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Go With the Flow: Campus Traffic and Parking Solutions

20 tips for better transportation management
University Business, May 2010
Not only are the bikes used for Michigan State's rental program salvaged, but unused parts are recycled, like these tires being hauled away by former student mechanic Chris Zatske.

Ask most campus constituents about driving and parking on campus and they'll probably have a horror story to tell. "People would drive around for hours and be in tears" because they couldn't find a parking spot, says Don Walter, parking department head at the University of Georgia, which has 388 buildings on its 615-acre main campus. A new system for distributing parking permits has led to a safer, happier, and healthier campus, he notes.

UGA has dealt with the age-old challenge of managing traffic on campus through transportation demand management (TDM), and it is hardly alone in going down this road. According to the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, transportation demand management involves reducing traffic congestion and pollution by influencing changes in travel behavior. It's not about building or widening roads or improving signal timing, but rather, increasing the passenger capacity of the transportation system by reducing the number of vehicles on the roadway during peak travel times. It's accomplished through a variety of strategies aimed at influencing mode choice, frequency of trips, trip length, and route traveled, and TDM programs address convenience, cost, and timing of alternative modes of travel.

"The old-time pressures of parking and congestion are combining with the sustainability issue," says Philip L. Winters, director of the Center's TDM Program. Parking lots are not only expensive to build but take up valuable space that can be better used for classrooms or even green space. Solo drivers are also a big contributor to the campus carbon footprint. Safety is another issue because the more traffic you have the more accidents you might have, points out Sara Hendricks, the center's senior research associate.

However, improving traffic flow and parking on campus is very place dependent, Hendricks notes. Not every campus can tap into a strong local mass transit system. "It boils down to making sure you have options and not focusing on a single strategy," Winters advises.

Read on to learn 20 ways campuses across the country are managing campus traffic and encouraging alternative transportation options to become more pedestrian friendly, and greener.

1. Prioritize parking permit distribution. In 2002, the University of Georgia instituted a formula to assign parking permits based on the requester's role on campus and longevity. A customized computer program determines the rankings. "It used to be called a 'hunting license,' " quips Walter. "We would give parking permits to anyone and you just had to find a spot." Now faculty might share a lot with senior staff, or even students, leading to better lot utilization.

2. Make meters mobile. Binghamton University (N.Y.) introduced portable parking meters, which hang from a car's rearview mirror, during the 2006-2007 academic year. Time is purchased in advance at a cost of 60 cents per hour with a $20 refundable deposit for the meter. The program is most popular with nontraditional students and local residents who use the running track. It expands meter parking on campus since users don't have to find an open metered space in order to park. Other users: the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Massachusetts, Washington State University, and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

3. Raise the rates. Drivers will likely balk, but schools have found this to be an effective tactic. To discourage freshmen from bringing cars to campus, the University of New England (Maine) raised the annual parking permit fee from $90 to $300. Alternative transportation ideas were also offered.

4. Subsidize local mass transit. Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo pays a flat fee to the local transit provider that allows campus users to ride for free by just showing their ID card. Cal Poly users now account for 60 percent of the system's ridership. For students and staff out of the local service area, discount passes are available through a regional provider. Boise State (Idaho) provides free transit passes utilized by 10 percent of students, faculty, and staff. The program's popularity tends to increase along with gas prices.

5. Provide shuttle service. It's a powerful no-brainer for controlling traffic. UGA students ride free since student fees support the system. Campus constituents can park in the morning, then use the shuttle to get around during the day, reducing traffic. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, provides 40 buses on 10 routes complete with GPS tracking so riders know when the next bus is arriving. To enhance the environmental benefits of shuttling students from campus to downtown, Fairfield University (Conn.) recently replaced its diesel bus with a hybrid model.

A road ran through the center of Fairfield University's campus in the 1960s (top). Shifting that road to the perimeter (bottom) was the first step in the ongoing effort to make the campus more pedestrian friendly.

6. Stagger class times. If everyone isn't rushing to campus at the same time, they won't all be trying to park at the same time. Adjusting class times also makes shuttle schedules easier to manage on large campuses. Rutgers has 55 minutes between classes, which allows students to leave their cars parked and use the shuttles to move between campuses.

7. Park at the edges. According to Paul Rowland, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, one of the most popular ways to cut down on congestion is to close off central areas of campus to cars. This isolates traffic flow around the perimeter of the campus, where satellite parking lots are located. An investment has to be made in alternative parking areas, and larger schools may need a mass transit option, but in the long term, there are likely significant savings in reducing the need for road maintenance within the campus, Rowland says.

8. Offer a pedestrian-friendly core campus. Fairfield University officials, who are engaged in a multiyear process of eliminating roads in the center of campus, first replaced a road between the main academic building and student center with sidewalks and lawns and had the road and parking lots circle the perimeter. Future plans include adding a nature trail and more bike racks. These efforts can make the campus safer for pedestrians, increase socializing when people walk together, and lower an institution's carbon footprint.

9. Stop through traffic during the day. Two control gates close off the core of the University of Virginia campus from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Police, transit, and some UVA service vehicles have transponders to open the gates, which break away for emergency access. Reducing the number of vehicles driving through protects the pedestrians, who overflow the sidewalks (in part because there are a lot of bicyclists as well) when classes are in session, explains Rebecca White, director of parking and transportation. Downsides: the break-away gates get broken weekly, and unauthorized vehicles getting trapped or tailgating authorized ones through the gates.

