4 College Campuses That Can Teach Cities How To Do Transit Better

From Madison to Chapel Hill, these universities are paving the way to better solutions for making roads safer and less congested for all.

4 College Campuses That Can Teach Cities How To Do Transit Better
[Image: University of Colorado, Bike station via Flickr user Beyond DC]

As much as the college campus bubble might shield students from the “real world” for several years, it also provides a remarkable opportunity for transportation experimentation. Where city initiatives might get mired in local politics and die slow deaths, many campuses have been forced to innovate rapidly to accommodate growing student populations. Often that means they’re putting progressive transportation systems in place long before cities get around to doing the same.


A new report from the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund takes a look at schools that are coming up with creative ways to solve their transit needs. From a massive network of pedestrian underpasses to bike valets on football game days, the report highlights specific approaches that could inform city planning or become parts of a larger infrastructure. Most importantly, research shows that commuting habits developed in college linger long after graduation–so campuses are often incubators of good transportation citizenship.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

In 2006, only 14% of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s students biked to class. In just seven years, that number has leaped to 22%. Much of the rise of cycling culture had to do with B-cycle, the city’s bikeshare program, which students can join at a discounted rate. Because of cycling’s increased popularity, now UW-Madison even offers free bike valet parking on game days.

In addition to the bikeshare, the school has also taken steps to limit cars on campus. UW-Madison has capped and reduced on-campus parking for staff and students while greatly expanding bike paths and racks. The school also maintains a bicycle resource center, which hands out manuals, repair kits, maps, and free tools for tune-ups.

Solutions similar to the resource center are springing up in response to enthusiastic urban biking cultures. New York and Minneapolis now have bike part vending machines that allow cyclists to make quick repairs. But think about what might happen if cities invested in a network of vending machines like this–essentially creating mini-bike resources all over for riders in need.

University of Colorado-Boulder

To help meet its carbon neutrality goal by the year 2050, the University of Colorado-Boulder has encouraged walking to class by investing in a series of underpasses that let pedestrians cross high-traffic roadways safely. Nearly a third of the city’s underpasses are within the university’s borders, and today, roughly 60% of all trips made by students are by bike or foot.

University of California-Davis

UC-Davis already has a pretty robust biking culture–some 40% of students bike to class. But in order to encourage less private driving, the school decided to also provide carpooling incentives. Now, the school’s goCarpool program gives discounted parking to ride-sharers, reserves spaces for them, enters carpoolers into prize lotteries, and gives them a complimentary rental car voucher per quarter.


University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

In 15 years, the population of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill grew by nearly a quarter and the school increased its building footprint by 50%. Fearing that car congestion might choke roadways and make commutes hellish, the school did something bold: In 2002, it contracted with Chapel Hill Transit to make rides for students on public transit free.

“The university’s decision to facilitate fare-free transit has also benefited the entire Chapel Hill community,” the report authors write. “Between 2001 and 2011 (the most recent year for which data are available), ridership on the local bus system surged from approximately 3 million trips to more than 7 million. Chapel Hill Transit is now the second largest transit system in the state, and free transit service won the town a 2009 City Livability Award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors.”

Several other schools made honorable mentions in the report–the University of California-Irvine, for example, was actually the first college campus to institute a bikeshare program back in 2009. To see which schools are rapidly expanding their bike infrastructure and making public transit better for communities even outside the universities, check out the full report here.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.