Transport U: Stanford Turns Green Commuting Into Greenbacks

This is the second installment in Streetsblog’s series on transportation demand management at American colleges and universities. Part one gave an overview of TDM techniques that schools employ. This post looks at how Stanford University has used TDM to reduce driving and realize huge savings in the process.

Stanford graduate engineering student Matthew Haith made the switch to bike commuting after his wife had a baby, and the family needed to tighten their belts. For Andrea Corney, a faculty member in the school of business, it was parking shortages caused by construction that convinced her to try transit.

Stanford's shuttle system, the Marguerite, serves 160 stops on 13 routes. Image: ##https://news.slac.stanford.edu/image/undergraduate-women-physics##Stanford##

At Stanford, encouraging people to switch from solo driving to biking, transit, and carpooling is a science the university has been perfecting for more than a decade. Transportation demand management at Stanford is a multi-pronged effort that includes everything from free bus passes to actual cash payments for ditching the single-occupancy vehicle commute.

The program is paying off, both financially and in less tangible ways — not the least of which is employee and student health and satisfaction, school officials say. The university’s “Commute Club” even keeps a record of stories, like Haith’s and Corney’s, explaining how non-automotive commuting has improved the lives of students and employees.

“It made financial sense to save money on gas, car insurance, and maintenance for me to bike the 16-mile round trip to campus,” said Haith. “Plus, it’s nearly a $600 net gain to avoid the parking fee, and I receive incentives from being in the Commute Club.”

“I bike on beautiful residential streets and across campus, rather than sitting in traffic on El Camino,” Corney said, referring to the car-choked transportation artery of Santa Clara County. “It clears my head on the ride home. I’ve lost weight. I can go days without driving my car. I save money on gas and parking and get Clean Air Cash.”

Stanford began its TDM programs with a push Santa Clara County in 2000, when the county offered the university a general use permit to expand the campus significantly — but only if the school could keep rush-hour car commuting rates at the current levels. The county also gave Stanford the option to pay for redesigns to some 15 nearby intersections instead.

Stanford chose to get a handle on driving. The university started out by researching what kept people from taking transit or riding a bike to campus. Then, the university designed its programs around the responses.

“We tried to put together a program that dealt with as many of the barriers as possible,” said says Brodie Hamilton, the school’s director of parking and transportation services. “What were the excuses out there? The reasons people have: ‘I would use alternative transportation but …'”

Since then, Stanford has made great strides, reducing the share of its faculty and staff that car commute alone from 72 percent to 47 percent. (Since almost all undergraduates live on campus, along with 60 percent of grad students, most of the programs are focused on the staff and faculty.)

Perhaps the most effective program the university employs, said Hamilton, has been free transit passes. Most faculty and staff are entitled to free rail and bus transit to the university. Stanford buys the passes in bulk. In addition, Stanford runs free shuttles between campus and the Palo Alto Caltrain station — a route about one mile long.

These transit programs helped quickly boost the share of faculty and staff commuting by transit from 4 percent to 21 percent.

Stanford’s TDM program is much more comprehensive than that. It is the only “platinum-level” bike-friendly university certified by the League of American Bicyclists. It also has what Hamilton said is perhaps the largest university Zipcar program in the country, with 61 cars. There’s also an emergency ride-home service for transit commuters who want extra assurance they can respond to unusual circumstances. Meanwhile, the university actually pays people up to $300 per year to not drive alone, through its “Clean Air Cash” program.

Stanford offers a number of programs to keep solo car commuting low. Image: ##http://math.stanford.edu/## Stanford Math##

The school has also been getting attention for its experiments with incentives to reduce rush-hour driving. Computer science professor Balaji Prabhakar was profiled last summer in the New York Times for his incentive program for Stanford staffers. Rather than employing traditional congestion pricing, which charges fees to influence driving behavior, Prabhakar thinks incentives that reward the desired behavior are easier for Americans to accept. Stanford now enters commuters who avoid rush hour into drawings for cash prizes. The concept proved so popular that Stanford is planning to expand it to manage parking, the Times reported.

Stanford also markets its TDM programs aggressively. Officials at every university Streetsblog spoke to said that making people aware of the programs and incentives available to them is a big part of the battle. Stanford, for example, contacts employees individually who have parking passes or live near transit stops to inform them of the incentives at their disposal. It also offers rewards to members of its “Commuter Club” programs if they can convince friends to ditch the solo car commute and join.

Stanford’s sizable Transportation Demand Management program costs millions of dollars a year to operate. Of course, there are many benefits. For starters, the commuting incentives serve as a perk for employees. The TDM programs also help advance the school’s sustainability and employee wellness goals.

Then there’s the fact that not doing TDM would be far more costly. Hamilton estimates that it has reduced the number of people driving to campus every day to the extent that Stanford has been able to avoid building about 3,000 parking spaces. Because the university builds parking almost exclusively in underground garages — which cost about $45,000 per space to construct — the savings thanks to TDM are in the range of $100 million, Hamilton says.

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  • Big deal. I remain very much not impressed.

    Other universities do much better. Cambridge University bans and forbids its students from owning a car, even if they do not live on campus. Groningen University is essentially car-free. The University of Toronto provides almost zero car parking.

