Five Ways Colleges Are Coaxing Students Out of Their Cars

104 colleges and universities around the United States provide free or reduced-price transit service to students. Map: U.S. PIRG

The University of Wisconsin-Madison provides bike valet at its football games. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill supports free transit for everyone in the region. The University of California, Irvine launched a bike-share system in 2009, long before any major city in California had done so.

American colleges and universities are leaders in reducing driving and promoting sustainable transportation. It allows colleges to make good on their commitments to protecting the environment. It makes life easier for students and staff. And, perhaps most critically, it’s saving schools big money on parking. Stanford University estimates its efforts to reduce solo car commuting have saved the school from sinking $100 million into the construction and maintenance of parking facilities.

Here are some of the smart ways universities have been able to reduce solo car travel, according to a new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. PIRG is recommending cities hurry up and follow their lead.

1. Discounted or free transit passes

Among the most common and effective strategies colleges employ to reduce driving to campus is providing free or reduced transit fares. PIRG reports 104 universities around the country offer this perk, often called “U-Pass,” to students and/or staff. Universities typically fund the program with fees collected from students or with revenue from parking permit sales.

After the University of Missouri at Kansas City adopted a U-Pass program in 2011, transit use by students climbed 9 percent. Now other universities in the Kansas City region are looking to replicate that success, PIRG reports.

Chapel Hill took it one step further and made transit free for everyone. As a result, transit use by students more than doubled between 1997 and 2011, from 21 to 53 percent.

U-Pass programs don’t just help universities reduce spending on parking. They have spillover effects that also help promote transit beyond campus boundaries, by providing a steady source of revenue to transit operators and getting young people in the habit of taking the bus.

2. Ride-share and Car-share Services

Car-share services have also become an indispensable amenity for students and staff at universities across the country. Zipcar operates on 300 U.S. college campuses. Enterprise has a campus-based car-share service as well, which operates at 82 schools nationwide. At MIT, an early leader in campus car-share, 5,500 students and 300 staff members have Zipcar memberships.

Ride-share services are another important tool. PIRG reports that about 130 colleges and universities around the country use the ride-share platform Zimride to match students for carpooling. One of those schools, Cornell, found that during a six-month period the service had facilitated 4,000 one-time rides, taking an estimated 2,000 cars off the road.

University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a leader in promoting bicycle commuting. Image: U.S. PIRG

3. Promoting Bicycling

From providing free bike maintenance, to providing free bikes altogether, colleges are getting creative about promoting cycling. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a leader in this respect. In good weather, nearly a quarter of students bike to campus — an increase of more than 50 percent since 2006.

The university has employed a range of strategies to get students and faculty pedaling. The school offers ample bike parking while restricting car parking. It provides students with a Bicycle Resource Center, with tools for repairs and free maps. UW-Madison students also get discounted memberships to B-cycle.

The University of Colorado-Boulder is another school that’s helping itself by helping people bike. The university has played a key role in Boulder in helping fund bike infrastructure, covering some construction costs for dozens of pedestrian and bicycle underpasses that allow people to avoid mixing with traffic on busy thoroughfares. In 2012, about 60 percent of trips made by CU-Boulder students were by bike or foot, up from 51 percent in 1990.

4. Incentives for Carpooling

For those who must drive, colleges are pulling out all the stops to encourage carpool trips. The University of California-Davis offers a range of incentives to carpoolers under a program called goClub. People who car commute together get a 60 percent discount on parking passes. Carpoolers also get special reserved spaces at premium locations and a complimentary ride home in emergency situations. Carpoolers are also entered in a drawing for prizes, like restaurant gift certificates.

These incentives work. The university reports that in four years, carpooling rates increased between 25 percent among non-academic staff and 30 percent among professors.

5. Distance Learning

Like telecommuting, online education help reduce trips to campus. And even online databases like JSTOR can help reduce trips to the library, PIRG reports. It’s been a long time coming, but some colleges are beginning to recognize the value of online education as a strategy for reducing car commuting. Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin, uses video conferencing to connect professors to many campuses, reducing the need to commute to a central campus. In 2010, the school estimated that it helped 3,240 students avoid commuting to campus weekly.

