whittington, Elon's senior vice president for business, finance, and technology. “While the impetus for this has more to do with enhancing the student educational experience, one of the benefits will certainly be fewer commuting trips.”
Meanwhile, a 2008 commuter habit survey revealed that 35 percent of Elon's students carpool at least once each week, versus 14 percent of faculty and 10 percent of staff. Beyond the car, 20 percent of students travel to campus by bus at least once a week, compared to less than 1 percent of both faculty and staff. “There is clearly an opportunity to decrease commuting emissions through increasing the use of alternative transportation,” says Whittington. “Right now we are looking at what we can do for those closest to campus.”
Part of that entails gauging faculty and staff interest in bus ridership, should new routes become possible, says Elaine Durr, Elon's sustainability coordinator. In mapping the location and travel distance for its 1,200 faculty and staff members, the university learned that the mean one-way travel distance for this group is 12.6 miles. However, close to half (42 percent) live within five miles of the campus. While discussions are under way with a regional transit system to create some park-and-ride opportunities, at this point only rudimentary bus services are available throughout the surrounding counties, says Durr.
Luckily, Elon's busing capabilities secured a big boost in January 2007, when the institution began operating its first bio-fuel buses, thanks in large part to a $1 million federal grant that covered the purchase of seven buses and a special fuel tank. The university already had a basic transit system in place prior to the grant, so no additional costs were required for employing the drivers. Currently five routes are open to faculty, staff, students, and community members. Four of those service local apartment complexes, and one stops at local shopping centers, says Durr. Based on student interest and need, a new route began in February 2010, stopping at community partner locations where Elon students are doing service work.
Commuting portion of institution's carbon footprint.
University of Illinois at Chicago
Reduced fares and transit benefits. In addition to a “take the bus to work” initiative, Delta College is exploring discounted bus coupons for students and is in conversation with county and metro bus systems to develop a park-and-ride program. Similarly, the University of Rhode Island offers a 50 percent subsidy to students to encourage bus ridership. Another program on the state's long-range drawing board is a commuter rail line that would extend a Boston-to-Providence line to Kingston. “That would not only allow students to commute more easily, but would also provide a great incentive for some of our faculty and staff to ride the train instead of drive,” says Robert Weygand, vice president of administration.
When UIC began assessing all eligible students a per-semester fee for a universal pass program, allowing unlimited rides on Chicago metro trains and buses, the university noticed a 57 percent decrease in the use of parking permits among students, says Klein-Banai. “While faculty and staff are not eligible for the Chicago Transit Authority U-PASS program, we continue to work with the city to find a compromise for offering them some kind of monthly pass.” UIC employees are eligible for a pretax benefit in connection with regional transit expenses, notes Klein-Banai. In addition to its free intercampus shuttle, UIC offers a fee-based commuter bus service during morning and evening rush hours that provides transportation to and from downtown railway stations.
Share a Bike, Ride, Car
In addition to providing students, faculty, and staff with mass transit options, more institutions are getting serious about making it safe and convenient for commuters to walk, bike, and carpool. That often entails developing a support structure to make using these modes a hassle-free no-brainer.
For bikers, that includes convenient parking and storage and help with maintenance problems. In partnership with the Chicago Department of Transportation, UIC's office of sustainability sponsors a transportation intern whose primary responsibilities include promoting biking on campus and within the city. Klein-Banai's office is exploring the feasibility of secure, fenced bike storage on campus. “We don't have a dedicated transportation demand position on our campus, so it really requires working with parking services to leverage what we can in terms of setting aside space for bikes,” says Klein-Banai.
If you build it, they will bike. All three counties served by Delta College have motor-prohibited green trails with the potential to connect each campus to major areas throughout surrounding cities and towns. Delta's neighboring institution, Saginaw Valley State University, University Center, Michigan, is hooked into that trail system. “Right now we're trying to get the remaining funding to extend a four-mile section of trail from our main campus to the university,” says Petee. “This would provide direct access that we think would get heavy use, especially during good-weather months.”
CU Boulder's bike program administers short-duration and semester-long rentals and offers free cruiser bikes for cross-campus travel. A dedicated bike station offers repair service and even sponsors a mobile mechanic, reachable by cell phone, who will travel to cyclists unable to make it to the bike station because of a breakdown.
