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Transportation Trends

IHEs take the lead in reducing auto pollution and vehicle overpopulation.
University Business, Mar 2007

Ours is a country that likes its cars and trucks, despite dire warnings over the years that auto pollution is a major contributor to greenhouse gases and global warming. Unfortunately, the government and the auto industry have done little to control the situation. At a time when fuel conservation should be top of mind for Americans, the market for large, gas-hungry vehicles is thriving, and automakers are there to meet the demand. Contrary to popular belief, however, new cars consume more fuel and get poorer mileage than comparable models from 20 years earlier, only worsening an already serious problem.

According to some studies, as of 2002, there were more than 140 million cars in the United States alone, or roughly one vehicle for every two people. At the current rate, that number is expected to double within the next 15 years, along with a continued depletion of the world's oil supply and an increase in deadly pollutants.

But more and more colleges and universities, driven by cost considerations, entrepreneurship, and a sense of social responsibility, are leading the way in finding alternatives to vehicle overpopulation and our dependency on oil. What follows are some examples of campus transportation trends that could one day lead to new industries and alternate fuel sources-not to mention cleaner skies.

The big buzz in the last couple years-especially as gas prices rose-has been over hybrid vehicles that run on conventional fuel as well as an on-board rechargeable energy storage system. This technology provides superior fuel efficiency, which means more miles driven before a fill-up is required. Unlike conventional vehicles, hybrids actually perform better with city driving than highway driving. Energy is stored in the vehicle battery while braking, which occurs more frequently during city driving.

Oberlin College (Ohio) purchased two hybrid vehicles in 2005 for the Office of Safety and Security and a Tiger Star cargo van for mail delivery. As at many schools, the move to environmentally friendly transportation was driven by students. In this case, Andrew Decoriolis, a double major in environmental studies and biology, spearheaded the hybrid purchase. "One reason we did the study on the security car and purchased the Ford was because of the many discussions I had with Andrew," says Gary Koepp, director of Purchasing and Auxiliary Services.

Decoriolis also helped establish an innovative campus car-sharing project. In partnership with CityWheels, a Cleveland-based, car-sharing organization, the college's Environmental Policy Implementation Group (EPIG) has brought two new vehicles to campus and made them available for rental by students, faculty and staff members, and residents of the community. Members will be able to use the vehicles for $8.50 an hour or less; the price includes gasoline, insurance, and maintenance fees.

"Our admissions staff has a few very tall people, so they needed the leg room. A smaller car was not the way to go." -Pam Johnson, Dominican University

At Dominican University (Ill.), the decision to go hybrid was based on practical reasons. Pam Johnson, vice president of enrollment management, says the cars driven by various departments are often handed down from senior administrators and not always suited to the task at hand. "The president has a car and the director of institutional advancement has a car, both of which were bought in keeping with their status. We finally decided we needed to get the right car for the right purpose," says Johnson. "The Admissions staff typically travel great distances, so this car fits pretty well."

The car, a Toyota Camry, was chosen after much research for another reason: It has more room than most hybrids. "Our Admissions staff has a few very tall people, so they needed the leg room," Johnson says. "We also end up running to the airport a fair amount so we needed something with a lot of trunk space in the back. A smaller car was not the way to go. With this car you don't feel like you've made any compromises in terms of comfort or features."

Dominican was so pleased with the car that it rented a second hybrid to help out last year during the heaviest travel periods between September and November-a time when national gas prices were skyrocketing.

"We've definitely noticed savings, mainly in the fact that we don't have to go to the gas pump all the time. With our previous car the staff had to go to the gas station nearly every day," Johnson says. "People are fascinated with the whole thing. There are always people that prefer to drive their own cars rather than the university cars, but with this one it's the opposite. I don't have anyone begging off using the car."

Dominican officials are also on the lookout for hybrid vehicles that can replace their vans, adds Johnson. "The vehicles that are available in hybrid right now just don't carry very many people."

The downside of hybrid vehicles is that they typically cost more for overall purchase and upkeep than a conventional car. Hybrids are also hard to come by in many states, with some customers waiting weeks or months for their orders to arrive. Some auto industry analysts wonder whether the hybrid trend is already declining. Gas prices have dropped in recent months, down about 27 percent from last summer, reducing the fuel-saving motivation for some drivers. And by April, the federal tax credit on hybrids, once a major consideration for purchase, will be negligible.


Electric cars may look a bit different than conventional vehicles, but there's no questioning their fuel-saving ability. They have come and gone through automotive history, but they are getting renewed interest in the face of high fuel prices and increased environmental concerns. Breakthroughs in battery technology have not only made electric vehicles more feasible, but some models have a driving range of nearly 150 miles between charges.

Major automakers, however, are on the fence when it comes to fully electric vehicle production. When Ford ceased production of its TH!NK Neighbor electric vehicle in 2003, dealers thought they'd be stuck with what looks like a grown-up version of a child's Cozy Coupe. But in San Francisco, a local Ford dealer made the best of the situation by donating all 26 of his vehicles to his alma mater, the University of San Francisco.

TH!NK cars reach a maximum speed of 25 mph, ideal for on-campus travel, and are pollution-free. The cars are in use by IT services, the One Card office, Public Safety, Plant services, and the Admissions office.

