University Campuses: Mini-Towns, Max-Potential

University campuses are rich with opportunity to become models of bicycle transportation. With a captive audience of young people and with near total control over parking policy, campus circulation, and campus roadways, universities that take bicycle transportation seriously can virtually eliminate or severely reduce driving on campus. Getting students in the habit of bicycling for transportation sets them up to bicycle as adults, whereas faculty and administrators set a model for the surrounding community. Indeed, achieving a high level of bicycling to and on campuses while reducing driving impacts the entire city or town within which the university is located.

Alta's recent work on the Boise State University Campus Plan focused on safety and connectivity, resulting in a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly University designation.

More than 20 universities have been recognized by the League of American Bicyclists as Bicycle Friendly Universities. Stanford rates the highest due to its excellent network of bikeways and high level of bicycling, followed by the Universities of California at Davis and Santa Barbara.
Over the last five years, I’ve witnessed Portland State University (PSU), where I co-founded the Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation, increased bicycling to 12% of employee and student trips (from just 3% a few years ago). Ian Stude, PSU’s transportation coordinator, explains, “In my opinion the essential ingredients of our success have been:
  1. Continued expansion of short-term and secure long-term bike parking that remains ahead of increasing demand.
  2. Investment into a bicycle resource center (The Bike Hub) that provides both the physical support riders and serves as the cultural epicenter for all things bike-related on campus.
  3. Outreach events, particularly our investment in organizing a Bike-to-Campus Challenge every May (2010 saw over 1000 participants sign up — not bad considering the statewide version put on by the BTA just hit 12,000)
  4. The presentation of bicycling as a normal and widely-accepted mode choice in all New Student Orientation materials, Transportation & Parking materials & marketing, Employee Orientation materials.
  5. Support for student groups that are excited about bicycling (i.e., Outdoor Program, Campus Recreation, Cycling Team, etc)
  6. Improved bikeways that allow for safer, more comfortable access to the campus by bike (this is a tough one for us, and we see lots of potential for improvement based on the Portland Bike Plan for 2030.)”
I’d also give PSU credit for its excellent Bicycle Plan, an essential ingredient for success.

Some universities like the University of Texas at Austin and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are developing high-capacity “bike stations” throughout campus to centralize parking availability while reducing bike/ped conflicts near campus building entrances.

Learning from PSU and the other LAB winners, what are the other keys? For sure, you need dedicated staff like Ian housed in the transportation services department, plus excellent bikeways, abundant bike parking at every building, and long-term, secure bike parking in dorms, garages, or separate structures for overnight storage. To realize full potential, almost every university has to work closely with the surrounding town, whose willingness to prioritize bikeways to/from campus is the key to success. I recommend a joint task force of City staff, students, and faculty and administrators from such departments as transportation, healthcare, wellness, planning, and infrastructure. The task force should work together to create a robust bicycle master plan, jointly seek funding for execution, and then meet at least quarterly to oversee plan implementation. The plan should be coordinated with campus expansion plans, such that every new building, plaza, and road be built with bicycle transportation in mind.

Education provides understanding and respect for the roles and responsibilities of cyclists and other transportation users, such as pedestrians and motorists, on campus and in surrounding communities.

Education is critical, of course. It’s important to reach out before the time they arrive on campus with a clear message that bikes are welcome, expected, and encouraged. It’s helpful to have a bike repair shop or two on campus or nearby, and assign enthusiastic students to lead campus rides during orientation week. Educational materials about safety, laws, and expectations should be posted in prominent places and included in orientation materials, then reinforced throughout the year by campus security. Security officers can also play a positive role in distributing bike lights in the fall, directing students to where they can purchase a lock and other items. They should also take bike theft and vandalism seriously; many register bikes as a way to be able to track down owners when bikes are recovered.
This week, I visited the little town of Pullman, Washington, which is dominated by the campus of Washington State University (WSU), with student enrollment of 18,000+. WSU and Pullman have a lot of good things in place: wide paths along many roads and some bike lanes, although with a number of gaps; plenty of short-term bike parking on campus (not so much in the town); and an enthusiastic group of leaders. WSU has taken a smart structural approach by integrating bicycle transportation into an overall fitness and wellness program.

