Transportation Planning at the University of Colorado: Finding a New Way

The Declaration, Volume 2, Number 1: Winter 1998  [Operations]

by Will Toor

During the last two decades, the University of Colorado has introduced new programs to reduce environmental impacts in a variety of areas- including transportation, energy use, water use, and waste reduction. The university has also substantially increased its commitment to environmental education. In most cases, the driving force has been student demand for change and improvement. In addition, students have continued to play a major role in managing many of these initiatives. Following a brief review of university progress in recycling, resource conservation, and environmental education, this article will focus extensively on CU’s transportation programs.

The driving force behind many improvements on campus is the CU Environmental Center. The Environmental Center is the nation’s largest student run environmental resource center. Started in 1970 by a group of students who organized the first Earth Day at CU, it now has 4 permanent staff, 33 student staff and over 100 volunteers. The Center is the focal point for efforts to make the university more environmentally responsible. By combining the experience of permanent staff with the enthusiasm of student activists, the Center is able to generate a substantial force for environmental reform.

The Center is primarily funded by student fees. Currently, every student pays a fee of $3.54 per semester, which provides 70% of the$250,000 annual budget. This funding mechanism provides a substantial degree of independence, allowing the Center to question the practices of influential sectors of the administration and academic departments.

In many cases student activists or the student government are out front, demanding changes in campus practices or more funding for environmental initiatives. The Center is able to provide the technical expertise and the training in organizing techniques that allow student efforts to succeed. At the same time, there is strong support for environmental initiatives from some segments of the faculty and the administration. In particular, Facilities Management and the office of the Vice Chancellor for Administration have played an important role in affecting change.

The CU Recycling program is one of CU’s best known efforts. Started in 1976 by students at the Center, it is now operated by a joint student-administrative partnership. Under this setup students are responsible for operating the recycling facility, promotions and education, and for marketing materials to outside vendors. Facilities Management and the Housing Department are responsible for collections. The administration invested $500,000 in a recycling processing facility, to be paid off through avoided disposal costs. Students invest over $100,000 annually through student fees. Decisions are made by the Solid Waste Advisory Board, a joint student-administration committee. While there is a certain amount of inefficiency and many turf struggles due to the joint decision making process, the final outcome is very effective because all the stakeholders are involved. We are diverting 35-40% of the campus waste stream. In 1995 the National Recycling Coalition declared the effort the nation’s “outstanding school recycling program”.

Resource conservation is an area where substantial progress has taken place without significant student involvement. Several years ago Facilities Management invested in a new irrigation system. The new system uses raw water, rather than treated water; uses soil moisture meters tied to a computer to reduce unnecessary watering; and allows nightime watering, minimizing conflicts with lawn users and evaporative losses.

The decentralized nature of campus decision making, however, has meant that while general fund areas of the university participate in the new irrigation program, another part of campus, which is under the control of the Housing department, has not yet come on line. There are a variety of historical reasons for this, but from the perspective of good planning it would make more sense for many of these programs to cover the entire campus.

Facilities Management has also taken substantial steps toward making the campus more energy efficient. The biggest single step in this direction was the construction of a natural gas powered co-generation facility that provides steam and electricity for the campus. Facilities Management is currently proposing that the chancellor invest several million dollars over the next five years to make existing buildings more efficient.

Undergraduate environmental education at CU has been largely driven by student demand. While CU has had an environmental studies program for decades, the university never invested resources or provided dedicated faculty. Starting in the late 1980’s, student interest in the program exploded, from 130 majors in 1987 to over 600 today. In the last two years student protests demanding more resources have convinced the administration to provide increased funding, commit to hiring new faculty, and offer new classes. While many individual faculty members recognized the problems with the program (in fact, a faculty review of the program written in 1970 identified the same problems as the students did 20 years later), no action was taken until students made the front page marching on the president’s office.

There are many challenges still facing CU in the pursuit of a sustainable campus. We need further improvements in energy efficiency, and new programs to reduce use of water and hazardous materials. The efforts to strengthen environmental studies still appear to founder on the shoals of departmental resistance. No wide incorporation of environmental literacy into the teaching of all departments exists. Slowly, however, the efforts of many different constituencies, primarily students, are paying off.

Transportation Planning

During the last decade, transportation planning at CU has undergone major changes. Through the 1980’s, the general approach to increasing traffic was to accommodate it by providing additional parking. Today, the primary focus is on managing demand by giving students and employees viable alternatives to automobile use. This has come about through a convergence of three forces – pressure from local government, active student organizing, and fiscal pressures related to the high cost of new parking structures.

