A New Course

How Innovative University Programs Are Reducing Driving on Campus and Creating New Models for Transportation

How Innovative University Programs Are Reducing Driving on Campus and Creating New Models for Transportation.


PIRGIM Education Fund

Executive Summary

Universities and colleges across the country are taking steps to encourage their communities, students, faculty and staff to decrease their reliance on personal vehicles. These efforts are working well – saving money for universities, improving the quality of life in college towns, and giving today’s students experience in living life without depending on a personal car. 

Across America, colleges and universities are showing that efforts aimed at reducing driving deliver powerful benefits for students, staff and surrounding communities. Policymakers at all levels of government should be looking to the innovative examples of these campuses. Universities and college towns also provide useful models for expanding the range of transportation options available to Americans while addressing the transportation challenges facing our communities.

Over the past two decades, colleges and universities have increasingly adopted the goal of reducing driving as part of their long-term plans to develop healthy, sustainable and successful institutions.

Reducing the number of cars traveling to and from campuses benefits universities in several ways: 

Parking consumes land and is expensive. The annualized cost of a single new parking space can exceed $4,000 in a downtown parking structure, according to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. In underground facilities, the up-front construction cost for a single space can run as high as $30,000. Giving over campus real estate to parking lots reduces the space available for instructional facilities and other buildings while undermining the walkability of communities.

Reducing driving helps the environment. Many universities strive to be environmental leaders and a commitment to sustainability motivates many college transportation plans.

Reducing driving helps “town-gown” relations. Few things have greater potential to strain relations with the surrounding community than the seasonal influx of students, their cars and the resulting traffic. Reducing automobile use helps universities be good neighbors.

Young people often prefer communities that are served by multiple transportation options rather than depending solely on a personal car.

America’s universities and colleges are leading the way in developing strategies to reduce driving. 

  • Free or discounted access to transit services. Universities often provide students unlimited access to local transit services with a Universal Transit Pass (“U-Pass”), offer their own free shuttle services, or even support the local transit agency in providing fare-free service. 

                     – At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the university provides financial support to enable fare-free transit service throughout the community. Between 1997 and 2011, the proportion of students using transit to commute to campus more than doubled, from 21 to 53 percent.

  • Programs to promote bicycle use. Many colleges subsidize membership in existing bicycle sharing schemes in the community and some create their own sharing programs on campus. Many also provide on-campus resources like free or at-cost bike repairs and ample bike racks.

                     – At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, 22 percent of students currently bike to campus in good weather, up eight percentage points since 2006, partly as a result of investments in on-campus bike repair services, subsidized membership in the city’s bike share program, and a plentiful and increasing supply of bike racks.

  • Building new biking and walking paths. Universities invest in infrastructure like bike lanes and pedestrian underpasses under traffic-heavy streets, making it safer and more convenient to leave the car at home.

                   – The University of Colorado Boulder has supported the build-out of bicycle and pedestrian paths in Boulder, including the city’s 58 miles of paved pathways and 78 underpasses. By 2012, roughly 60 percent of all trips made by students at CU-Boulder were by bike or foot, nearly nine percentage points more than in 1990.

  • Ridesharing initiatives. Colleges encourage carpooling with incentive programs and through partnerships with online ridesharing services that connect drivers with others who would like a ride in their car. Some provide a guaranteed ride home, whereby universities pick up the tab for a taxi should an emergency require the student or employee to leave campus suddenly, making carpooling and other forms of ridesharing more attractive.

                         – The University of California, Davis, encourages students and staff to share rides, resulting in an increase in carpooling. Among graduate students (more likely than undergraduates to live at a driving distance from school), carpooling to campus rose from 3.4 percent in the 2007-2008 academic year to 6.9 percent in 2011-2012.

  • Carsharing programs. Carsharing allows users to access cars located in their vicinity without having to bear the burden of owning one. Universities offer discounted memberships in carsharing programs, allowing students to make the most of transportation alternatives while maintaining access to a car when necessary.
  • Distance learning and online resources. Some colleges are beginning to conceive of distance learning – taking classes with at least some online component that limits the need for students to physically travel to campus – as part of their parking and transportation strategy.

The policies adopted by colleges and universities to reduce driving have impacts that can be felt far beyond campus. 

  • College transportation investments can expand transportation options for the entire community. For example, when schools invest in U-Pass programs they supply a steady source of revenue to the local transit agency, supporting better service for everyone. 
  • University transportation plans provide a powerful example that can be followed by other institutions or cities or regions facing similar transportation challenges.
  • College students develop transportation habits that persist after graduation. According to a May 2013 survey conducted by Zipcar, approximately half (49 percent) of the class of 2013 did not plan to bring a car with them to their next endeavor after graduation.
  • Like colleges, states, municipalities and other communities can better attract and retain young talent by offering a variety of transportation options in settings where personal car ownership is not necessary. The Urban Land Institute reports that members of Generation Y desire interconnectedness and choice in travel and are thus turning toward walkable neighborhoods with access to public transportation. 

Policymakers should learn from the success of college strategies to reduce driving, and:

Encourage local partnerships to expand transportation options. Local communities can work together with schools, hospitals and other large institutions to improve transit services, install new infrastructure like bike lanes, and support bikesharing, ridesharing and carsharing programs. 

Adopt explicit strategies to support non-driving modes of transportation, including investments in transit, and bicycling and walking infrastructure; incentive programs; support for ridesharing and carsharing; and a proactive reassessment of car-oriented planning, zoning and parking rules. 

Adapt to the transportation needs of a new generation. Young Americans are leading the trend toward reduced driving and policymakers should adapt by devoting resources to planning and providing for non-driving modes of travel.