Alternative transportation growing in popularity

A recent Portland State survey reveals that three out of four students and faculty members commute to campus by using some mode of alternative transportation, putting PSU front-and-center in the movement to phase out the automobile.

A recent Portland State survey reveals that three out of four students and faculty members commute to campus by using some mode of alternative transportation, putting PSU front-and-center in the movement to phase out the automobile.

According to PSU Transportation Options Manager Ian Stude, the term “alternative transportation” refers to any mode of transportation other than driving alone. This is known as a “single occupancy vehicle trip” in the transportation field, and encompasses walking, biking, transiting, carpooling and the frequent use of skateboards, scooters and motorcycles.

PSU is at the heart of the city’s transit system, the only “multi-modal” center of public transportation in the region, according to Dan Zalkow, associate director and planner of PSU’s Auxiliary Services. The MAX’s Green and Yellow lines, the Portland Streetcar and Southwest Fifth and Sixth avenues’ bus malls all run through the university campus, making it a singular focal point for TriMet.

“PSU is the busiest stop in the transit system in the region,” Zalkow said. “It’s been obvious to our partners [at TriMet] that this is where transit modes should be.”

Moreover, PSU’s own bicycle co-op—the Bike Hub—and five Zipcars are all located within a block of the Urban Plaza.

According to Zalkow, both PSU faculty and students regularly file into Zalkow’s office to ask about frequent service bus lines, particularly when seeking out a new residence. Because they organize their lives around the university, it is essential for them to have a reliable lifeline to campus.

“We’ve tried to promote transportation options earlier and earlier to students, especially during orientation, so people can make their housing and transportation choice together,” Zalkow said.

“The highest-frequency bus lines are also where the highest number of students live.”

In the fall of 2010, PSU distributed an electronic survey about transportation choices and perceptions to the entire university faculty and a random sample of 8,000 students. The survey—completed by 960 employees and 1,109 students—asked respondents to recall the transportation mode they used to travel the greatest distance to PSU each day of the previous week.

The survey found that between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of students who drove their car to campus alone decreased from 41 to 22 percent, while the percentage that opted for public transportation increased from 32 to 40 percent.

The percentage that bike to campus also increased from 3 to 12 percent.

At the same time, the percentage of PSU staff and faculty who drive alone to campus decreased from 49 to 25 percent, while the percentage that chose transit increased from 30 to 44 percent. The percentage that now bikes to campus has increased from 5 to 12 percent.

What accounts for this dramatic shift in transportation preferences over the last decade?

“There is a combination of both student demand and university policy that has encouraged alternative transportation,” Stude said.

Since 2000, PSU has taken several major steps in the “alternative” direction. These include founding the Bike Hub and stretches of bike parking, introducing the TriMet flex pass, nurturing a relationship between PSU and the Zipcar, and organizing Zalkow’s popular car-sharing program, which is now replicated at universities across the country.

Additionally, the university’s Transportation & Parking Services changed the focus of its marketing materials from a narrow parking-centered approach to one that actively promotes the use of alternative transportation, Zalkow said.

Zalkow also offered an economic explanation for the shift. As students’ tuition has increased, their ability to spend money on items other than their basic necessities has decreased, which means that at some point, the cost of owning and maintaining a vehicle becomes exorbitantly expensive for student drivers.

Oregon’s recession has only exacerbated these financial constraints and, indeed, has made public transportation the default method of mobility for Portland students and non-students alike. In economic parlance, public transportation is known as an “inferior good”—a commodity that consumers use more of when they have less money to spend.

But students’ demand for public transportation has risen not merely due to their lack of money. Portland’s renowned “alternative” culture openly invites the use of alternative transportation, itself a logical extension of the city’s eco-minded culture.

Stude cited two major reasons why PSU has chosen to both meet this student demand and to play up the incentives of choosing alternative transportation.

“First, alternative transportation is simply more sustainable. These modes of travel reduce the amount of pollutants released into the atmosphere and help improve the health of those who use them,” he said. “Second, alternative transportation is fiscally responsible.”

According to Stude, as the student body, in addition to the faculty and staff that support it, continue to grow, the university must address how they will have to reach the urban campus. Should PSU invest in more parking structures or in transit-oriented development?

“When you do the math, the cost of building parking is so high by comparison that supporting transit, biking and walking just makes sense,” Stude said.

Besides, there are a lot of costs attached to parking structures: Every square foot of campus space PSU devotes to sheltering vehicles is one square foot the university does not devote to classrooms, labs or student housing.

Zalkow and his staff have two performance goals in mind: a reduction of students and faculty who drive alone to campus, and an overall increase in biking and walking to campus. They would especially like to see more transit use among commuters who drive alone and more biking among those who use transit—a gradual migration to more sustainable modes of transportation within the

PSU community.

According to Mark Gregory, associate vice president of finance and administration, PSU and Portland, with their wide blend of transit offerings, has one of the best transportation systems in the world.

“In the last year, I have had university planners visit from Australia, China and Japan to see our campus and learn about how we manage transportation infrastructure,” Gregory said.

But because the United States still possesses a car-based culture, the formation of an alternative transportation infrastructure remains an uphill endeavor for PSU.

 “Even if we continue to get alternative transportation right, we will still need parking in 20 years,” Gregory said. ?