Many of these same forces are coming into play at other institutions. The situation is analogous to recycling in the 1980’s and early 90’s, when hundreds of schools started recycling programs in response to student demands, local and state recycling requirements, and rising waste disposal costs.

History of the CU Program

Back in 1990-91 the University built two new parking structures. Students were not aware of these plans until construction started. They formed an alternative transportation group to make sure that this didn’t happen again without student input. Then, in 1991, Bob Whitson, head of alternative transportation for the City of Boulder, suggested a collaborative student bus pass program. The idea received support from UCSU (the student government), and the Vice Chancellor for Administration. The Vice Chancellor then convened a Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC). Since 1989 the campus master plan had a formal transportation hierarchy- peds, bikes, transit, with cars at the bottom. The TAC was supposed to start reflecting this hierarchy in actual policies.

The first major initiative taken by TAC was the student bus pass program. This was a cooperative effort between the student government, the administration, and the city. UCSU put a referendum in the 1991 student ballot. Students voted 4-1in favor of taxing themselves $10/semester, which raised approximately$550,000/year, for a local bus pass. The Vice Chancellor and the city Transportation Department helped negotiate with the transit agency, and the city assisted with initial funding.

The success of the program has been remarkable. Before the passes were issued, a survey by the Regional Transportation District (RTD) indicated that 300,000 student bus trips took place in the 1991-92 school year. Within three years, this number grew to 900,000. For the academic year 1996-97, preliminary numbers indicate that we will surpass 1,500,000 student rides! Surveys conducted by Quantum Research Associates in 1995 indicated that 42% of these trips would have taken place in automobiles.

There are several interesting aspects to the student pass program. During initial negotiations, RTD proposed a much higher price for the passes than was eventually agreed to. The student negotiator was able to get the price reduced substantially. The strongest argument, which would apply at most schools, is that students have very different schedules than the working public. Most student trips do not take place during peak hours, so adding students to the system does not force the transit provider to put additional buses on the road. Instead, students fill buses that otherwise are well below capacity during off peak hours. Thus, a substantial number of student riders can be absorbed at no cost to the provider, while helping with transit agencys’ biggest PR problem- empty buses during off peak hours. This also means that the environmental benefits are high, as the pass takes cars off the road without increasing bus trips.

The program has continued to be managed by students associated with the Environmental Center. A side effect has been the creation of an active student transportation group, known as the “One Less Car Club.” This organization has been very active, promoting transportation reform on and off campus. They have helped pass a progressive transportation master plan for the city of Boulder, advocated for urban growth boundaries, and lobbied for increased transit funding by the state.

In the intervening years, 1991-95, the city gradually reduced its subsidy to the pass, while working closely with the university to create a local shuttle system, using small, friendly buses operating at very high frequency. The initial piece was the HOP, which started running in 1995 (the city’s transit plan calls for a network of small, friendly buses called HOP, SKIP, JUMP, LEAP and BOUND). The HOP connects the campus to the major commercial areas. The first year of HOP operation was funded with a federal grant through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) program. The student pass now helps fund this shuttle. The next bus to come on line was the SKIP, which travels from the far South to far North ends of the city. Students ride the HOP and SKIP for free. These services are extremely popular both because of their frequency and their friendly, student-oriented community atmosphere.

Last spring students reaffirmed their support of the program by voting 16 to 1 to raise their student fees by an additional $5/semester to expand their transit benefits. This is quite remarkable- it is the largest margin of victory for any student vote in CU history. The new fee helps support the HOP and the SKIP. The pass also now includes free rides on most regional bus routes, and a heavily discounted weekend bus running to Colorado ski areas.

At the same time, in response to enormous student demand, Parking Services increased their commitment to bicycle parking, raising substantially the number of racks available on campus. During this period, the number of automobile parking spaces has declined slightly, as new buildings have been constructed over existing parking spaces.

Success in Numbers

We can look to modal shift data to quantify the impacts of the program. The City of Boulder Center for Policy and Program Analysis performs a ‘diary study’ of travel habits every two years. In 1990, 35.9 % of all trips were on foot, 17.6% of all trips were taken by bicycle; 18.9 % by carpool; 23.8% by single occupant vehicle (SOV); 2.3 % by dorm shuttles, and 1.5% by transit. After five years of program operation, these numbers shifted significantly. In 1996 39.8% were on foot; 19.9% by bicycle; 18.3% by carpool, 14.6% by SOV, 4.2% by transit, and 3.2% by dorm shuttle. Note the large decline in SOV use, and the significant increases in walking, biking and transit.