37 thoughts on Five Ways Colleges Are Coaxing Students Out of Their Cars

  1. You guys and your “free” transit. Public universities are funded by tax payers and tuition (often heavily subsidised by tax payers as well)… you better believe that’s what’s underwriting the transit benefit to students.


  2. When I was a child, my father was a professor at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. I vividly remember him heading off to work on his bicycle, a green and white Schwinn three-speed Dutch-style utility bike.

    On nice days, my entire family would sometimes get on our bikes and head off to the “Union,” the university cafeteria. It was on the shore of Lake Mendota. Yes, there was good bicycle parking!

    Thank you, Angie, for bringing back fond memories of my childhood. Some day I would like to go back to Madison and revisit all the places of my youth.

  3. In the case of UC San Diego, at least, the transportation department receives no state funds or money from student fees. It seems the main source of income is from the sale of parking permits.

  4. At most universities, it is bundled into tuition.

    In addition, the savings for the public – having to not deal with university traffic problems or drunk driving college students pays for itself many times over.

  5. Whatever source PIRG used for that map is missing UIUC. We’ve had buses included in our tuition (U-pass in the report’s jargon) since I came here 10 years ago.

  6. “Stanford University estimates its efforts to reduce solo car commuting have saved the school from sinking $100 million into the construction and maintenance of parking facilities.”
    Parking isn’t free either.

    A recent estimate found it would cost MIT about $100,000 per space to add parking. You can get a heck of a lot of bus passes for that kind of dough.

  7. Great article. For any readers with the time, I recommend checking out the U.S. PIRG link under the USA map. The PDF of the full report is very well put together and includes the full list of 104 universities shown on the map.

  8. Stanford too. The Marguerite shuttle system is pretty extensive so I don’t see why it’s not counted in the category of fare-free service.

    I really hope Bay Area Bikeshare gets a cue from UW-Madison and adds stations at Stanford. So many missed opportunities in that system.

  9. Add in the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University as well. They mention Northern Kentucky University in there, but that program was based on the one already established at UC.

    Cincinnati State Technical & Community College also has this program in place. While just a community college, it boasts some 12,500 students and is larger than others included here.

  10. There’s a significant downside to the fare-free-for-everyone model of Chapel Hill Transit. There is no other public transit and weekend service is very limited, so living car-free in Chapel Hill or Carrboro is very difficult for non-students, especially if you have to work on the weekend. Only two routes, one of which is the shuttle that never leaves campus, operate on Sundays.

  11. Stanford and Santa Clara County–the jurisdiction with land use authority over Stanford–struck an interesting bargain. In the Master Use Permit for campus expansion, Stanford agreed that the number of net peak hour auto trips would not increase. In return, the university has been allowed to add hundreds of thousands (millions?) of new square feet. Stanford reports on their travel patterns every year. They have been very proactive in providing shuttles, transit passes, subsidized bus service etc.

  12. Unfortunately Loyola Marymount University doesn’t do ANY of the above. It actually now REQUIRES students to OPT OUT of being charged for car parking – whether they have a car or not. This was supposedly done to encourage students to drive to and park on campus rather than in the surrounding neighborhood (and to pay for a big new parking structure under construction).

    Still, nearby Westchester residents are unhappy and Mike Bonin last week asked Loyola Marymount University to close its gates to walk-on pedestrians so they won’t park in the hood! Crazy!!! LMU has it all backwards and should be giving all the student’s a Big Blue Pass instead.

  13. If Bay Area Bike Share expanded into Stanford it would have to be a massive commitment. Because of the rush-hour one-way problem, any bikes at the Caltrain station would disappear onto campus after the first train of the day. There would have to be substantial trucking of bikes back to the Caltrain station on weekdays for there to be any bike availability at all there, to the point where the bikes would spend pretty much half of their time being transported by truck. In the evening the reverse problem would occur, the docks at the station would fill up in the blink of an eye. On weekends it would be much more viable, because there would be a fair amount of back and forth from campus to town, and would make up for the appalling lack of transit access onto the campus on the weekend (virtually every line of the Marguerite shuttle operates only on weekdays, with the sole exception of the “Shopping Express” line with 45 minute headways).

  14. On the other hand, you’d probably get a fair number of people taking rides within the Stanford campus. In fact, it would probably be a good idea to pack up all the Palo Alto stations and move them onto the campus, where they might be used much more than they are being used now.

