skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Fracking
Safe Chemicals
Defending the Clean Air Act

Deron Lovaas’s Blog

Universities Leading the Way to Our Transportation Future

Deron Lovaas

Posted February 5, 2014 in Curbing Pollution, Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

Tags:
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

This week I trekked up to Philadelphia to speak to a graduate design class at the University of Pennsylvania about a project of theirs, namely delivering greenhouse-gas-reducing policy recommendations to their client, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). DVRPC is a relatively capacious MPO with 120 staff charged with developing regional transportation plans and programs. Their recently adopted Connections 2040 plan was informed by expert as well as public input through such tools as a scenario-building tool called “Choices and Voices.”

I toyed with it, maxing out the dials on smart growth and transit and bike/ped investment and achieved just a 10 percent cut in heat-trapping emissions. I kept running into red ink in part b/c the region is 65 percent dependent on a federal transportation program running chronic shortfalls. Governance is also fragmented at DVRPC with 18 voting members representing two states, 9 counties and about 350 municipalities. DVRPC’s job is quite challenging!

Which is why it’s smart to tap expertise at UPenn. And that tees up the main topic of this blog: Town-gown partnerships.

Today U.S. PIRG released a report about such initiatives, fittingly entitled A New Course. As small communities unto themselves and as thought leaders in larger community contexts across the country, colleges and universities can -- and increasingly do -- drive innovation in transportation, due to self-interest as much as altruism. Among the reasons for the growing number of initiatives:

  • Reducing the cost of parking, which annually can be as high as $4,000 a space in urban areas;
  • Improving community relations, since traffic problems can be a nightmare for local jurisdictions (as in my home town of College Park, MD);
  • Catering to prospective students who show an interest in multiple transportation options; and
  • Helping the environment as per sustainability commitments by many colleges.

The authors describe 6 specific innovative college programs:

  • Accessing free or discounted transit services (see map below);
  • Promoting bicycling;
  • Building new biking and walking paths;
  • Promoting ridesharing;
  • Promoting carsharing; and
  • Providing distance learning and online resources.univ map.jpg

In Boulder, thanks to the 58 miles of paved pathways and 78 underpasses (map pdf of the network here), about 60 percent of all student trips were by bike or on foot in 2012, a 9 percent jump from 1990. This remarkable growth, and the commitment of the university and city generally, aren’t too surprising. Visionary local leadership will get those kinds of results, and Boulder has benefited from top-notch advocates such as former county commissioner Will Toor, whom I met when we were fellow student activists more than 20 years ago. In fact, Will co-authored a book on transportation and sustainability about a decade ago, which the authors of this new study helpfully reference.

In Davis, a University program aimed at boosting carpools provides solid incentives for ridesharing. Specifically, it discounts parking permits, reserves parking spaces, gives a tax break, and provides ride-matching and emergency ride home services to carpoolers. Ridesharing is second only to driving alone as the preferred commuting option for those traveling to campus from outside Davis. Ridesharing has more than doubled among graduate students between the 2007-08 and 2011-12 academic years, climbing to nearly a 7 percent share.

The authors also call for universities to extend their reach to influence the cities and regions that host them. They recommend new town-gown partnerships, new strategies for supporting non-driving modes of transportation and adaptation to the transportation choices favored by younger Americans.

This brings us back to UPenn and DVRPC, which heralds an opportunity to forge planning partnerships too. Yes, implementing cool and popular transportation programs such as the ones profiled is useful. However, universities – specifically those with planning and design schools or departments – can also help improve the big-picture city and regional plans that envision and drive the future of transportation. There’s a lot of intellectual capital on these campuses, and it can be tapped by MPOs to add much-needed analytical and planning capacity on an ongoing basis. This is, of course, a two-way street – universities would benefit not just with better community relations but also course material that has practical and long-lasting effects.

Innovating in the often-stodgy transportation world requires many more partnerships with the nation’s universities, and I applaud PIRG and UPenn for providing such excellent examples.

Share | | |

Comments

Adam WilliamsFeb 6 2014 06:53 AM

Hey! Where is Grand Rapids, MI on your map???

Our local universities participate vigrously in our mass transit system: The RAPID [awarded by APTA the Outstanding Achievement Award in 2013]. A student id at Grand Valley State University gets your free transit on the system, other universities offer discounts. And there are dedicated routes for serving GVSU and Ferris State universities - the GVSU route#50 runs at ten minute intervals [and it is a l-o-n-g ways] and is being investigated as a potential BRT upgrade. Our city has also won numerous Bicycle Friendly Community awards in the last few years and is on target have 100 miles of bike lanes by 2015!

The world does not end with tier 1 cities; and Detroit is not the only city in Michigan.

Deron LovaasFeb 7 2014 08:13 AM

Adam,

Just to be clear, it's not my map it's PIRG's. And your point is a good one. Sometimes groups and analyses overlook cities that rank below the top 50 or 100 in population. And that's a shame, because there's often impressive innovations taking place there as well, especially in medium-sized cities with good leadership and capacity to innovate.

Thanks for the corrective note.

Best,

Deron

Comments are closed for this post.

About

Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

Feeds: Deron Lovaas’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In