The University of Vermont has a huge positive impact on the Vermont economy, above $1.3 billion according to a recent report. Jobs, economic activity and scientific innovations are documented outcomes of the state’s flagship university. The University could also play a leading role in reducing our state’s transportation environmental footprint, and increasing options for regular Vermonters.
UVM has made important steps — but progress has stalled. Here I present some recent survey data on UVM’s transportation footprint, arguing for several research-based initiatives to take this work to the next level, benefitting faculty, staff, students, area neighborhoods and the state’s citizens.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to reducing our transportation carbon footprint is the number of people who drive alone to work every day. Switching these drivers to other modes, can sharply reduce cars on the road, and create new advocates and systems for walking, cycling and ride-sharing.
Yet, encouraging people to drive less is a challenge. For example at UVM, more than 2000 faculty and staff drive alone to campus every day.
This number dropped between 2003 and 2010 – but for the last six years has been relatively flat at between 59% and 53% of all employees driving alone to campus each day. Parking spaces have remained constant at around 5,200. We have made some progress but can do better.
Students, on the other hand, have sharply reduced their car use over the last ten years. Walking, cycling and riding the bus are all increasing. Even those students who “commute” to campus from further distances are driving far less than their employee counterparts. Unlike faculty and staff, progress has remained constant, with very small fractions of students driving alone.
UVM has extremely progressive transportation policies in place — parking fees are based on salary, the bus system is completely free and small incentives are offered to bikers and walkers. (Note, top wage earners are capped at about $90 a month).
These policies benefit the local transit system, providing revenues and riders that help grow transit routes. More riders equals more frequent service and more stops, creating a positive feedback loop, adding options for all users. In 2016, for example, UVM paid the local bus system more than $330,000 to provide rides for student and employees. But this number dropped from the year before and is at a four year low.
UVM’s positive impact can also be felt in other ways. For example, CarShare Vermont – an effective organization in reducing car use – has more than one-third of the organizations’ riders and revenues come through UVM.
But progress has stalled because the university has not taken the next step. Bus ridership is down ten percent and essentially the same as it was four years ago. Diving alone remains above 50%. And car-pooling is flat. Parking fees have not increased in ten years and available parking remains plentiful.
At the same time, the university’s “active transportation plan,” first presented to stakeholders in the spring of 2015 has not yet been approved – a plan that might improve on campus pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. The University lacks basic cycle improvements, such as covered bike parking.
Here are five research-based initiatives UVM could implement that would have immediate impacts:
- Increase the fees (the percent) that faculty and staff pay to park and plow the funds directly into increased alternatives and options. (And yes, any such policy should thoughtfully address those who do need to drive to campus, who lack real options or to whom this would be a hardship).
- Increase direct subsidies and preferential parking to faculty and staff who carpool.
- Provide a clear signal that slight flexibility in work hours is OK to meet bus or carpool schedules.
- Reduce central campus parking and invest in campus infrastructure that promotes cycling and walking and discentivize motorized transportation.
- Invest in clear and direct marketing to faculty and staff documenting cost-savings of reduced car use –targeted mailings to those near existing bus routes, for example. (The CATMA survey research shows that more than two-thirds of the employees who don’t drive cite cost savings as a prime reason. Surveys we conducted last spring show most employees don’t know how much they pay to park).
UVM has the potential to have a tremendous positive impact on transportation patterns in the region. We’ve started in that direction. The professionals in charge are working diligently and thoughtfully. But, at the end of the day it will take leadership from the President and Provost to make the tough decisions needed to truly change the status quo. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.
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CATMA Overview, Highlights and Data Report, December 1, 2016 Ward 6 meeting. Champlain College Aiken Building.