    I could continue the examples, but this whole “Transportation Demand Management” thing is faintly ridiculous, The way forward is quite simple. Save billions of dollars by not building car parking and not building roads for cars to drive on.

  • Jake Wegmann

    You’re not impressed at a drop in solo driving amongst faculty and staff — i.e. NOT including students — from 72% to 47% in a decade? You don’t think that’s a major improvement?! What does it take to impress you?

    Cambridge, Groningen and U of T are all urban campuses located in dense, walkable cities with tons of transit available. Banning car ownership or parking or whatever in those locations, while admirable, is lot less of a heavy lift. I mean, really — have you ever been to the Stanford campus?

    Just put yourself in the shoes of campus planners at Stanford for a moment. You’re at a university with world-famous faculty, with many Nobel Prize winners. Probably all of them would say that they simply must drive their Mercedes to work every day, because they are such terribly busy and important people. Oh, and by the way, you’re in the middle of a suburban area with not much pre-existing mass transit culture. (A little, but not much.) The nearest rail transit stop is a full mile from campus.

    Now who is the university administration going to listen to, when push comes to shove — you or the Nobel Prize winners? Are they going to accept your recommendation that driving to campus be simply banned by fiat? Probably not.

    I, for one, am EXTREMELY impressed that Stanford transpo planners have been able to achieve such results under those conditions in such a short length of time. (BTW, have you ever tried to get anything as simple as changing a course schedule done in a university bureaucracy, let alone changing people’s daily travel patterns?)

    Just try implementing some sort of socially- or environmentally-progressive project or program sometime. And then see if maybe your perspective changes.

  • I think you must not be acquainted with just how utterly car dependent and car saturated almost every inch of the United States currently is.

  • cjlane

    “The nearest rail transit stop is a full mile from campus.”

    And there is a robust shuttle service serving the station and campus. BTW, technically speaking, the ‘campus’ is directly adjacent to the train station, as university land extends east of El Camino to the railroad R-o-W.

    “Nobel Prize winners … would say that they simply must drive their Mercedes to work every day, because they are such terribly busy and important people”

    The terribly busy and important Nobel Prize winners predominately live ‘on campus’ and, in most cases, would get from the faculty ghetto to their academic offices just as quickly by walking or biking.

  • Jake Wegmann

    OK, fine: but are you going to say that dropping solo driving from 72% to 47% in a decade is not a laudable accomplishment? If not, then what would it take to impress you? From 72% to 37%? 27%? 0%?

  • cjlane

    Totally laudable. Absolutely, positively excellent, even. And the Cambridge example is definitely off point, as you noted, especially as the prohibition is as to student, who don’t count as “employees” for purposes of the study conducted.

    Anyway, there is zero chance of getting it to zero at SU (without the death of automobiles) bc there will *always* be some folks there who live in Los Gatos or Half Moon Bay or something and have no reasonable alternative to self-driving (even if car pooling).

    But still, better to the ancillary facts straight, no?

    More relevant (imo) than the proximity of the train stop is that it is a *single* line, and not really a network (yea, BART folks would argue, but c’mon–it’s certainly plausible, but so is a 30 mile one-way bike ride every day; some will do it, but most (not in extremis) will not).

    And that the cost of housing is *soooo* astronomical in the immediate area (and at basically all points walkable to stops on said single rail line) that it’s impractical for 100% of Univ employees to live close enough to campus or close enough to a CalTrain station to walk/bike the majority of workdays.

  • Joe R.

    What about providing employee housing on or near the campus? I frequently hear about how the cost of housing is a detriment to getting people to live within walking or biking distance of where they work. Sure, I absolutely agree here. However, universities are major land holders. They can build housing on land they own, then let employees live in it. Moreover, the cost to the university only ends up being whatever it actually costs to build and maintain the housing. Even if the housing wasn’t offered as a free perk, charging only what it actually costs for employees would still put it significantly below market rates. And I could make much the same argument for ALL employers in expensive places like NYC. They might be able to convert some of their office space to employee housing, allowing some of their workforce to avoid driving in.

  • Joe R.

    You do know that free university provided housing adjacent to campus is often provided as a perk for attracting Nobel Prize winners? It makes lots of sense on many levels. If I ran a university, I don’t want brilliant, hard-to-replace Nobel Prize winners engaging in a risky activity like driving on a daily basis. I would go to whatever lengths I must to keep them from doing this, even if it means providing free housing nearby for them, and perhaps even forbidding them from owning a car as a condition of their employment.

  • cjlane

    1. A lot of faculty and (senior-ish) staff do live on campus. And SU certainly could provide below-market ‘rental’ apartments for support staff. Still wouldn’t get 100%, tho.

    2. “convert some of their office space to employee housing”. Generally speaking, the per square foot cost of office space in manhattan is higher than the psf cost of rental apartments of comparable ‘quality’/location, even before the *very* substantial costs of building out residences in an office building, and *ignoring* the zoning and building code issues.

    Could it be reasonable for a consortium of employers to buy a building or three and convert them into employee “dorms”? Sure. But that’s not something that is generally appealing (yesyes, *mnay* exceptions–but do they work for just a handful of companies, or are a handful of them at each of 1,000 different companies?) to contemporary Americans.

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