Cars Not Welcome Here

Some colleges make new efforts to discourage students from bringing vehicles to campus. Driving them away can be tough.
June 27, 2011

What with virtually every college’s stated commitment to sustainability and (perhaps not unrelated) parking crisis, reducing the number of students who bring cars to campus is desirable to many. So colleges encourage carpooling, offer Zip Car short-term rentals, and promote bicycle use. But a small yet growing number of colleges are becoming particularly active in not only providing options beyond cars, but encouraging a car-free college experience -- creating all kinds of new issues for campus officials.

On an urban campus, getting more students to bike has brought along its own set of challenges. In 2008, Boston University students suddenly started riding to campus thanks to a new bike lane along Commonwealth Avenue, the heavily trafficked main road bordering the rectangular campus. (The bike lane was part of a broader city- and university-funded project to beautify that street.) “We quickly realized we were going to have to get ahead of that from a safety perspective,” said Webb Lancaster, who oversees bike programs at the university. “Just by walking the campus, you realize there are so many more cyclists, and we realized we needed to go beyond the installation of bike racks and bike lanes.”

So, through a newly created bike safety committee comprising representatives of the campus and the city, the university teamed up with local police, bike shops, and even a professor or two to coordinate safety events like helmet giveaways and bicycle tune-ups.

Lancaster also sits on a city committee that’s creating a 10-year master plan for promoting cycling in Boston. He is charged with figuring out where more bike parking and lanes can be installed. In 2008, there were 1,500 bike parking spaces on the university's campus. By the end of 2009, there were nearly 4,000 (all of which are recorded on an interactive map).

While many institutions looking to free up parking spaces have opted for promoting alternative forms of transportation, there are others using both carrots and sticks. Westminster College, in Salt Lake City, is pushing bikes and public transit too, but this year it’s adding a disincentive to the mix. For the first time ever, the college will charge $150 for campus parking passes. Kerry Case, director of Westminster’s environmental center, hopes – and is optimistic – that the fee will deter at least 10 percent of the people who drive to campus alone. (A spring commuter survey revealed that 73 percent of Westminster students and employees drove alone to campus; that number has declined 4 percentage points since 2005-6. Case hasn’t picked through the survey data yet, but her initial impression is that most of the drivers are employees.)

Predictably, there has been some resistance. “There is definitely a strong voice against having to pay to park; there’s a pushback there that I think we haven’t experienced in other sustainability efforts,” Case said, adding that there’s also a strong contingent of students who say it’s about time.

For some institutions, the issue isn’t so much people driving to the campus as it is people driving on the campus. Many students at Ripon College, in Wisconsin, nearly all of whose students live on campus, bring their cars when they move in. That has contributed to a parking shortage that peaked in the 2007-8 academic year, when the college received more applications for permits than it had parking spaces.

The following fall, officials began an effort to change the culture on campus. “The president was emphatic about the fact that we weren’t going to build any more parking lots on campus,” said Ric Damm, the cycling coach at Ripon. But he didn’t want to take the same route as Westminster – he wanted to encourage a certain behavior, rather than penalize another.

So Damm and Ripon President David C. Joyce created a program it calls Velorution (vélo is French for “bicycle”): 150 freshmen who pledge not to bring a car to campus get a brand-new bike – for free. (Damm said officials have estimated that since it began, Velorution has cost the college the equivalent of installing nine parking spaces.) While the program hasn’t had a huge effect in terms of the percentage of students with parking permits – for the last four years, it’s hovered around 47 percent – 52 percent of freshmen received bikes last year, and 67 percent got one in each year before that. Damm said Velorution has been “somewhat” successful in addressing the campus parking issues, but the program is going on hiatus this year while the cycling coach and others analyze the three-year data to figure out just how much of an impact it’s made.

The car culture at Ripon is at times laughable, Damm said. Students often use cars to travel ridiculously short distances – say, from their dorm to the dining hall. “I think that’s what a lot of it boils down to – perceived convenience,” Damm said, adding that that perception can conflict with people’s stated commitment to sustainable living. “It’s human nature to say, ‘Yeah, I’m all for X, Y or Z, until it means a sacrifice in this area’…. I think [driving] is more of a learned behavior and just an expectation at some point of, ‘Well, this is the way I get around. I drive a car.’ ” (Of course, in most cases, in rural locations like Ripon, students who want to visit malls and such probably don't have many options.) That’s why it’s important to supplement a program like Velorution with education about the environmental impact of all those short trips – in the town of Ripon, half of all trips in the car are for distances of two miles or less – and alternative modes of transportation, Damm said.

Velorution inspired Jeff Abernathy, president of Alma College, in Michigan, to start something similar at his institution. Through the Get Out Bike Program, this year’s incoming freshmen will be the first who can get a discounted bike – for $100, marked down from about $400 – when they promise not to bring a car to campus for two years. (As is the case at Ripon, the students also volunteer for some community service by signing the pledge. While neither college is particularly concerned about enforcing the pledge, both say they check the names of students who apply for parking permits against a list of pledge-takers.)

Abernathy said the program makes sense for reasons beyond sustainability and health. “I don’t have to build parking spots at X-thousand dollars per spot when we do this program. And we take advantage of a beautiful part of Michigan that students don’t see when they’re driving,” he said, referring to the extensive bike trails around the campus.

The program was also a good fit for Alma because there, as at Ripon, students drive to, from and around campus far more than is necessary – and Abernathy got sick of building parking lots. “The campus should not be a monument to the automobile,” he said. “You want to have the community coming together face-to-face in an active, thriving social space. And the automobile tends to deaden that.”

At the University of Denver, encouraging people to commute to campus via bus or the new light rail has resulted in “significantly fewer” parking passes being sold to students (although not to employees), said Buddy Knox, manager of parking services at Denver.

Olivia Hails, a rising senior and student government vice president who has worked with Knox on a sustainability committee, says there’s no need for students to drive on the “walkable" campus, but they do anyway. “A lot of people are used to the convenience of being able to get in their car and go wherever,” Hails said, noting that the most unreasonable students will drive to campus from their apartments four or five blocks away. “I think it’s ridiculous.”

Knox agreed. “We do have some really good students that believe in reducing the carbon footprint and making the world a better place. And a lot of them are walking the walk, and I appreciate that,” Knox said. But not everyone is so accommodating. “We are an auto-centric nation, and I think our students here are also auto-centric. Everybody has a car, and so everybody wants a car. And I think that my personal observation is that everybody is really willing to have everybody else quit driving except them.”

And, for those students who just can’t bring themselves to part from their cars, there’s another attractive option: drive an LEED-certified low-emission vehicle, and you can park in one of 14 designated prime parking spaces.


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