Dialog for Designing a Transportation department for an Urban University

The following was prepared for a specific school but has been anonymized.

A sizable institution such as [school] has an opportunity to leverage its transportation resources to do the most good for its students, staff, and neighborhood with the least impact. Obviously the least impactful mile is a mile not driven but the university experience hinges on being in person at a campus and socializing along with learning. To sustainably enable this interaction there are fresh transportation options and solutions at hand.

Does [school] have ESG goals and is it looking at transportation as a factor?

Are there specific electrification goals for university transportation?

[school] should decide what economic, environmental, and social elements of transportation are important, then establish metrics and baselines for each. In general, minimizing use of private full-size vehicles is broadly desirable. Metrics could include:

  • Total number of parking spaces on campus, and per student
  • Ratio of students and staff taking transit or carpooling versus driving alone
  • [school] operated fleet total mileage per year per entire student body
  • Total gas/diesel used by [school] fleet
  • [school] fleet vehicle insurance loss ratio

Cars are typically used about five to six percent of their lives. The other 95% of the time they sit depreciating, parked on an impermeable surface that typically drains stormwater and pollutants into the watershed. Even with battery electric cars those pollutants can include oil, coolant, and brake and tire dust (tires are the lead source of micro plastics in the world).

As to economics, car expenses range from absurdly high payments (including full insurance) for new vehicles to very little beyond gas for fully depreciated yet drivable cars (until they break and must be replaced). In either case, any money spent on cars and gas is money not spent on tuition or books.

Does [school] student parking impact adjacent neighborhoods?

Do they know how much acreage is surface parking?

Where does the stormwater runoff go?

Parking spaces, like cars, also have poor utilization, with each car in the US having about seven parking spaces devoted to it. And about that number of bikes – seven – can fit into a car-sized parking space. Bike racks should be available, sturdy, and monitored.

Is there consideration of creating safe pathways for bikes and pedestrians to and on campus?

[school] could collaborate with the City for bike lanes getting to campus. There is opportunity in that pavement markings need to be refreshed. Also, the City should be asked to add crossing lights at crosswalks. Sidewalks need periodic auditing. Eventually the accommodation and impact of electric bicycles should be studied.

How much do students use transit and ridesharing (Uber/Lyft)?

Students could be push-polled as to their mobility intentions for the coming semester, to both gather numbers for planning but also to educate students as to choices that could supplement or replace their driving to and around campus. [school] could reach out to local rideshare management to establish a relationship but their staff is likely lean and overcommitted. The same could be said for local taxi companies, though they are dwindling in the face of Uber and Lyft.

Has [school] considered promoting student and/or staff carpooling?

There are free apps for connecting commuters within an organization to form carpools. Savings from carpooling is easy to calculate for riders, for [school] it can mean less traffic and fewer parking spots needed. Plus it creates opportunities for socialization amongst riders. One resource to offer within a carpooling effort is a “Guaranteed Ride Home” program which could involve Lyft/Uber.

Have they thought about providing EV charging on a large scale?

Could [school’s] electric fleet be employed as emergency power backup for the campus, and also peak shaving?

Would they consider solar panel canopies over parking; (and someday, solar paving for surface lots)?

Eventually students and staff will expect to be able to charge their vehicles during their school day. This load would be added to [school]’s own fleet and place an enormous load on the local electric grid, which likely will need to be upgraded. It would be prudent to develop a relationship with the local grid operator and [school]’s physical plant office regarding electric vehicle charging loads along with the possibility of photovoltaic canopies and battery storage to buffer the load on the grid.

What is the relationship with the state DOT: City Streets Dept?

From coordinating plowing to street repair, traffic studies and remediation, [school] needs to connect with the City, and perhaps the area Municipal Planning Office and County planners. For instance, if the state DOT or the City needs to restrict traffic that information should be relayed to [school] directly. Every intersection on, and adjacent to campus should have bump outs (and probably stormwater retention gardens) for pedestrian safety.

What is the relationship with the local transit agency?

Transit is key to achieving many obvious environmental, economic, and mobility equity goals and transit appears to be surviving and willing to adapt itself to serve the greatest population. [school] should be a represented stakeholder in any transit proceedings that affect the area. [school] students and staff should have a safe path to transit stations.

 All bus stops on or adjacent to campus should have shelters, eventually with lighting, seats, and countdown clocks. Perhaps incoming students could be given transit cards with a small amount to start.

What is [school] policy and practice toward wheelchair-using students and staff?

[school] can build a Relationship with the wheelchair-using community; engaging them to make periodic audits of accessibility on campus. Accommodating wheelchairs solves for all wheeled traffic.

Have they considered bicycle and or car sharing?

Bicycle sharing is ubiquitous in cities and college campuses, and there are several third party vendors [school] could engage to provide the service on campus. It may be that [school]’s campus is compact enough and the local roads inhospitable enough for longer trips that bikesharing might not yet make sense for [school]. Electric bikes may change this calculation.

A robust car sharing service however could help convince students living on campus to not bring a car to school. Car sharing is a system of renting vehicles by the quarter hour. Ideally vehicles are scattered around the community in parking “pods” convenient to renters. Enterprise can be asked to operate this as they have at other universities (UNM), and Turo and Getaround (peer-to-peer car sharing companies that facilitate rental of private vehicles, like AirBnB for cars) are also options.

Does the transportation department purview include freight shipping and receiving?

If so the department should be in touch with local managers for FedEx, UPS, and the Post Office. If package theft is an issue the transportation department can coordinate a response. Move-ins and outs, construction material and equipment, and office moves would also logically be coordinated by the department. Also food service deliveries should be accounted for.

Are they considering autonomy (for future shuttle)?

What considerations go into designing shuttle routes; what are the O/D pairs and what are the numbers of riders?

Level five autonomy – vehicles lacking steering wheels – is a tough nut to crack and is many years away from general deployment. In the meantime autonomous tech companies have been cherry picking situations where autonomy can begin to work. A campus such as [school]’s could be ideal once the technology has significantly matured. As the [school] shuttle operates in city traffic it would need to be flawless.

Autonomous shuttles could be used to supplement traditional driven buses with off-hour service, paratransit, and/or creating autonomous routes from Campus to transit stations. This could one day be rolled out for campus-adjacent neighborhoods. That said, currently available shuttles’ size, speed and fallibility likely keep them from being appropriate for daytime traffic, simply from a capacity point of view. Drivers do more than drive, they keep passengers civil and informed, they navigate obstacles, and their vehicles can be full size buses.

[school] will have to understand traffic laws, liability (product liability versus drivers’ liability), total cost of ownership, and how riders will interact with the technology. Autonomous vehicles could prove to be an “attractive nuisance”, drawing expensive to fix vandalism. It seems prudent to keep an eye on autonomy developments but not spend real money until the picture is much more clear.

A parallel consideration is delivery bots, be they for food or packages. [school] will eventually be asked to accommodate these bots and should have a policy ready. For instance, what happens when a “bot” confronts a wheelchair on a narrow sidewalk?

Answering the above questions should put a school on the right track.

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