Evergreen likewise has a strong student-run bike shop where riders can repair, modify, or rebuild their bikes using shop tools. Free tire-air stations are located across campus. At a recent public forum to assess where the campus community wished to see additional focus on alternative transportation, 85 percent expressed support for a bike-share program. Two weeks after the forum, Evergreen's student-funded Clean Energy Committee approved a $10,000 grant to hire a recent alumnus to build 10 bikes for loan. Rentals will include a helmet, lock, and lights, and will be free so long as all equipment is returned in good condition. The college has also partnered with the city, county, and several environmental groups to develop maps and resources to help cyclists find safe routes throughout the region.
Elon rents bikes for $25 per semester on a first-come, first-served basis. To respond to demand, Durr hopes to add 25 bikes this year to the 27 currently available. “Initially we tried a completely free bike program, but it didn't work since no value was placed on the bikes to encourage proper care,” says Durr.
URI hit a similar snag in its earlier attempt to provide a fleet of free bikes for community use. With no fee to provide a sense of collateral responsibility and no mechanism to maintain the bikes or to distribute them evenly, most bikes ended up in the lower regions of URI's extensive and very hilly campus, says Robert Drapeau, director of public safety. Weather is an additional factor for some campuses like URI. “We often have snow from mid-December through the end of March—the very heart of the academic year,” notes Drapeau. “That should not diminish our effort to reinvigorate this program, but this time we feel we need to first establish the necessary behavior change prior to relaunching our program.”
Five-year increase in demand for bus routes to campus.
The Evergreen State College, Washington
Catching a ride. Institutions that actively intervene to make it easy for commuters to share rides can expect to see fewer single-occupancy vehicles pulling on and off campus. Evergreen and CU Boulder both use the popular Zimride software program, an online interface that connects riders. The program can now integrate with Facebook so that users can see where friends are traveling or review the profiles of others before deciding whether to catch a ride with someone they don't know.
Other institutions are testing in-house versions of ride-matching systems. Klein-Banai hopes to secure funding to bolster UIC's system to provide real-time information for those who have immediate travel needs.
Elon launched a rideshare program this past September based on GIS analysis indicating that 58 percent of faculty and staff live within 10 miles of campus, and with many of them clustered close together. Those interested can register through an online database that facilitates matches for both routine commuting and one-time special destinations. “Right now this remains an internal system created by in-house personnel to evaluate the potential for a larger third-party rideshare system,” says Durr. “So far, use has come mostly from students for one-time trips, but we believe more will participate as they become aware of the program.”
Borrowing the campus car. Another option with growing curb appeal on college and university campuses is car sharing. CU Boulder has partnered with local nonprofit eGO CarShare. Three vehicles ranging from a Honda Fit to a truck can be reserved online or by phone.
Zipcar is among a handful of nationwide providers that offer members the opportunity to reserve a public vehicle based on hourly or daily rates. After researching other university car-sharing programs, Elon launched its Zipcar program in October 2007 with two hybrid cars and then added a third this past fall based on growing demand. Membership has risen sharply, with more than 500 members today compared to 90 members as of May 2008, says Whittington. Users include those with departmental memberships for faculty and staff business travel. “We pay a flat fee each month for the cars. Depending on the level of use, the university gets a portion or the entire fee back,” explains Whittington. Elon students, faculty, and staff can join Zipcar for $35 per year. Cars are then reserved online and accessed using their membership card. Rates include gas, insurance, parking, and 180 miles per day.
Human Habit and Need
Percent of students who carpool at least once each week.
Elon College, North Carolina
No matter the green transportation options offered, a key component of actually getting campus commuters to switch modes is addressing underlying habits and needs for convenience and value. Evergreen's support for alternative transit includes preferential parking spaces for carpools and vanpools, free electric car-charging stations, and free lockers and showers for commuters.
In addition to the bike-share program, another option discussed at the institution's recent public forum was the possibility of developing a student version of the college-funded Passport program currently available to faculty and staff. The program provides 36 days of free parking a year (nine days per quarter) for those using alternative methods of transportation for 60 percent of their commuting. The strength of such a program is that it rewards good behavior without dismissing the valid need commuters have to occasionally drive solo, notes Hurley.
