Road Worrier: NC universities want to help students get around without their cars

With American teens and young adults cutting back on their driving, a recent report focuses on efforts by universities in the Triangle and across the country to boost transit use and help students get around without their cars.

The N.C. PIRG Education Fund, part of a national consumer group, released a studylast year showing that young people are leading a pronounced national decline in driving. Citing federal highway data, the group said Americans aged 16 to 34 reduced their annual driving miles by 23 percent per person between 2001 and 2009.

That big drop is mirrored at UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the campuses highlighted in a follow-up report issued this month. Where 30 percent of Carolina students drove alone to campus in 1997, that share fell to 18 percent in 2011.

There are a few reasons for this big change in Chapel Hill. Students and employees at UNC-CH – and also at Duke, N.C. State and Meredith College – now get free regional bus passes to travel the Triangle. GoPass users from these campuses account for more than 35 percent of all Triangle Transit ridership.

And a big investment from the university also helped Chapel Hill Transit eliminate fares for all riders in 2002. That made it easier for students and faculty to commute to campus, and it boosted local bus traffic by 42 percent in one year. Students help pay for Chapel Hill Transit out of their annual student fees – this year, $146 apiece.

UNC-CH has made these efforts for the same reasons many American universities are reducing automobile traffic on campus. Along with the economic and environmental sustainability motives that have encouraged many Americans to cut back on their driving, UNC had problems with traffic congestion and a construction boom that put new research and classroom buildings in places where faculty and students used to park their cars.

Universities and cities grapple with similar transportation challenges: parking, congestion, safety, economics.

“Like cities, the universities have limited space to work with,” said Kalila Zunes-Wolfe of the N.C. PIRG Education Fund. “They have a lot of people there all the time, and they want to decrease traffic congestion. They want to make it easier for people to move around, and they want to save money, too.”

Duke in Durham and NCSU in Raleigh run their own busy campus bus services. Both universities have Zipcar vehicle-sharing programs that make it easier for students to leave their personal cars at home. And both are taking steps to make their campuses more friendly to folks who travel on foot or on bicycles.

Many West Raleigh drivers were aggrieved in January 2013 when NCSU installed gates on Dan Allen Drive – a busy north-south campus street between Western Boulevard and Hillsborough Street – to block through traffic on days when classes are in session.

The change presents inconveniences for some campus workers and visitors, but it’s working out pretty well for NCSU students. The reduced car traffic has helped NCSU Wolfline buses get more students to class on time. And Dan Allen is now a safer, friendlier street for throngs of students who walk it, bike it and crisscross it every day.

“It’s a quieter atmosphere in the core of the campus, so I think it’s a good thing for walkers and bikers,” said Brian O’Sullivan, NCSU’s assistant transportation director.

NCSU is expected to be a busy stop on a proposed rush-hour commuter train line, and also on a proposed light-rail line – if they’re ever approved by Wake County commissioners and later by voters.

But for now, even as the campus sees more bus and bike traffic, NCSU and its students are still very much attached to their automobiles. New construction projects on Centennial Campus come with big parking decks, and a big perk for students and faculty is NCSU’s free park-and-ride lots at Carter-Finley Stadium.

“We are a campus with proportionately a lot of parking relative to our size, about 20,000 parking spaces,” O’Sullivan said. About 85 percent of NCSU’s 6,500 faculty and staff still drive alone to work, along with 50 percent of the students who don’t live on campus.

NCSU is reluctant to join other universities that have set ambitious goals for reducing car traffic on campus.

“Because without raising parking fees, or without congestion getting so bad (for drivers) approaching campus that it is intolerable, I don’t know how we shift people from a driving mode to a bus mode,” O’Sullivan said.