10. Direct traffic efficiently. The University of Central Florida is installing electronic billboards for directing traffic during events, as well as to help broadcast emergency messages when necessary. The first billboard, being installed this year, will cost $450,000, including $120,000 to lay fiber optics to program it. Future billboards will be installed as funds become available.

11. Offer incentives for not driving. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has 6,649 Commuter Alternative Program registrants, and those who show a CAP ID can get discounts ranging from 15 to 20 percent at some local merchants. Other merchants provide gift certificates that are used as raffle prizes.

12. Cater to alternative transportation users. Specific carpool incentives include allowing those with that type of permit to park in prime locations. Allowing participants who must drive solo occasionally to park free is another idea. UGA provides registered alternative transportation commuters with 22 days of free parking for those times they just have to drive; 1,500 people have signed up. The University of California, San Diego gives 10 days per semester to cyclists who join the Pedal Club. UNC's Commuter Alternative Program includes 12 days of parking.

13. Provide rideshare boards. Cork boards to find commuting buddies have gone digital on many campuses. Students at Carleton College (Minn.) created an interactive Google map based on information in the student directory. Students log in to their student website to view the map, which shows where students live and makes it possible for students to commute together every day, or share rides home for university breaks. Binghamton U, meanwhile, teamed with Binghamton Metropolitan Transportation to bring GreenRide to campus in March to make it easier for people to share rides. In the first month, 130 faculty, staff, and students registered. UNC is among close to 40 institutions using technology carpool company Zimride to facilitate filling empty seats.

14. Run a van pool. Cal Poly's van pool is so popular, officials had to increase the fleet. The membership fee is about $40 per month, which is calculated to cover insurance, gas, maintenance, and replacement costs so the program is self-sustaining. Participants in Boise State's vanpool have some added peace of mind; in an emergency that requires them to leave campus before the rest of their pool members, they can call for a cab home, get a receipt, and the university will reimburse them for up to six rides a year or $300. Fortunately, not many people have had to take advantage of the program.

15. Bring car sharing to campus. Zipcar, Connect by Hertz, WeCar, and U Car Share are all popular campus options. Although the shared cars are available for anyone's use, freshmen at the University of New England who promise not to bring a car to campus can choose between either a free bike or 35 free Zipcar hours. Sophomores who received a bike the previous year can opt for the free Zipcar hours if they renew their no-car pledge. "We have actually closed a parking lot and hope to convert it back to a green space," says Kathleen Taggersell, director of marketing and communication, about UNE's efforts to reduce traffic on campus. UCSD waives the annual membership fee and provides rental credits for Pedal Club members.

16. Clean up their act. Dartmouth College, which requires faculty and staff to purchase a gym membership in order to use the facility, is offering free use of the showers to those who agree to bike or walk instead of driving. The program's aim is to encourage faculty and staff to leave their cars at home, thus decreasing the demand for parking passes and cars on campus. UCSD provides a sticker for free access to the main gym shower to students, faculty, and staff who pledge to cycle for most of their commutes.

17. Keep them safe. In addition to having bike racks all around campus, Cal Poly installed over 150 bike lockers near residence halls and in the campus core to encourage people with expensive bicycles to ride to campus. The units cost $40 for the academic year, after which users renew or return their key. The lockers are so popular there is a waiting list.

18. Give them away. Ripon College (Wis.) and the University of New England both provide free bikes to freshmen who promise not to bring cars to campus. Though there are immediate costs (e.g., bikes, helmets, and locks, bike racks, and safe paths), officials felt the long-term advantages of cutting down on cars on campus, less parking spaces required, and a more physically active student body outweighed those costs. Potential problems include financing the project at larger universities and providing alternatives such as a campus shuttle during colder months. Ripon's program costs $50,000 and is paid for through donations.

19. Lend them out. The University of California, San Diego has a free bike rental program available to students, faculty, and staff. Each bike is painted bright yellow with the school logo, has a basket for books or personal items, and comes with a lock. At several locations throughout campus, users can show their campus IDs and proof of age, fill out a liability release form, and borrow a bike for up to 48 hours. Late fees are incurred for each day after 48 hours. Departments and organizations can request dedicated bikes for their members. There are 100 bikes in the program with plans to expand. The program recycles abandoned bicycles, reduces demand for on-campus driving, and promotes sustainable transportation and bicycling, says Curt Lutz, commute solutions and marketing manager for Transportation Services.

20. Rent them out. The University of Buffalo (N.Y.) allows students to borrow bikes for $25 per academic year, or for free after doing six hours of community service. Michigan State University offers rentals ranging from hourly to yearly, with hourly rental popular in the summer when visitors are on campus. After a deposit of either $40 for a green or $75 for a deluxe bike was implemented, returns jumped from one third to 50 percent of rental, says Tim Potter, MSU Bikes coordinator, who has performed 900 rentals since the program began in 2005. Some people prefer the less expensive, refurbished "green bikes" because they are less likely to get stolen, while others prefer the "deluxe bikes" which are unpainted. Rental bikes were either abandoned or donated to the program. "Every time a road is repaved," Potter reports, "we widen it to add a bike lane."