Outstanding Issues

The important issue currently being proposed is a faculty/staff bus pass. This has been on the table for years, but remains difficult to implement. Unlike students, there is no mechanism in place for faculty and staff to vote to tax themselves, so the money has to come out of existing revenue streams. The problem has been further complicated by state benefits rules which forbid benefits at one state institution that are not offered at all institutions. It required two years of work by the Vice Chancellor for Administration to get the law modified to allow transit benefits. The proposed funding mechanism is a partnership between the city, RTD, the University general fund, and parking services. RTD and the city will provide initial funding, which will be phased out over several years. Eventually the cost will be split between parking services and the general fund.

The key to making this work is the use of parking revenues. There is essentially no free parking available on campus. Students, faculty and staff who wish to park on campus pay a monthly fee which covers the costs of construction, maintenance and operation of the parking system. Note that they do not pay for the underlying land value. Rates vary according to lot location, but a typical value for close-in lots is $30 per month. A$5 per month parking rate increase to support the pass has been proposed. Parking Services now support this proposal. The basic argument is that a faculty/staff bus pass will relieve pressure on the parking system, thus reducing the need to construct new parking. Since there is little free land available, any new parking spaces would require structures, probably built over existing surface lots, at a cost per new space of up to $15,000. Thus, providing 1,000 spaces would cost $15 million. This would require parking rate increases much higher than $5 in order to cover bond costs. If the bus pass prevents the need for this, then even for those drivers who have no intention of using the bus, raising parking rates to pay for the bus pass makes economic sense.

The chancellor and board of regents will make a decision this fall on the faculty/staff pass proposal. There is a certain amount of opposition from staff who are opposed to the parking rate increase, but survey results indicate that a majority of employees support the program.


One of the most difficult areas to address has been the relationship between land use and transportation. The University has expanded to several sites separated by distances large enough to make walking difficult. One of these sites, remote student housing, is well served by a shuttle bus and bicycle path. Another large research park is very poorly served by any facility except roads. The university recently acquired another very large site, several miles away on the fringes of town. While there are no immediate development plans, it is difficult to conceive of any use that will not generate substantial traffic. Also, the university has not constructed new student housing for many years, during a period of enrollment growth, so more students live further away from campus than in the past. More student housing next to main campus would make a great deal of sense, but this conflicts with demands for space by other university interests. Political controversy around University land use decisions is highly charged, making rational planning difficult.

The current master plan calls for creating a car free central campus, which would close two existing roads to regular auto use. This has been stalled since it requires removing parking currently used by deans, department heads and other senior staff. Students are proposing some incremental steps such as removing some of the parking in order to create new bicycle lanes without completely closing the streets. Facilities Management took the step of replacing car parking along one block with bicycle racks.

Finally, an unresolved controversy is the fate of bicycle routes on campus. As the modal study indicates, bicycles are used for thousands of trips to campus each day, primarily by students. This creates conflicts over use of sidewalks and bike paths. Some of these are based upon legitimate safety concerns, and some on resistance by some faculty and staff to sharing the walks. There are currently no continuous legal routes across the campus, leading to many infractions. There are proposals on the table to open up legal routes across campus, and, on the other side, calls to follow University of California, Berkeley’s lead and close the core campus to bikes.

National Needs

Currently, there is a lack of communication among universities and colleges across the nation regarding transportation demand management strategies and programs. At most campuses there is no Transportation Demand Management (TDM) program, no staff dedicated to alternative transportation and no student organizing on transportation. This contrasts with the state of recycling, where there is extensive campus infrastructure with programs, funding, staff and student activism. In addition, there is a substantial amount of information easily available on successful recycling programs, sources of technical assistance, and ready communication with other campus programs.

Two notable examples of successful TDM programs in the U.S. are at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, and at the University of Washington, in Seattle, Washington. Cornell has managed to convince nearly 40% of its 9,000 faculty and staff to commute by carpool and public transit instead of by SOVs. As a result, the university avoids spending over $3 million a year on parking structures and has saved at least 13 acres of campus green space. The University of Washington, in its efforts to comply with a city requirement not to increase campus traffic while in the process of growing larger, has created the highly successful “U-PASS Program.” Through a combination of a transit pass system, a vanpool and carpool program, parking rate hikes, and an excellent marketing effort, the university has in fact reduced its number of parking spaces.

Transportation may become the campus environmental issue of the late 90’s in the same way that recycling was in the late 80’s. Both issues can mobilize students and both offer clear financial incentives to universities. As the examples of CU and other institutions demonstrate, there are concrete steps which can be taken toward more sustainable transportation systems.

Will Toor is Director of the University of Colorado Environmental Center.

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