WSU's Green Bike Program is extremely popular, with over 2,000 users and over 3,000 trips taken to date. The program utilizes student cards to access the system, with a local mechanic on board for repairs.

Many universities offer some kind of check-in, check-out bike program, whereby students can borrow a bike at no or low cost. WSU tried this for a while, and found, like many universities, that it’s time consuming to keep the bikes in good order. Thus, they upgraded to an automated bike share system, courtesy of Public Bike Share Company, whose top notch bikes and stations grace Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Washington, DC/Arlington, VA, Boston, Melbourne, and London. (Alta Bicycle Share operates several of these systems in partnership with PBSC.) The “Green Bike” program has been wildly successful, although not without challenge. I applaud WSU for its ingenuity in funding the bikes through student fees and for recognizing what a boon they can be.

Social media can be utilized by administrators and students alike to share information and create a community around cycling. Capital Bikeshare, which has stations at nearby local universities, regularly hosts contests on Facebook, like last winter's “Favorite Photo Contest,” a finalist of which is shown above.

So important for all universities: establishing a strong communications and encouragement strategy from the time of application and reinforced through admissions, orientation and beyond. To be effective, faculty and administrators need to use social media tools – Facebook, text messaging, Twitter, blogs, listserves, etc., as well as verbal information, printed information for parents, posters, reader boards, and student leaders.
Universities need to monitor usage. First, they need to establish a baseline, and then they need to annually evaluate bicycle ridership and report back. Three options: conduct cordon count of all entry and exit points, using the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project methodology; count all bikes parked during a specific timeframe; and/or survey students about their transportation habits. The first method works well in a closed campus environment, and the third works well if the survey is mandatory and has a high rate of return.

Many of the treatments provided within the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide such as cycle tracks, shown here at the University of Utah, and intersection treatments can make existing campus roadways function better for bicyclists, often times providing more direct and faster connections to and across campus.

Finally, possibly the single best action that a university can take to increase bicycling, walking, and transit is to raise parking fees and limit the supply of on-campus parking. Conversely, regardless of how many improvements are made to encourage bicycling and walking, there’s unlikely to be huge shifts in mode split if parking remains cheap and abundant. The other benefit of high parking fees is that some percentage of that revenue can be allocated to fund non-motorized transportation programs.
WSU, like many campuses I visited, including USC (Columbia, SC), University of Arizona (Tucson), and Cornell (Ithaca, NY), is ripe for positive progress.
For more information, see Alta Planning + Design’s excellent white paper: Best Practices in Campus Bicycle Planning and Program Development at

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2 Responses to University Campuses: Mini-Towns, Max-Potential

  1. Ian Stude says:

    Thanks for the flattering comments, Mia. One of the area’s we plan to improve in our approach to bicycling (and all transportation) is facilitating an active dialog across campus about our community’s transportation concerns. We would like to soon form a transportation committee comprised of students, faculty, staff, and residents, as well as business owners & neighbors from the university district. I think this will not only serve to broaden our lines of communication, but also bring a sense of shared movement towards our goals for more bicycle friendly campus. Engagement at a commuter school (even though I’m not supposed to call it that) like PSU is a very real challenge. I’d love to hear back from other schools about their experience in forming committees or groups like this and what steps proved most successful.
    Many thanks,

  2. Tim Potter says:

    Great article Mia. Thanks for taking the time to dig into the university bike scene. We’ve been quite successful in getting infrastructure (bike lanes, bike parking, a full-service bike center) built which helps keep our campus cyclists riding happily and safely, but breaking into the orientation materials and sessions has proven to be very challenging. That face time is protected like Fort Knox! Like PSU we’re also moving towards establishing a campus-community bike advocacy group to hopefully strengthen our voice for future improvements to help us continue towards an even friendlier campus for bicyclists. Would like to plug a relatively new network of campus bike programmers that I helped organize a few years back; we have a vibrant listserv and wealth of info. available here:

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