Purchase College (N.Y.) got a GEM of a donation a few years ago with the receipt of six Global Electric Motorcars for use on campus. The cars were among 130 zero-emission GEM cars donated to the State University of New York system from DaimlerChrysler and the New York Power Authority.

"We have four four-passenger and two two-passenger models," says Purchase Chief Operating Officer Joe Olenik. "We just had to buy the maintenance contract that goes along with them. The maintenance contract for all six vehicles cost us $6,000 total."

Olenik says the school has probably saved that much in fuel costs in the last three-and-a-half years of using the GEMs.

University police, the parking facilities division, computer services, the mailroom, the trades division, and the maintenance department all use the cars. "They get quite a bit of use every day," Olenik says. "When they go off shift they're brought inside and plugged into a standard 120-volt outlet until the following morning." The cars have had negligible impact on the university's electric bill, he says.

Because the cars have variable-speed electric motors rather than internal combustion engines, they don't need gearboxes and torque converters to transfer power to the wheels. This also reduces vehicle maintenance costs. "We had some electrical problems at first but they were corrected by the manufacturer with no charge to us," says Olenik. "Other than that, they have been great."


Biofuels, which are derived from renewable resources like soybeans and corn, provide another option for powering campus transportation. The most common is ethanol, made from corn, which is blended with unleaded gasoline to reduce emissions and fuel cost, while increasing the fuel's octane rating. One advantage of biofuels is that just about any vehicle can use them without engine modification.

James Madison University (Va.) switched to an ethanol-gasoline blend known as E-10 earlier this year and is pleased with the results. "We began using a 10 percent ethanol blend in January in all 280 of our gasoline-powered vehicles, which includes university police cars," says Eric Gorton of the Office of Media Relations. JMU also uses a variety of other alternative fuel approaches in its campus transportation program "The university also uses biodiesel to power its 70 diesel vehicles and has some electric and other hybrids as well," says Gorton.

When it comes to using fuel derived from nature's bounty, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln provides a shining example. Since 2005, the university has been operating its 870 cars, trucks, buses, vans, tractors, and utility vehicles on alternative fuels produced primarily from Nebraska crops. Nebraska produces some 523 million gallons of ethanol a year, the third largest production capacity in the nation, consuming about a quarter of the state's annual corn crop.

UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman says that switching to biofuels made sense as fossil fuel costs continued to rise. "Biofuels are derived from renewable resources and are produced from renewable crops that we grow right here in Nebraska."

The school uses a blend of 2 percent soy biodiesel (known as B2) in buses, tractors, and some pickup trucks. Most of the other vans, pickups, and sedans use an E-10, although some are capable of using E-85, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent unleaded gasoline.

As an additional benefit, the university is involved in a number of biofuel research projects, supported and funded in part by the corn and soybean producers.


Vehicle overpopulation is an increasing problem, not just in cities but also on campuses across the country. Even with new multitiered parking garages, facilities can quickly reach capacity, with nowhere to grow. Some schools have a rule against first-year students having their own cars on campus, while others dole out precious parking space on a lottery basis. Many colleges and universities have turned to mass transportation for a solution.

The University of New Hampshire, for example, operates the state's largest public transit system, which provided about a million trips last academic year. The UNH Wildcat Transit system consists of three regional and seven campus transit routes offering free high-frequency transit service to faculty, staff, students, and Durham residents.

"Ridership on Wildcat Transit increased 72 percent between 2000 and 2005, removing more than 4 million vehicle miles annually from local roadways," notes Beth Potier of UNH media relations. The school also operates an Eco-Cat fleet of alternative and clean-technology vehicles that run on compressed natural gas, electric power, biodiesel fuel, or a hybrid combination.

One advantage of biofuels is that just about any vehicle can use them without engine modification.

West Virginia University's Personal Rapid Transit system not only gets rid of cars and pollution, it gets rid of bus drivers. The PRT is a computer-operated system that provides transportation for the campus and the community over an 8.2-mile track or guideway. Undergraduate tuition and fees pay the cost of operating the PRT, and students simply swipe their IDs at the PRT station to get on board.

"Riding the PRT allows students to bypass parking and traffic hassles, which is why many students find the PRT is the easiest, fastest, and least expensive mode of transportation," says Bill Nevin, assistant director of News and Information Services. "The first phase of the PRT was dedicated in 1972. Since then, the PRT has undergone expansions and renovations and managed to pick up a few honors along the way. In 1998, the PRT beat out Disney World's famed monorail as the New Electric Railway Journal's pick for best overall peoplemover."

Long-term construction and landscaping improvements, coupled with a need to control vehicle overpopulation, led to a partnership in 2001 between the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA), says Cindy Carroll of UTC media relations.

The Mocs Express, named for the school's athletic teams, travels a circular route around the perimeter of the campus, making 24 stops along the way. The system is paid for in part through a mandatory $50 facilities fee per student, but rides are free. Ridership increased by more than 50 percent last year after a simple route change was made to include the UTC Place dormitories. Nearly 87,000 students rode the Mocs Express last year, which is about 5 percent of all CARTA passengers in 2006. That's a lot of trips not being made in single-passenger cars, which is exactly the point.