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Transport U: Colleges Save Millions By Embracing Policies to Reduce Driving

Jeffrey Tumlin was managing transportation programs at Stanford in the mid-1990s, when he made an important finding: It was cheaper for the university to pay people not to drive than to build new parking structures.

Offering employees just $90 a year not to drive to campus was enough to entice many of them to use transit, carpools, or bicycles. Meanwhile, the annualized cost of each parking space can range from about $650 for surface spots in suburban locations to over $4,000 for structured spaces in cities, according to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute [PDF].

Biking means big savings at Stanford. Image: FHWA

Stanford offered further incentive by raising parking prices 15 percent. Then, it invested $4 million in bicycle facilities, including turning a main road through campus into a bike and transit mall. This $4 million enticed 900 people out of their cars and onto bicycles, according to a case study in Transportation & Sustainable Campus Communities, by Will Toor and Spenser Havlick. Building parking facilities to accommodate those 900 people would have cost $18 million.

What Stanford had discovered was “transportation demand management,” or strategies to minimize transportation costs by reducing driving. Today almost every college and university in the country employs some form of TDM, whether it’s providing discounted transit passes for students or offering special parking rates to carpoolers.

Colleges and universities — by nature of their fixed locations and limited resources — are excellent laboratories for transportation innovation, says Tumlin, who now works for the firm Nelson\Nygaard.

“Even the well-funded institutions have to make a choice about putting money into parking or putting money in a classroom,” said Tumlin.

Many schools are now well ahead of even the most progressive cities and state DOTs when it comes to saving money and improving public health by reducing car trips.

There are many strategies available to universities seeking to promote options other than solo car commuting. Places like Stanford, MIT, and the University of Colorado-Boulder — campus TDM leaders that Streetsblog will be profiling in a series of upcoming posts — are employing a host of tools, including:

offering free transit passes to faculty
running free campus shuttles
strategically adjusting parking prices
offering car-sharing services
providing vanpool subsidies
offering parking discounts and better locations to carpoolers
promoting bicycling
promoting telecommuting

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