    Check the statistics on the BABS website– through the end of the year, Palo Alto bikes have been used an average of 25 times each. Compare that to the SF bikes, which have been used an average of 260 times each.

  15. Ohio State has a deal with COTA where all students pay a small fee via tuition and all can use their student ID to ride the bus. This has certainly led to and increase in COTA trips and has prompted them to add new routes and service in and around the university area.

    OSU also has its own far free bus service (CABS) which has daily ridership upwards of 30,000 (which is half of the daily ridership of COTA itself).

  16. Fordham University CHARGES money to travel on a school-owned van (the “Ram Van”) between the NYC and the Bronx campuses. For a school that charges so much money for tuition (and is trying desperately to move up in the academic world), it’s a head-scratcher. It’s demoralizing to get onto this cramped van (good luck with a school bag)

  17. U.Va. doesn’t appear to be on the map, but in addition to having a robust student-run bus transit system of its own (10 minute headways!) all students and staff can use their ID to ride the Charlottesville bus system.

  18. That “Ram Van” has nearly run me over twice on Columbus Ave. Both times it looked like the driver was a teenager.

  19. I loved the transit at UIUC. I could easily go months without driving my car. I only drove imy car or trips to the grocery store and on days it was too cold or too dangerous (unshoveled sidewalks) to walk to my job.

  20. Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago built a multistory parking garage a few years ago. We tried to get indoor bike parking inside the garage but for some reason this was prohibited by contract since it would reduce the income that garage could make to pay of the loan for construction. .

    Another example of cars over everything else.

  21. Step one: public transit has to actually EXIST in the town where the campus is.

    Step two: it has to actually go where the students need to go.

  22. People here have mentioned already that the transit is bundled into the cost of tuition. I wonder how this compares to universities that have cheaper tuition but offer a reasonably priced unlimited bus pass per semester.

  23. It’s worth noting that round-ups like this tend to describe the biggest subsidies for each area (60% off parking, free bikes, free bus passes, etc.), but that very few of these programs heavily subsidize all possible non-drive-alone transportation modes. Most campuses subsidize one mode to encourage adoption more than other modes that are already past critical mass and self-sustaining.

    Moreover, subsidies should be the last resort in creating a fiscally-sustainable employee and student program to encourage the use of non-drive-alone modes. Constant heavy subsidization is always met with sudden price price increases later due to funding failing.

    Plan cheap, market the intrinsic incentives above all else, and support your users with high bang-for-the-buck options (occasional parking passes, guaranteed ride home, etc.).

  24. What if bikes payed for the space they’d take, like 1/5 of the fare for cars (I think one car space can be used to store around 5 bikes).

  25. I’d like to mention Florida State in Tallahassee (for some reason not included on the map), provides free rides on the city’s transit system to students. The bus routes around the university are extremely successful. Usually standing room only during class times. The city’s creation of a Multimodal Transportation District around the core of the town governing sidewalks, parking, and building regulations has done a lot to further students’ use of transit.

  26. Truth. After graduating from Pitt, the hardest lesson I faced entering the real world was the learning actual cost of bus fare. Having a bus pass was great.

  27. Just wanted to mention I didn’t see any dots for Portland but I know our largest university, Portland State University, and our largest employer, Oregon Health & Science University, both offer discounted passes to students. My guess is that discounted transit passes is reaching standard practice and universities that don’t yet offer them need to catch up with their peers.

  28. Our local (Grand Rapids, MI) universities participate vigorously in our mass transit system: The RAPID [awarded by APTA the Outstanding Achievement Award in 2013]. A student id at Grand Valley State University gets your free
    transit on the system, other universities offer discounts. And there are dedicated routes for serving GVSU and Ferris State universities – the GVSU route#50 runs at ten minute intervals [and it is a l-o-n-g ways] and is being investigated as a potential BRT upgrade. Our city has also won numerous Bicycle Friendly Community awards in the last few years and is on target have 100 miles of bike lanes by 2015!

    The world does not end with tier 1 cities; and Detroit is not the only city in Michigan.

  29. I moved to Boston post-graduation from Pitt and I felt lost and transportation was expensive to buy, even through my new university at Tufts. The bike saved me!

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