Time sensitive. The ability to save time is a key motivating force that institutions would do well to tap into with their transportation offerings. Elon's biofuel buses are equipped with a GPS tracking system that provides real-time bus locations and arrival times. Those waiting can call the service to find out when to expect their ride. The service's Web site also lets riders set up text messaging to alert them when their bus is 5 or 10 minutes away from their desired stop. UIC is looking to implement something similar for its intercampus shuttle so that faculty and staff in particular gain awareness of the convenience and frequency of the service. Then perhaps they won't be as tempted to drive between campuses for meetings or classes, says Klein-Banai.
Among Delta's tactical approaches for reducing commuter-related impacts is to offer a four-day workweek during summer months. A pilot program in 2008 was expanded to a nine-week program in 2009. “We recently did a follow-up survey with participating faculty and staff to ask if the shorter workweek resulted in additional trips and errands during the day, such as leaving campus to go out for lunch,” says Petee. “Eighty percent of respondents reported that they did not increase their number of trips during the shorter weeks.”
Ignorance is missed opportunity. In addition to promoting the benefits of alternative transportation, communicating the actual programs available to your campus community is crucial for gaining acceptance and use of those options. Durr points to Elon's Zipcar program as having flourished with increased communication, including information sent in new summer mailings, discussions at student orientations, and coverage on the university's Web page for parents. “The more students become aware of the program, the more likely they are to show up on campus car free,” says Durr.
Because of the significant number of bike riders and pedestrians sharing the trails and walkways on the CU Boulder campus, safety has become an emerging concern, says Newport. This past fall semester, students and the campus bike manager developed a social marketing campaign centered on the theme, “Don't be a DIRC” (dangerous, irresponsible, reckless cyclist). At first no one knew what this meant, but a real buzz was created when in various locations across campus, mannequins dressed as college students were staged to appear as cyclist-pedestrian accidents, explains Newport. “You can guess what happened next,” he adds. “Students everywhere were taking photos with their cell phones and sending them to their friends. In the process they were spreading awareness not only about an important safety issue for the university, but also about the bike program itself,” says Newport.
Even the act of conducting commuter surveys provides an avenue for educating your campus community, says Fred Meyerson, assistant professor at URI's College of the Environment and Life Sciences. “Asking questions about awareness of your institution's bus discount program is a great way to communicate that you have one.”
Perks can't hurt. Last September, Elon designated four parking spots for low-emissions vehicles in preferred locations behind the university's first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold building. So far 16 permits have been issued for those spots, says Whittington. “While this is the first real commuter-related incentive we've initiated, we plan to use this as a bellwether for other actions we might take.” This semester a senior seminar student group is researching additional incentive ideas and their potential effectiveness, notes Whittington, who is eager to receive the report.
Special promotions can also help gauge commuter buy-in. For a URI student-led project last fall, 50 parking spaces in a desirable location were set aside for a two-week period exclusively for those who carpooled. The same experiment is being repeated this semester. “This will help us begin amassing some data to assess whether a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lot should be permanently implemented into the university's parking plan,” says Sholly.
The “P” Word
Of course, no discussion of commuting-related emissions would be complete without addressing the issue of parking. While more institutions are taking action to green existing structures and lots with permeable surfaces, improved storm-water management, and LED (light-emitting diode) lighting, the bigger dilemma for most is how to incentivize commuting behaviors that don't require a parking spot.
Pricing. How to price parking is a sensitive subject for many campuses, including at Evergreen, where parking revenues help cover the costs of other transit programs. Currently the college charges a $40 parking fee per quarter for students, faculty, and staff who drive to campus. That conundrum—the desire to shift more commuters away from personal auto traffic versus the budgetary reliance on parking revenue—poses a problem for CU Boulder as well. With steady decreases in parking sales each year, the university-subsidized bus pass for faculty and staff—at a cost of about $700,000 per year—may cause further dipping into general fund support.
“Obviously the way this is structured is skewed and creates a conflict long term,” says Newport. “We want more people on the bus, but with decreased parking revenues to help subsidize the pass, and with bus rates that have gone up dramatically during the past several years, we're getting into a pinch. So we're trying to figure out how to move forward in a more sensible manner.” The economics still favor mass transit, argues Newport. “By any measure, it is cheaper to pay people to ride the bus than it is to build a new parking garage.”
Precedence. And yet for many, the problems of expectation and precedence prevail. “Often one of the most contentious issues on a college campus is not tenure or grades or salary and benefits packages, but parking,” admits Whittington. He says that for any new approach Elon may take, leaders must bear in mind that the university historically has never charged its faculty and staff a parking fee. “As we try to encourage carpooling or the use of fuel-efficient vehicles, for instance, we are more likely to designate the better spaces as an incentive to participate versus imposing a fee on those who don't,” adds Whittington.
