Can CU Grow Without Adding Cars?

July 22, 2013

By Will Toor | November 1999

The answer may well be yes, based upon the experience at other major research institutions around the country. Stanford University has grown by 2 million square feet of new building space since 1991, a 20% increase, without increasing peak period auto trips to campus. The population of the University of Washington has increased by 7% since 1991, while vehicle trips to and from campus have decreased by 5%. Could CU follow the same path?

This is a critical question as the University of Colorado-Boulder updates its master plan, the blueprint for growth over the next decade. The master plan lays out the physical changes planned on campus – new buildings, parking structures, roads, and paths – as well as policies. The current draft of the master plan assumes that the current modal split – that is, the percentage of trips that occur on buses vs. cars vs. bikes or walking – will not change. This means that, as campus grows, the number of car trips will also grow. In order to deal with this growth, the plan calls for the construction of two new parking structures in the vicinity of the main campus- one next to the Stadium and one in Grandview Terrace. In addition, other parking structures are envisioned as part of the development of further housing at William Village.

How did Stanford do it?

Jeffrey Tumlin, Stanford’s transportation programs manager from 1991-1997, recently visited CU and described the techniques they used to grow without increasing traffic. Interestingly, the driving force was not environmental concerns – it was bottom line economics. His office was faced with a situation very similar to CU today – the campus was growing, new buildings were being built over surface parking lots, and the only way to significantly increase the parking supply was building parking structures. The problem – parking structures are expensive. Each net new parking space can cost over $30,000 – translating into long-term costs of $150 per month per space every month for the lifetime of the structure. This was ten times what people were used to paying for parking – and the campus population was unlikely to accept such an increase. CU faced a similar issue in the late 1980’s, and responded by building 2 parking structures – which caused parking rates all over campus to triple.

Paying People Not To Drive:

The key insight Tumlin had: it was cheaper to pay people not to drive to campus than to build new parking structures. Stanford began a program of paying any employee who did not purchase a parking permit during the year $90 – which has since grown to $144. This modest financial incentive convinced many employees to look for other ways to get to campus. They also slowly raised parking rates, increasing them by about 15% annually, but still holding them well below the actual cost of providing parking.

At the same time they dramatically expanded the alternative ways to get to campus. They invested $4 million in improving bicycle facilities, and got 900 more people to shift from cars to bikes – a cost of $4400 per person. Compared to the $18 million or more they would have had to spend on parking structures for the same number of people, they considered this a good deal. They also turned a main road through campus into a bike/transit mall, and dramatically increased transit service to campus.

Keeping students mobile – without having cars

In Tumlin’s words “Most students use their cars only sporadically, once or twice a week at most. At Stanford, we calculated that if we charged the full cost of parking to students, it would be cheaper for students to rent a car for three quarters of the weekends of the entire academic year than to store a car on campus. Unfortunately, most rental car agencies do not rent to people under 21. To overcome this problem, we contracted with a local rental car agency and leased them low-cost campus space in exchange for renting to all students and maintaining student-appropriate hours. They also agreed to provide bulk rental car discount books that could be sold to students or their parents in
lieu of purchasing a vehicle.”

Housing for all?

The other key investment – building lots of housing to allow faculty, staff and students to live on campus. This was driven by the very high housing costs in the area, but has the side benefit of reducing transportation demand. Again in Tumlin’s words “By far the most cost effective way to reduce transportation demand is to house people where they work or go to school. Stanford has built thousands of student and faculty housing units over the last ten years. An additional 1,200 units aimed at staff are currently under construction.”

The result of all this: Stanford has been able to add 2 million square feet of buildings while holding peak period traffic to campus constant!

How it worked at the University of Washington

The University of Washington in Seattle shows that you don’t have to be an elite private university to make this approach work - the same general approach can also succeed at a large public university. The UW master plan is focused on allowing the university to grow – without increasing traffic or parking demand in surrounding neighborhoods. Planners estimated that UW’s expansion plans would bring 10,000 more cars a day if no creative actions were taken. In response, UW created the U-PASS program, which has many similar elements: improving transit, providing more bicycle facilities –and changing the financial incentives around parking. Parking costs were increased from $24/month to $46.50/month, with much of the additional revenue going to support the alternatives. This may seem like a big hit – but is probably cheaper than parking would be if additional structures were built. It has also made it much easier to find parking – there are more parking lot spaces left for those people who do continue to purchase parking permits. The net effect: while the population grew 7%, parking demand fell 22% and car trips fell by 17% during the am peak, and 5% averaged over the day.

How about CU?

The Boulder campus has put in place many of the same elements that we see at Stanford and the University of Washington. On the transit front, every CU student and permanent employee now has free access to local and regional transit by showing her university ID. Cooperative efforts between CU, RTD, and the city have led to major improvements in transit service throughout the entire community. Next summer the JUMP, BOUND, and LEAP will come on line (see accompanying article on page 3), giving yet another major
improvement in service.

UCB also has some of the bicycle elements in place. The Boulder Creek bike path and Broadway bike path, the underpass under College, and the thousands of bicycle parking spaces on campus provide the basic infrastructure needed for biking to campus. However, the number of people riding to campus at CU is much lower than at Stanford. Counts at Stanford have shown that up to 75% of the people arriving at academic buildings arrive by bicycle. At CU, approximately 10% of trips to campus are by bike. The draft CU master plan does identify one high priority improvement – creating a legal, well-marked East-West route across campus, tying Pleasant Street to Colorado Avenue.

One area which CU has not explored fully is the use of financial incentives – whether the Stanford approach of offering cash to folks who don’t drive to campus, or the Washington approach of raising parking rates to more closely reflect all of the true costs.
Also, unlike Washington, CU is still considering large scale construction of parking structures, and even surface parking lots.

In some ways the situation CU faces is analogous to that faced by Stanford and Washington a decade ago – a growing campus, increasing parking demand, and a location well served by transit and bicycle facilities. Stanford and UW chose innovative approaches which paid off handsomely. What route will CU choose? For more information: on Stanford http://transportation.stanford.edu/; on Washington http://www.washington.edu/upass.

Can CU Grow Without Adding Cars