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.
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:
- Continued expansion of short-term and secure long-term bike parking that remains ahead of increasing demand.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- Support for student groups that are excited about bicycling (i.e., Outdoor Program, Campus Recreation, Cycling Team, etc)
- 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.altaplanning.com/App_Content/files/Perspectives_Campus%20Bicycle%20Planning_ALTA.pdf