U of A addresses commuter challenges with unique solutions

When it comes to travel reduction, the University of Arizona has a series of unique challenges.

Challenges to coordinate travel reduction among a large number of students over a large campus area come alongside the school’s desire to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

As one of southern Arizona’s largest employers, the university is an important participant in Pima Association of Governments’ Travel Reduction Program. The university’s Parking and Transportation Services division serves over 35,000 students and more than 16,000 employees who travel to and from the university and traverse the 392-acre campus.

“Our job is making sure we have options for our students, faculty and staff members who come to campus,” said Alexandra Chavez, Transportation Planner and Community Programs Manager. “We really promote being car free and trying to get around campus and beyond without having a car.”

With the possibility of over 50,000 people on campus at any time, reducing the number of cars helps solve a logistical nightmare, reduce vehicle emissions and work toward the 2050 goal. Chavez shared some of the strategies campus leaders are deploying.

Bike instead of drive

Bicycles are a key component of Parking and Transportation’s sustainability goals. The institution is designated as a gold-level bike friendly university thanks to four miles of bike routes on campus and over 11,000 bike parking spaces. Racks are conveniently located close to every building on campus, plus riders can use bike lockers, bike enclosures and a bike valet service. Chavez likens the two valet locations to “bike daycare,” as riders drop their bike off in an enclosure monitored by an in-person attendant. The bike valet has over 9,000 check-ins annually and is available to anyone visiting the campus.

Other services available to the public are bike registration to provide proof of ownership in case a bike is stolen or there is some other dispute. And free bike repairs in a partnership with Campus Rec offer help for minor repairs such as air for tires or simple adjustments to seats or handlebars. For a $5 fee, they also supply parts such as bike tubes or install parts a cyclist already has.

As an incentive to entice more employees to bike to work, the university allows them to use showers and lockers at the campus fitness centers.

“That is one of the amenities that helps us become a bike friendly university and workplace,” Chavez said.

Use Transit

The university is also committed to enabling students and employees to use transit. Sun Tran has suspended fares through June 30 in response to the pandemic, but when fares are in place, the university offers a UPass at a 50% discount for transit services on a semester or an annual basis.

Parking and Transportation works with Sun Tran to educate potential riders.

“We are often the first contact for customers who do not know how to get started on the bus,” Chavez said. “I have offered to meet with people and show them how to ride the bus.”

Chavez has taken a variety of routes to work to better understand the experience of the transit rider in getting to campus.

“Our willingness to put ourselves in their shoes is something that is a unique on our end,” Chavez said. “I am not sure many people do that often.”

The Sun Link streetcar runs through the heart of campus and connects the hospital, the main campus, commerce and activity districts and downtown. It provides access to many new student housing developments west of campus, construction of which was spurred on by the streetcar.

The university offers Cat Tran shuttles, which are small buses on designated routes through campus and to off-campus park-and-ride lots with regular stops in between. Each year prior to the pandemic and staffing shortages, over 250,000 passengers used Cat Tran. Currently the orange and red routes are running normal schedules, while the purple and green routes are operating with reduced vehicles. The long-term goal is to convert the entire Cat Tran fleet to emission-free vehicles.

Carpool, use electric vehicles and more

In another effort to reduce the number of cars coming to campus, the department promotes carpools by offering incentives to share a ride. Depending on the number of riders, carpools get access to garages, reserved spaces and a limited number of garage validations for days they have to ride solo.

To help match riders who are looking for rides, they use PAG’s Sun Rideshare and vanpool programs.

For those who may want to try alternative transportation but have concerns about being impacted by bad weather or the unexpected need to leave campus for a family emergency, they offer an emergency ride home.

“It really helps us take care of the people who want to try alternative transportation, but they still want to hold onto the car option and not feel like they are stranded,” Chavez explained.

The university plans to add more electric charging stations on campus to encourage the use of electric vehicles in the next decade and has embraced newer technologies such as electric scooters and bicycles.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic made working remotely more prevalent, Chavez and her staff were working hard to promote the benefits of fewer trips to campus.

“It has been a lot easier of an ask to do now with new office settings stemming from the pandemic,” Chavez said. “We work with office leadership on the benefit of working from home or the compressed work week.”