Management & Operations

Public Transit 101: Effective Planning for College Campuses

Posted on June 1, 2004 by By Kristen Force, Editorial Assistant

Often faced with growing populations that meet or exceed capacity, universities understand how big a role transportation plays in the sustainability of a campus. More students with more personal vehicles turn the issues of parking availability and traffic congestion into critical problems rather than minor inconveniences. Public transportation can be a viable solution for getting students (minus vehicles) onto and around campus efficiently. However, as in any city transit operation, funding and other distinct challenges ultimately determine what universities can offer. Institutions must devise a transportation plan that reduces individual travel, is convenient and appealing to the campus community and is affordable for students while still producing enough revenue to maintain operations. Fortunately, potential solutions abound. Unlimited access
Fare-free passes are gaining popularity at universities around the country due to their ease of use and effectiveness at encouraging new riders. Known as universal access, this type of program allows every member of a target group, such as the student body, to ride any bus in the system for free. Of course, nothing is really free. Typically, a fee is charged to all students as part of tuition, similar to a health center or student association fee. By showing a valid student ID, access to all transit buses is available throughout the semester or school year. The beauty of the system is that it provides benefits to all parties involved. The transportation department receives money even from students who don’t utilize the service, and students who do take advantage of the service pay much less than if they were to buy a traditional bus pass. The University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa created the U-Pass program to give students unlimited access to bus service around the campus and throughout the county using the local transit authority, HARTline (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority). Funding comes from parking revenue, a student transit access fee, concurrency funding from the city of Tampa, charter business and interior advertising. The student fee is based on credit hour enrollment. Since transit service began in 1997, ridership has seen an increase from 84,000 per year to more than 1 million this fiscal year, says Rick Fallin, USF transportation coordinator. According to the Center for Urban Transportation Research — located at USF — the university’s transit service accounted for the removal of an average of 336 personal automobiles per day during the 2000-01 school year. Building transit partnerships
A partnership between the Regional Transit System (RTS) in Gainesville, Fla., and the University of Florida has increased the agency’s ridership by almost 300% in the past six years. After a state law mandated that universities identify the impact of their presence on the surrounding area, the University of Florida agreed that providing transit service to students could help reduce traffic congestion, improve air and water quality and contribute to road improvements, says Jeffrey Logan, transit director at RTS. The partnership was formed in 1997 with an agreement that the university would give RTS funds for operation, in addition to a per-credit-hour fee approved by a student vote. The student fee, which has increased from 19 cents in 1998 to $4.16 beginning this fall, provides students with unlimited access on RTS routes. “We haven’t had any funding problems and we’ve added service each year,” says Logan. He attributes this success to the establishment of reliable funding sources and well-planned routes that target demand. Besides student fees, RTS also receives 80% of the city’s local gas tax receipts, and the Florida Department of Transportation pays 50% of the operational costs of any new route for the first two years. Logan suggests asking the following questions when creating or restructuring a university transit program, especially when service is provided by an outside agency:

