Will the University’s Transportation Policies Be Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

Tuesday May 18, 2004

The University of California is a top university with a wealth of talent and knowledge and you might assume that some of that brainpower would be employed to ensure that further university development is undertaken in an environmentally sound, sustainable fashion. 

Unfortunately, that is not happening. The draft Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) clearly shows that UC Berkeley is not interested in being an environmental leader. The plan does not adequately address the real and valid concerns that have been raised by residents of adjacent neighborhoods as well as by their own students and staff. 

The draft LRDP also calls into question whether the university really wants to improve relations with the city, despite public statements to that effect. Mayor Tom Bates has made a good faith effort to improve relations with UC, but what has UC given him in return? Judging by the LRDP, one would have to answer: little or nothing so far. 

The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the LRDP projects that there will be a substantial increase in vehicle trips and traffic congestion. Traffic congestion will get worse not only near campus but also at intersections in West Berkeley that handle traffic from I-80. 

The university suggests adding new signals at eight intersections, but has only proposed to pay part of the cost (“fair share funding”) so that the city would be stuck with substantial costs to deal with added traffic caused by UC growth. In the current fiscal crisis facing the city, very little money is available for costly signals. 

At some intersections that already have signals, the EIR predicts increases in congestion, but says nothing can be done. The increases are “significant but unavoidable impacts.” 

But, in fact, a lot could be done to avoid the traffic and congestion increases that are projected.  

The university could follow the successful programs implemented by other universities to deal with growth. 

When it comes to “best practice” in university transportation planning, the University of Washington in Seattle tops the list. 

The University of Washington made a commitment to the city of Seattle in 1983 to limit traffic on corridors leading to and from campus. In 1991, it launched its U-Pass program. With a U-Pass, faculty, staff and students can all ride local buses and commuter trains for free. The U-Pass program also includes free parking for those who carpool, and vanpool subsidies. There are also active efforts to encourage and facilitate walking and biking 

UC Berkeley provides students with a “class pass” which is similar to the UW U-Pass, but UC provides no similar pass to its faculty and staff. The LRDP fails to call for UC to implement a similar program. The LRDP has one policy on encouraging alternative modes of transportation, but it falls far short of the current best practice at UW, Stanford, and other universities. 

Eighty-three percent of UW students and 60 percent of UW faculty and staff take advantage of the U-Pass. The rate of faculty drive alone commuting dropped from 60 percent in 1989 to 43 percent in 2002. Staff drive alone commuting dropped from 44 percent to 38 percent. While the total population of faculty, staff and students has grown by 22 percent since 1989, the university now has fewer parking spaces and the utilization rate of those spaces has dropped. Despite substantial growth, the number of single occupancy parking permits for faculty, staff and students has dropped substantially. 

As a result of implementation of U-Pass, peak hour traffic levels today are below 1990 levels even with growth in the campus population. The University of Washington has been able to avoid building costly parking structures. It estimates that it has saved over $100 million in avoided construction costs for new parking. They estimate that they avoided building 3,600 new parking spaces. 

The University of Washington’s accomplishments are all the more noteworthy because the quality of transit service in the Seattle area and the range of transit choices is not as good as in the Bay Area and especially the inner East Bay communities of Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. There is no equivalent to BART in Seattle. They rely on buses and some commuter rail, though light rail is under development. Only 28 percent of Seattle residents use alternatives to driving to get to work, but 57 percent of UW faculty and 62 percent of UW staff use alternatives. The incentives and encouragement provided by the U-Pass program have clearly had a big impact. 

The University of Washington is a real leader in promoting the use of alternative transportation in Seattle. By contrast, UC Berkeley lags behind other employers in Berkeley. Fifty-one percent of UC Berkeley faculty and staff drive alone to work according to the 2001 survey, but a survey done the same year found that only 43 percent of Berkeley City Hall employees drive alone to work. Census data for 2004 for commuters into Berkeley has apparently not yet been assembled, but based on data in the 1990 Census, only 40 percent of downtown and southside area employees drive alone to work. 

UC is not now a leader in promoting alternative modes, but it easily could become one. The University of Washington funds its U-Pass program in part with parking revenues. $4.3 million in parking revenues went to the U-Pass program in fiscal year 2003-2003.  

UC could also use a portion of its parking revenues to fund a similar program for UC faculty and staff. The unions that represent UC employees have made it clear that they want UC to implement an Eco Pass for UC staff and student leaders support this as well. The University of Washington has a policy of raising parking rates and keeping the cost of U-Pass substantially lower than the cost of parking. UC Berkeley could do the same. Another UC campus, UCLA, has a pilot transit pass program that was financed with parking revenues.  

UC could also raise its parking rates to market levels. By providing parking at levels below market rate, UC effectively subsidizes driving, while providing no equivalent subsidy for those who use transit. Transit use is not encouraged when it costs more out of pocket to take transit than it does to drive. Research clearly shows that there is a relationship between parking cost and transit use. While other factors also affect the decision whether to drive or not, there’s no question that cost factors play a role also. 

The University of Washington is not the only university to actively work to encourage employees to use transit with an Eco Pass/U-Pass type of program. Stanford University has an Eco Pass for its employees. Transit service for Stanford is not as good as the transit service for the Berkeley campus, but Stanford’s program has been successful. Stanford’s 1989 General Use Permit committed the campus to accommodate growth with no net increase in peak commute period auto trips. 

The LRDP EIR looked at a “No New Parking and More Transit Alternative” (Alternative L-2). This alternative is clearly environmentally superior to the LRDP. As the EIR analysis shows, the environmental impacts such as increased traffic congestion could be reduced.  

It’s not necessary, nor is it expected, that most UC employees who now drive will switch to other modes even with the provision of an Eco Pass, but if the drive alone rate drops from 51 percent to something closer to what UW has accomplished, then increases in traffic congestion can be avoided and the need for additional parking can be reduced. 

When it comes to global warming and to air quality problems in the Bay Area, UC has to decide whether it wants to be part of the problem or part of the solution. The current LRDP suggests that they plan to be part of the problem.  

Will they embrace sustainability or environmental degradation? Will they contribute to improving or to worsening quality of life in the neighborhoods adjacent to campus? The city is certainly willing to work with UC to develop effective programs to avoid increased traffic. Will UC take the opportunity to improve relations with the community by working together with the city? 

The city and UC should be working together not only to address the potential traffic problems but also to address construction impacts on adjacent neighborhoods, preservation of open space, and provision of affordable housing. 


Rob Wrenn is a Berkeley Planning Commissioner and Chairman of the UC Hotel Task Force.