Monday, February 24, 2014

Setback for Sustainability at the U

The Daily Utah Chronicle, January 28, 2014
The University of Utah administration talks a pretty good game when it comes to sustainability.  Several years ago they formed an Office of Sustainability, now the Sustainability Resource Center, to institutionalize campus-related sustainability initiatives.  There is a President's Sustainability Advisory Board to "recommend policies that propel (my emphasis) the campus toward greater sustainability to the University President."  We even have a new Chief Sustainability Officer.

The U also has the following Sustainability Principles:
  • Integrate sustainability into education
  • Track and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Make the campus a "living laboratory" with experimentation and applied research
  • Invest in initiatives that reduce dependence on fossil fuels
  • Capture and reinvest net savings into additional projects
  • Minimize waste through reuse, recycling, and reduction, as well as composting
  • Purchase sustainable products, services, and food
  • Encourage mass and alternative transportation, including walking and biking
  • Use no more water annually then what falls within campus borders
Finally, if you walk around campus and talk with faculty, staff, and students, everyone is concerned about the wintertime air quality.  In fact, I know of at least one faculty member who is moving to another University because of it, and I suspect there are others.

Nevertheless, the U is moving forward on plans to build not one but two parking structures on campus beginning this spring.  The first is the Business Loop Parking Terrace with 800 covered parking stalls, which will be located just west of the Huntsman Center.  The second is the Northwest Parking Terrace with 350 stalls, which will go between the Naval Science and Sutton Buildings near 100 South.  I haven't seen the final quote of the costs of the structures, but the $6.3 mil reported in the Salt Lake Tribune in April 2013 for the Northwest Parking Terrace equates to $18,000 per space.

As Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  The building of these parking structures is an investment in the status quo and goes against several of the sustainability principles outlined above.  It suggests that the U is willing to pluck the low-hanging fruit, but is unwilling to do what is really necessary for sustainability.  One look at the U Facilities Management web site shows a serious disconnect between words and actions (boxes and question mark annotated).

To be sure, I'm not opposed to parking on campus.  I am a mixed-mode commuter who uses a range of approaches to get to campus, including driving perhaps two days a week when averaged over the year.  I don't think, however, that the U is doing all it can to maximize the parking that we do have on campus.  Let's compare the options at the U to those at the University of Washington.

The U essentially has "all or nothing" parking permits.  Although you can pay extra for a reserved space or a garage permit, most commonly faculty purchase an "A" Permit, which costs $348/year (~$1.50/day assuming ~230 working days) and allows for parking in the A, U, and E spaces.  Students can get similar permits to park in the U or E spaces.  Although all U faculty, staff, and students get a free pass to ride transit, once someone has purchased a parking pass, there is no financial incentive other than the cost of gas to encourage people to take transit.

How about the University of Washington?  For starters, they charge more for parking, but they also provide a much wider range of options.

In particular, they have individual commuter tickets, discounted parking passes for employes who drive to campus twice a week or less, and discounts for night, swing, carpool, and impromptu carpool.

Some of these options might not make sense at the U where parking is cheaper (but that won't be the case for long as we are clearly on an unsustainable path with regards to campus development and parking), others could be implemented to provide financial incentives for the use of mixed mode transit (e.g., individual commuter tickets) and parking at lower-demand times (e.g., swing).  The idea is to provide a mix of options that help to minimize single occupant vehicle trips while maximizing use of the existing parking and transit infrastructure.  

Let's look specifically at the individual commuter ticket.  With an ICT, you purchase a book of 26 ICTs and simply mark one and put it on your dash when you want to park.  They don't have an expiration date, so if you use alternate transportation a lot, you can greatly reduce your parking costs.  When you buy an ICT, you are issued a next purchase date, which is based on an average of 2-days of week of parking.  You can't buy another ICT book until that date.

The ICT was very popular when I was at the University of Washington in the 1990s.  I think a key aspect of the system is that it recognizes that mass transit isn't right for everyone all the time, so it provides flexibility.  Let's hope the U will start to think out of the box and do a bit more than pave and park.  


  1. My son, a structural geologist, Phd from Stanford, with two teen-age boys, turned down an offer from the geology department primarily because of the air problem. He still does some consulting, teaches a field work program a couple of times a year, and the oil and gas company that he works for in Houston supports a geology program and he is the liason.

    When he is in Salt Lake City on business, he stays in our little 1,100 sq ft bungalow across from the McGillis school and walks up the hill.

  2. Interesting post. Thanks for this.
    If you all remember there was a big push last year from the Geology students to block the Northwest deck. Unfortunately it got spun as a bunch of spoiled students who wanted to keep their west-facing view from the Sutton Building. I wonder what would have happened if the students had focused on the sustainability argument.

  3. My concern isn't the structures, it's the roads leading to them. The arteries that lead to campus are already clogged many hours of the day and simply don't have the capacity to deliver 10, 20, or 30% more bodies to campus without serious air quality and noise problems in surrounding communities. Salt Lake City is complicit in this problem, with the narrowing of many arteries to single lanes each direction and 'dynamically' optimizing the traffic lights, further congesting traffic flow. (I have occasionally driven old routes that I had timed, and I find them taking 40% longer.)

  4. Come on now, enough complaining. How much is it going to snow this weekend? My new Prius gets me to Alta on half the smug. Er smog

  5. Interesting, having moved here from Portland, OR I'm appalled at the lack of apparent care by the administration and legislature in general regarding air quality and commuter options. At OHSU if you commuted by bike you received a voucher that amounted to $50 per month. Along with free public transit, etc. I dont think that "praying for more storms" as our Governor suggested is a reasonable plan.

  6. Good post Jim.

    Peter, one thing to consider about congested roads is that while they are indeed frustrating, congestion (along with commuter costs) is what leads people to seek alternative transportation. In transportation planning what often happens is engineers continually anticipate more cars, more miles and seek to build more road capacity. This then, begets more cars, more traffic and the cycle continues. In some communities they are shrinking capacity which in a way quickens the decision to seek alternate ways to move around.

    As you say, grid locked traffic isnt good for air quality, but the apparently logical answer of increasing capacity and flow isnt generally the long term answer for changing the car-centric nature of our City/Country. It may be in some cases, but not all. For example, I've never looked into it, but I wonder what would Front Runner ridership look like had the Legacy Parkway not have been built? It's a little odd isnt it? Lets build a commuter train, but pilfer the ridership by opening another highway ... Like I said though, I'm not really sure what went into all that.

    1. I wholly agree with not increasing capacity. That being said, I favor policies that make the existing capacity as efficient as possible, and I am strongly against decreasing capacity or demanding more of existing capacity. Making a problem worse to make it better is a strategy that inflicts considerable collateral damage and success is at best a gamble.

      The U should not be growing in one centralized location. It should be growing in a distributed fashion across the valley and across the state so that people can live nearer their destination. (In general, I favor urban planning that clusters people's activity instead of the current model that spreads it out.)

      My pie-in-the-sky dreams are of every car being electric and self-guided. Stoplights don't exist, traffic simply interleaves at high speed. Routes are optimized, and people gain time, silence, and clean air. Pollution is not only relocated, it is either sequestered or eliminated.

      Until such a day, we must choose the highest yield solutions that match the local realities. Narrowing arteries has shown itself to be a negative yield solution.

    2. I like the sound of the pie in the sky dream Peter! Ahhh, the silence. Wouldnt that be nice for what is a very loud Valley?!

      Thanks for your insights Peter.