  • Who are your partners?
  • How much are they going to spend?
  • What problem are you trying to solve by adding transit services?
  • Is there growing enrollment at the university?
  • Where do the students live?
  • What kind of impact is there on the local infrastructure?
  • How is the parking situation on campus? RTS operates approximately 78 buses a day during peak service times, most of which are 40-foot models. The rapid increase in ridership since university routes were added has caused the agency to acquire a mixed fleet of both new and used buses to keep up with demand, says Logan. Gainesville has been categorized into transit’s high-intensity tier due to its big-city ridership numbers Ñ more than 40,000 trips a day in an area with a population of 155,000. Rider incentives
    Campuses with a large number of commuters have additional challenges when trying to reduce on-campus parking and still provide convenient access for students. The University of Arizona in Tucson has added park-and-ride lots that cost less than half of an on-campus surface parking pass to encourage students to use the university’s transit buses to get on and off campus. CatTran, named for the school’s Wildcat mascot, is a free service for students to move around the core campus and to remote parking lots. Eleven buses on seven routes provide approximately 450,000 rides each year. “We’re trying everything we can to entice students and reduce the number of cars coming onto campus,” says Gary Thomson, associate director of Parking and Transportation Services. In addition to discounted rates for park-and-ride lots, incentives are offered for students who carpool and for those who use the local transit service, SunTran. The school subsidizes up to 50% of the price of an annual SunTran pass for students, faculty and staff. The pass carries no restrictions and provides unlimited rides from any bus stop location in the service area during all hours of operation. Thomson says a proposal is being considered by his department to have a lump sum paid by all students to enable everyone to receive a SunTran bus pass, regardless of whether or not they use it. The additional money would be used to add better routes at higher-demand times and possibly add an express route that goes directly to the campus, Thomson says. As an auxiliary department, all funds for transportation and parking come from internal sources, such as parking fees derived from permits and visitor parking. “CatTran is a $1.4 million program that we provide back to our campus community at no charge,” says Thomson. A variety of parking options are offered to students so they can have a choice about how to spend their money, he adds. Educating students about available services is often all that’s needed for them to choose an alternative form of transportation. Students at the University of Arizona can purchase a parking permit in a garage for $450, in a surface lot for $235 or in a park-and-ride lot for $115. To college students, Thomson says the considerably lower cost is a big incentive. Transit benefits
    Reduced parking demand and less traffic congestion are the two most appealing aspects of transit to students, according to a survey conducted by the Small Urban and Rural Transit Center at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in 2002. The survey also found that while 42.9% of graduate students have used NDSU’s service, only 15.8% of freshmen and sophomores and 18.3% of juniors and seniors have ridden NDSU’s transit buses. Because so many lifelong habits are developed during the college years, including dietary choices, exercise routines and even transportation choices, these findings offer valuable insight. To address these statistics, Metropolitan Area Transit (MAT), which provides service for the university, brings representatives to freshmen orientation each year to educate incoming students about its services. “We’re getting new students accustomed to riding the bus and knowledgeable about it,” says Jill Hough, director of the Small Urban and Rural Transit Center. “Right now, some of the upperclassmen are just more used to walking or driving.” MAT provides two circulators to the campus — one to get around on the university and one that travels on surrounding streets. Daily ridership in February totaled 415 and 936, respectively. The university pays MAT $4 per student for unlimited access on all routes and $40 per hour for the circulator bus and driver. In an effort to appeal to more students, Hough says her department has created a database of all student addresses and has created maps to identify high-concentration areas. “Students are really living all over the place,” she says. “But we’re trying to add well-planned routes and busy travel times to better serve our students.” Taking part in planning
    Those involved in thriving university transit operations have found that building relationships with local transit authorities and campus developers is vital to their departments’ success. Becoming active in city and university planning can also make operations run smoother and can better serve the needs of students. Thomson says building these relationships is crucial to providing good service because passengers often don’t distinguish one agency or department from another. He regularly meets with city planners to provide input about traffic flow, widening lanes, traffic signals and construction. “If there’s a problem on a street that leads onto campus, the user doesn’t know or care if the university or the city controls that street. They just know there is a problem and it is bad for them,” says Thomson. Working together can improve the flow of a project because everyone has agreed on the purpose and the execution of the plan. Local transit agencies that provide service to a university should be involved in the school’s development plans. Fallin from USF recommends staying in regular contact with the university’s facilities planning department to discuss the effect on transit. Nearly all campus construction will have at least a short-term impact on transit operations. Logan from RTS says he works closely with university administrators about issues concerning transit, but he still recognizes that the university is creating a master plan for its best interests. Transportation is one of many key factors taken into account when infrastructure and other types of development are considered for a university. Students in control
    The unique approach to transit service taken at the University of California, Davis, may not be sustainable in every market, but has proved successful for the school and surrounding area. Unitrans is a student-run program that began as a campus shuttle and has since expanded into a service for the entire community. The operation consists of student drivers, student supervisors and student managers with assistance from a few full-time staff members, including Anthony Palmere, assistant general manager. Palmere says the success of the novel program is largely due to the low operating costs and well-planned development along bus routes. Buses carry fuller loads and operate more efficiently by traveling through high-density service areas. Although 95% of riders are university students, Unitrans also serves senior citizens, high school students and other members of the community. This has been made possible by the city’s contribution of funds to extend the service beyond the borders of the campus, says Palmere. More unique than the student-run public transportation system is the type of buses used in the operation. Six original London double-decker buses built in the 1950s are used in daily service. One has been converted to natural gas, and a second is in the process now. “They’ve become the symbol of our service,” says Palmere. “We’re pretty sure they’re the only ones in North America, and visitors always like to see bright red double deckers running around the city.” The overall success of Unitrans has not been experienced without a few bumps in the road. The large, urban campus required many residents to adjust to the effects of a 25,000-student population. “We’re running large buses with very heavy loads at high frequencies close to people’s houses,” says Palmere. “If the city didn’t have the university, it would probably only have a paratransit system.” Residents don’t always consider how transit service has helped their city, Palmere continues. The need for more parking lots and structures has been reduced, some students choose not to have vehicles at all and road capacity improvements have not been as necessary. “We’re carrying what amounts to more than 20,000 riders every day in a city of 60,000,” says Palmere. “To translate that into cars and traffic would be overwhelming.” Taking a lesson from local transit
    City transit authorities have long bolstered revenue by selling advertisers space on the interior and exterior of buses to market products and gain visibility in the community. Now, advertising firms are trying to extend this strategy to university transit systems with products tailored to the interests of the college population. Start-up advertising company Roadway Media in Brookline, Mass., is partnering with transit departments on university campuses to create a network that would appeal to companies interested in the 18- to 24-year-old student demographic. The goal, says David Page, principal of the 1-year-old company, is to educate businesses about the viability of bus advertising to increase exposure on college campuses. “Funding is being dramatically cut back all over the nation,” says Page. “Most of the systems are talking about increasing fares or cutting services. We’re trying to offer a way to supplement their income by getting an active campaign together.” Each university transit department has the final say about what content it is willing to display on vehicles and where it will be located. While some elect to have only interior cards, others want exterior side posters and even full bus wraps. Page says some universities have already become involved in advertising with local area businesses, but none on the nationwide scale Roadway envisions. “The universities that are already doing this are selling on a local level and probably getting 50% or less of what the national market bears. Creating a network of institutions allows us to fetch a premium price,” Page says. The most common advertising Page has seen on university transit buses is for the school itself, he says. Signs on buses are used to inform students about groups, meetings and special events on campus. He adds that one of the biggest obstacles to accepting outside advertisers is convincing university officials of the benefit despite the loss of a message board for campus activities. Currently, Roadway has developed agreements with 18 campuses containing a total of 350,000 students. Transit bus advertising is expected to begin at the start of the fall semester.
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