Parking passes have also long been considered part of employee compensation at URI. With ample land at its disposal, the university has added lots over the years to accommodate growth in parking demand. Now URI is looking to reduce the number of lots in its internal core and push parking to the periphery to green the interior of the campus while also providing a subtle disincentive to driving, says Weygand. While surface lots are typically far less expensive than a multilevel garage, the university is committed to eliminating its campus parking sprawl with the development of at least one new parking structure, says Weygand. Doing so will require arriving at a fee structure that appropriately charges for the value of each space, that encourages HOV commuting, and that doesn't penalize students, he adds.
Percent decrease in parking permits among students after initiation of universal pass program for unlimited rides on metro trains and buses.
University of Illinois at Chicago
Parity. While CU Boulder hasn't yet joined the movement to require all freshmen to leave their cars at home, the university is gravitating in that direction, says Newport. That would be good for the institution as well as students, he notes. “If you can offer a full sweep of transit services so that students don't need a car, you end up saving them a pile of money by eliminating their costs for car ownership, maintenance, insurance, and gas.”
“What fundamentally drives commuter behavior is the cost of the trip in terms of both time and money,” says Patrick Siegman, a principal with transportation planning firm Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, San Francisco. “Parking spaces cost money, and so when you hide the cost, that creates a subsidy for only those students and employees who are able to drive or who can afford to own, insure, and repair a car,” says Siegman. One important breakthrough in encouraging more people to drive less is for leaders to learn how much parking actually costs and then give individuals the opportunity to avoid those costs, he adds.
For students, that begins by separating parking from the cost of room and board—or wherever else it exists within the budget—so that parking becomes an optional amenity rather than a required purchase of an education, says Siegman. Students who don't bring their cars to campus save money.
The situation for faculty and staff is different. For paid employees, parking subsidies are often considered part of their compensation package. If your institution doesn't charge faculty and staff for parking, or if it charges a very modest fee, start by determining and acknowledging the market value of their parking benefit to bring awareness about costs to the campus community. Then extend an equitable transit benefit to those who don't drive, suggests Siegman. Or, to make it less complicated, provide the cash value of a parking space to all employees to use for transportation as they choose. Employees who drive can use the cash to pay their parking fee. Those who walk, bike, carpool, or ride the bus keep the cash. “The strategic pricing of a transit benefit can encourage more people not to drive, and that in turn may reduce parking demand to the point that you can cancel plans for new parking structures or lots—for which you then also reap associated environmental benefits,” says Siegman.
As Far as You Can Go
Newport is somewhat troubled by a minor resurgence of the car on the CU Boulder campus that surveying has revealed during the past two years. “This may simply be an indicator that we've begun to flatten,” says Newport. “As we move forward, it's a valid question to ask how much further we can go. If we've already achieved a 75 percent modal split, can we still get another 5 or 10 percent of personal vehicle traffic off the road?” The irony is that the university will soon have to accommodate some additional commuter growth in connection with its new climate change research facility currently under construction.
Rise in membership in Zipcar car-sharing program on campus since May 2008.
Elon College, North Carolina
Elon likewise has to address its own success. The university is developing a formal climate action plan, but according to its first greenhouse gas inventory conducted in 2008, overall transportation-related emissions accounted for 40.9 percent of all university emissions, of which commuting contributed 13.6 percent. The lion's share, 21.1 percent, was attributed to student study abroad. “Because we have such a large number of students who study overseas—between 70 and 80 percent—we will need to look at offsets for this segment of transportation-related emissions in particular, because that is a mission priority that will certainly not go away,” notes Whittington.
No matter the particular constraints or challenges a campus faces, of most importance is moving forward with anything that can be done to encourage sustainable transportation, urges Newport. “The watchword here is to engage—engage stakeholders on this issue, and develop essential partnerships with campus departments, government agencies, local businesses, and community groups.” While attention to campus energy use is by far the biggest priority for most institutions when it comes to reducing their carbon footprint, transportation-related emissions should be right up there, Newport contends. “This is one of those issues that directly impacts people on a daily basis and can be used to remind everyone about the importance of their decisions-and of all the options available to them.”
KARLA HIGNITE, Kaiserslautern, Germany, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.