To glimpse the future, a world where cities take action on climate change, look at the campus of the University of Minnesota. With 50,000 students and 20,000 staff, the mammoth school straddling the Mississippi River on the edge of downtown Minneapolis is a great example of density and transportation working in tandem. To the extent that Minneapolis is a national leader around transit and bicycling, it has to a large degree the travel patterns around “the U” to thank for it.
There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, policies and infrastructure that makes the propinquity possible. When students arrived to campus this fall, there was a nearly invisible change shaping the densely populated campus, where space comes at a premium.
Two years ago, the administration launched a “universal transit pass” for all undergraduate students, allowing them to use university ID cards to access any bus or train in the city. This year they extended it to all staff, adding another 20,000 potential transit riders to the mix.
The seemingly subtle shift, from individual sign-ups to universal, near-automatic enrollment, is a model for how corporations, government offices, hospitals and others should do travel demand management (TDM). Removing barriers to alternatives makes transit as easy as it can possibly be.
Traffic Demand Management (TDM) and UMN look at big picture
Despite the administration’s best efforts — they wanted a rail tunnel, and sued — the construction of the Green Line light rail transformed the university’s Minneapolis campus, undoing much of its 1960s-era highway modernism. The resulting compromise removed all private vehicle traffic from Washington Avenue, once a four-lane traffic sewer. The result is a large, walkable area nearly devoid of private vehicles. Wayward drivers navigating through campus travel at very slow speeds, making the university probably the safest and most pleasant place to walk in the whole state.
This kind of sea change sets the groundwork for the current efforts around TDM, a vague planning acronym describing the intersection of land use, transportation and subsidies. The provenance of planners and federally funded nonprofits like Move Minneapolis, TDM looks instead at the big picture: Why do people drive in the first place? How can planning reduce the number of folks parking their cars? What financial or other incentives can nudge people toward alternatives to driving?
As you might imagine, thinking about TDM dives straight into behavioral psychology. There are many factors around how people make decisions about going to work: time, cost, comfort, health, logistical complexity (e.g. child care) and convenience. Once employers begin thinking about the balance of these things, policy options open up. Cities and transit agencies should pay more attention to these dynamics.
The latest effort is an extension of Universal Transit Pass, a change for students that occurred two years ago, allowing the school’s tens of thousands of students to access transit seamlessly. The seamlessness is the selling point, because it removes key barriers to trying out transit.
According to Lonetta Hanson, the chief of staff for Parking and Transportation Services, the change made a huge difference. Under the previous Metro Pass system, where employees sign up for a limitless transit pass and have a monthly fee deducted from their paycheck, about 600 of the Universities 19,000 full-time employees had signed up. This year, that number is ten times higher.
For students, the funding comes from a fee tacked on to their tuition bill. (A convenient source for a great many possible boondoggles.) For university staff, funding for the program comes out of a sustainability fund. The costs fluctuate depending on how much each pass is used, and the final tally is expected to be around $850,000 this year. If it reduces the need for another expensive parking lot — the default reaction for a century — that’s money well spent.
“The ultimate goal is to diminish the reliance on single-occupancy vehicles and eliminate the necessity for expanding parking facilities,” Hanson told me.
Barriers to transit use are evaporating
TDM often centers around fiscal incentives, things like un-bundling free parking, charging for parking, offering tax breaks, providing bike amenities like showers or bike storage lockers or offering discounted monthly transit passes (through the long-standing Metro Pass program).
But policymakers often overlook a simpler problem: legibility and complexity. Every time you add a step — like signing up or filling out a form or going to an office to pick up a physical object — it places another hurdle for people who might be curious about something new. For the new “U Card”-based program, all those barriers evaporate. From the perspective of the staff and employees, it’s nice to have flexibility.
“Now that I finally have my coveted bus pass, I’ve already noticed that I’m spreading out my on-campus hours,” said Karen Beaubien, who has worked for two decades as a plant researcher. “Previously, I was doing my best to schedule all my on-campus work into two full days, but four of the past five weeks I’ve done one full day and two half days. I feel more flexible in scheduling my on-campus meetings now.”
One key dynamic is the “buy in” cost for different employee subsidies. Especially with the shift in work-from-home patterns, it can be a deal breaker. A monthly pass, for example, only makes sense if you are commuting enough during a week to have the investment pay off.
These days, that’s a problem. Paying a monthly fee doesn’t add up for people commuting once or twice a week. It’s far better to have an a la carte option, allowing more flexibility for commute choices. (This holds true for parking policies as well; companies and institutions should make sure they offer flexible parking options for occasional drivers.)
The University of Minnesota policy stems from the fact that students and staff already have U Cards in their pockets, with an up-to-date photo and RFID chips that let people into the increasingly securitized network of buildings. With access already in hand, there are fewer excuses for not grabbing a city bus or train, other than the utility of the transit system itself. Like magic, every maroon card becomes an unlimited transit pass, without any extra hoops or websites or administration costs.
“I have always taken the bus, but this has removed the financial burden,” said Reid Brown, a university grad student. “I don’t mind the walk personally, but it does require timing my exit of work so I don’t miss a bus. I like the bus because I don’t need to pay the daily parking fee and/or risk getting a ticket for parking illegally, like most of the St. Paul campus does.”
Touchless transit access is a trend around the country, and something that the Metro Transit agency should probably expand. In New York City and a few other places, you can now use any credit card (or Apple Pay) with “tap” functionality to access the bus or subway. (For tourists, that’s a big deal, bypassing the intimidating logistics of finding a bus pass. It’s a far cry from the bygone era when people paid with tokens, purchased from an extremely bored transit agent.
If U cards can become transit passes, so could the contents of lanyards sported by every skyway denizen downtown. If that happens, the future of transit is bright indeed.