A Plan to Improve Campus Mobility

U. of Washington plans to roll out a fleet of electric bikes for students, faculty and staff.
November 27, 2007

At colleges, the public transportation pitch is simple enough: Avoid driving to work or class, help the environment and ease campus congestion. It's a nice thought, but what about the issue of midday mobility? How does a car-less professor manage her day with an 11 a.m. class on one end of campus, a lunch meeting far away and an errand to run in between?

With an electric bicycle?

That's the plan at the University of Washington, where more than three-quarters of the campus population commutes in some way other than driving alone, nearly 40 percent use public transit and 8 percent ride their bikes to and from campus.

The university has seen an increasing number of people eschew driving in recent years, but solving the so-called "last mile" problem -- how to get from the bus depot or subway station to campus office building or classroom -- is a pressing concern, and one that the bicycles are meant to address, said Joshua Kavanagh, director of UW's transportation department.

"It's much easier to persuade someone to take mass transit for their commute if they know that running to the drug store or lunch is doable," Kavanagh said. "There's a tremendous market for the last-mile services that help people who want to do the right thing in terms of lowering the impact of their commute."

By next fall, students, faculty and staff at UW will be able to use a fleet of 40 "power assisted" bikes that can be used as electric scooters that travel up to about 20 miles per hour or that can be pedaled like normal bikes. The university says theirs is the first college transportation initiative of its kind to offer automated hourly vending.

Anyone with a campus identification card would be able to snag one of the bikes on demand at kiosks placed throughout campus. A student could rent a bike at one location, take it into town and return it to another location. Kavanagh said some rental programs force users to pay per minute or hour while the bike sits idle and a student sits in class before he is able to return it to the original station.

Once recharged, the bikes can make dozens of trips across campus without running out of power. Kavanagh said his hope is that most people would save energy by peddling the majority of the time.

"There is a population that is interested in moving around campus more fluidly, but they're not ready to commit to peddling up high hills on campus," he said.

Washington's project is being funded in part by a $200,000 grant from the state's Department of Transportation. The university's primary financial contribution is marketing the program, and Kavanagh said the project is sustainable beyond the pilot period because there's "very little" overhead for the university.

Washington's initiative is part of its U-Pass alternative transportation program that includes subsidizing transit trips and offering van pooling. Kavanagh said he's confident there's a market for the electric bikes. According to a U-Pass survey conducted last year, 13 percent of faculty, 7 percent of staff members and 7 percent of students commute to UW by bicycle per year -- up slightly from two years earlier. The university has more than 730 racks for a total capacity for 6,000 bikes, and 580-plus bicycle lockers for rent.

Other colleges have, in recent months, taken measures to encourage bike usage. Forty-five bikes have been made available for free use by students, faculty and visitors as part of Northern Arizona University's bicycle-sharing program. The university donated bikes that had been abandoned on campus, and hopes to have more than 140 unclaimed bikes repaired and painted in the near future. The University at Buffalo's initiative allows students to borrow a bike for up to two days at a time for an annual fee of $25 or after completing six hours of volunteer service.

Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, said bikes used for such programs often have been abandoned on a campus or donated by local shops or advocacy groups. He's seeing a trend away from free bike programs where the bikes are available for anyone to use at any time and toward more regulated programs to guard against theft and mistreatment of bikes.

Washington's program fits with the trend, he said, and is the first he's heard of that involves electric bikes for the purpose of cross-campus travel.

Thomas Clapper, senior assistant to the vice president for administration at Kent State University, who co-wrote an article about decreasing campus congestion in Planning for Higher Education, the journal of the Society for College and University Planning, says he likes the concept behind UW's program. In particular, he said, he appreciates the freedom it gives students and faculty to take the bike into town.

"We're very much a large university in a small town, and there are a few blocks between campus and downtown," he said. "It's important for us and for other colleges to encourage people to walk or bike into town."

Kent State has taken steps to increase bicycle use and decrease congestion on nearby roads. Several years ago, the university developed an esplanade with bike lanes and a wide pedestrian lane that stretches across an entire end of campus.

David Kaplan, a professor of geography at Kent State and the other co-author, said the university has smartly made an effort to focus on increasing the demand for bicycles rather than increasing the supply of car lanes.

He said the university is now taking note of all places where biking takes place on campus without impediments and where lanes could be improved. A key to a successful rental program at Kent State or elsewhere: "You have to make these bikes really ugly so people don't want to steal them," Kaplan said.


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