How Eliminating the 'Yes, Buts' Cut Stanford Commuting by One Fourth

Posted by Deena Shanker


Many, many years ago, as a freshman in college, I had a fairly simple morning commute.  After the alarm at ten to nine, I would roll out of bed, brush my teeth, grab a notebook, walk out the door of my dorm building, take three steps, and walk right into Barnard Hall for my 9 a.m. Biology class. Sometimes I changed out of my pajamas, but I usually rolled in dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt, a real fashionista in the making. (Ah, the beauty of attending a women’s college!) 

In the U.S., most undergraduate students live on or near campus, meaning that they don’t need to worry about the costs, or environmental impact, of commuting to school. Faculty and staff, however, rarely live so close, forcing universities either to build sprawling parking lots or come up with alternative systems of bringing in their employees. Aware of the costs of this kind of construction, as well as the traffic problems that all of these drivers can create, most schools now employ some form of transportation demand —or TDM—programs to lower transportation costs by reducing driving. A few schools, though, are going beyond the basics, developing comprehensive and effective TDMs, and acting as models for campuses all over the country.
 
Perhaps not surprisingly, considering its overachieving student body, Stanford University’s TDM, which has reduced its faculty and staff commuters from 72% to 42% since 2000, is smart and successful: a perfect model to borrow from. Though the school has had a TDM program since the mid-nineties, it’s current version was launched in late 2002 after Santa Clara County gave it an ultimatum: it would either have to find a way to expand its campus without increasing traffic, contribute financially to improving 15 intersections in the region, or put its plans on hold.
 
Not the type to shy away from a challenge, Stanford began employing a number of programs to encourage drivers to leave their cars at home. According to Brodie Hamilton, director of parking and transportation at Stanford, “We developed a program that dealt with what I call the ‘yes buts,’ trying to deal with commuters’ barriers.” Looking at the reasons people stayed away from public transportation, they sought solutions. When people would say, “‘I’d use alternative transportation but,’” Hamilton says, they “tried to look at all those barriers and come up with programs that would deal with them.”
 
So far that has included providing employees with “Go Passes” for unlimited access to CalTrain – driving the commuter rail’s usage by faculty up from 4 percent to over 22 percent—as well as bringing a 61-car Zipcar program onto campus. The “Commute Club” is another popular option, paying anyone who doesn’t buy a parking permit $300 in cash. That Club has grown from 3500 members in 2000 to over 8300. But not everything has been successful.  One transit pass would allow people in the East Bay to connect to CalTrain through BART, another public transportation line. “We thought this was just going to be fabulous,” Hamilton says, “but it went over like a lead balloon.”
 
The key to Stanford’s success, according to Hamilton, is providing variety and options for commuters. Other schools looking to follow Stanford’s lead should do the same. “Try to put together something that has many pieces and that will support the commuter in so many different ways. There are often so many smaller pieces that by implementing those, you deal with a lot of the barriers that commuters are faced with.”
 
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Photo via (cc) Cyclelicious