Palo Alto Puts Campus Transportation Strategies to Work Citywide

An increasing number of America’s colleges and universities are encouraging their students, faculty and staff to leave their cars at home in favor of alternative modes of transportation. From university-funded transit networks to bike paths to ride-sharing databases and Zipcars, colleges are investing in broad-based strategies that make alternatives to traveling alone in a personal car both possible and desirable.

What’s in it for the school? Environmental bona fides, reduced traffic congestion, and millions of dollars in savings from the costly parking structures they no longer have to build.

It’s working and traffic-addled cities are taking notice. In Palo Alto, a city in the dense and expensive San Francisco Bay Area, downtown growth has put tremendous pressure on automobile parking capacity and left the city contemplating new parking structures at a staggering cost of as much as $100 million. The city’s mayor thinks there is another way. A memo (PDF available here) circulated last week among city lawmakers recommends that Palo Alto develop a plan to reduce solo car trips by 30 percent – and reach out to nearby Stanford University for advice on how to do it. Facing its own parking and congestion challenges in the 1990s, Stanford’s “transportation demand management” strategy was so successful it helped the school save tens of millions of dollars in new parking construction and slash the proportion of its employees driving solo by 25 percentage points

Universities and colleges are natural laboratories for innovation and they face many of the same transportation challenges – limited financial resources, traffic congestion and environmental concerns – as cities and states nationwide. Rather than fall back on costly parking garages and let traffic and pollution worsen, Palo Alto’s public officials are showing that decision makers can look to college campuses for fresh thinking on their big transportation issues.

Look for a Frontier Group report later this fall that explores in more detail what universities across the country are doing, the impact on young Americans’ attitudes to transportation, and what public policy makers can learn.