Back to School without a Car: How Colleges Are Reducing Driving

Frontier Group intern Elise Sullivan, a senior at Boston University, contributed this blog post.

The arrival of September and the shortening of long summer days means it's that time of year again: back-to-school season. And in Boston, that translates to 113,000 college students descending upon the area to attend one of the 27 institutions that call the city home. How exactly does the small city of Boston accommodate the influx of 113,000 students without descending into total gridlock? It turns out the city’s institutions plan well for it; today, many of Boston’s colleges and universities employ innovative strategies to minimize transportation costs by reducing driving.

Boston is not the only college town saving money and improving public health by reducing car trips. Today most colleges and universities employ some form of “transportation demand management,” a strategy to encourage a shift away from driving and towards non-driving modes. This shift away from driving started about two decades ago, when campus planners recognized the challenge of providing increased access and mobility without destroying the quality of both campus and the environment. Considerations such as strict federal air quality requirements, increasing traffic congestion, and lack of funds and land to accommodate parking have led universities to embrace a multimodal approach to transportation. Universities are exploring a range of innovative alternative solutions to their transportation trouble. The most widely implemented strategies include:

  •  Free or discounted transit pass programs
  • Measures to encourage biking
  •  Investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure
  • Ridesharing
  • Car share programs
  • Telecommuting & distance education

In most cases, a combination of these programs allow schools to continue to grow and expand while keeping traffic steady and avoiding cost-prohibitive projects like building new parking structures.

So far, large universities and state schools have seen the most success in terms of managing transportation demand. Some of the universities that are excelling in alternative transportation include the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which boasts a strong network of bicycle routes and an innovative bike program; Colorado University-Boulder, which stands out for its bus pass program; and the University of California-Davis, which offers an excellent carpool program.

This new outlook on transportation does not have to be limited to university campuses. Colleges and universities, by nature, are excellent laboratories for innovation and great places to test out alternative approaches to problems such as transportation. The strategies that prove the most effective on campus can then be easily adapted and applied on a larger scale so that corporations, municipalities and cities can reap the benefits as well. Moreover, the increasing adoption of transportation alternatives by students on college campuses can arguably have implications for the transportation and lifestyle choices they make after they graduate.

Frontier Group has begun to analyze these trends in alternative transportation on college campuses and beyond and will be releasing a report in the fall.