Without vehicle fleets, many higher ed institutions would function in gridlock. Facilities technicians wouldn’t be able to go out and make repairs, and police would have difficulty patrolling.
“Fleet is a vital part of keeping an entire organization moving,” says Carlos Berriz, Florida International University’s fleet manager.
Yet the realities in higher ed vary from other industries, says Bryan Flansburg, president of NAFA Fleet Management Association, which serves all sectors. “We say vehicles are underutilized if they’re not driving 12,000 miles per year. But that doesn’t work on a campus,” he says.
Even large campuses might be just a few miles wide.
Add to that the challenge of moving thousands of people and tons of goods to, from and around campuses with minimal parking—all while trying to reduce traffic congestion and limit the carbon footprint—and it’s clear why today’s campus fleet managers face some tricky terrain.
Take a look inside the minds of leaders of campus fleets as they share their major concerns and what they’re doing to keep things moving along.
1. Mobility: “The vehicles we own are just half my worries—I spend just as much time making sure people can get from point A to point B.”
Thanks to Uber and Lyft, the whole dynamic of fleet management has changed, says Flansburg. It’s not just about managing more vehicles and hiring more drivers, but about how to keep people and things moving throughout campus with fewer resources and less expense.
Strategic outsourcing is often one answer to that challenge. “In the past, it made sense for schools to have their own motor pools, but it’s getting harder and harder to compete with companies like Enterprise and Avis that could actually provide car sharing at a reduced rate and more flexibility,” says Flansburg.
Say an admissions team needs a vehicle for an upcoming out-of-state trip and the car has an unexpected break-down before departure. With a campus-owned vehicle, that would delay travel significantly, whereas a national rental agency would provide a replacement car quickly.
At the University of Michigan, which owns about 1,000 vehicles—equally divided between autos (passenger, SUVs, police patrol cars, minivans) and trucks (pickups, box trucks, dump trucks, etc.), as well as 50 large transit coaches—fleet managers are incorporating car sharing and a variety of other transportation alternatives.
“We have Zipcars. And the campus was a test site for Maven, GM’s car-sharing program,” says Renee Jordan, the university’s fleet manager. Her team also helps organize staff carpooling, including 100 vanpools (via the local transportation authority’s TheRide program).
2. Weathering storms: “Will my vehicle operators be safe and will the fleet vehicles themselves remain functional?”
Before retiring from the University of Colorado Boulder as director of transportation services, Flansburg was very mindful of mother nature’s impact on the fleet.
“One year we had so much snow, students couldn’t go home for winter break. Housing had already shut down food orders, but now they had to feed all of these people trapped on campus,” he says.
“We had to figure out ways to move people, and buses weren’t an option. Luckily we had four-wheel-drive Suburbans to get faculty and staff home. We were able to figure out how to get supplies to and from our campus.”
At Florida International, there’s a whole different set of concerns—centered on hurricane season.
“We work very closely with the police and emergency management staff to make sure we’re prepared in case of a storm,” says Nancy Cadavid, FIU’s director of business services. On the checklist is having generators in place, maintaining fueling sites and ensuring fleet tanks are full.
Weather can also be a maintenance issue, particularly for electric vehicles, common in campus fleets.
“It’s a little challenging in the winter to use e-vehicles because we get so cold here,” says Kathy Wellik, director of fleet transportation services at Iowa State University. “It draws down the battery to run the heat, and that reduces distance.”
3. Maintenance management: “Will our vehicles remain reliable?”
Preventative maintenance and smart decisions on when to replace or downsize a fleet can save colleges money. Jordan evaluates six different vehicle characteristics yearly to decide which should be retired:
1. age (Michigan leases its auto fleet vehicles about every five years, and its trucks every six years)
2. reliability (How many times in the last two years has the vehicle been in the repair facility?)
3. maintenance and repair costs
4. fuel economy
5. condition (some vehicles rust quickly in the north)
6. mileage Jordan also aims to keep a standardized fleet.
“If you don’t have a lot of different makes and models, you don’t need to have a huge parts room or have to invest in a lot of diagnostic tools for vehicles that you might have only one or two of,” she says.
This strategy also helps the end customer. Repairs are quicker when parts are on hand.
4. Utilization and accountability: “How do I right-size my fleet?”
When Flansburg was at CU Boulder, a right-sizing program involved surveying vehicle operators (such as those who perform repair work across campus) to better understand which days and times they needed transportation, how much they typically hauled and the largest vehicles they needed, among other factors.
“Sometimes people would order a pickup truck when they really could have used a minivan,” he says.
As vehicles need replacement, an institution can downsize based on true need. Technology eases that process.
Both FIU and University of Michigan are adding GPS tracking to better understand fleet utilization and to monitor vehicle performance, such as fuel economy, idling and more.
University of Iowa uses Agile Fleet Commander, a platform that provides online fleet reservations and vehicle usage metrics.
“We can see the reservations by the hour. Utilization has increased, and has been very steady,” says Wellik, who is on the NAFA board of directors.
5. Sustainability: “Can we offer viable vehicle solutions while also reducing our carbon footprint?”
One of Florida International’s goals is to comply with the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuel Transportation Program. In 2015, 77 percent of the vehicles purchased met the DOE’s optional criteria.
These efforts, along with other fleet management best practices, helped FIU land on “The 100 Best Fleets in the Americas” list from Government Fleet Magazine.
Since Iowa State is located in the heart of the ethanol country in the Midwest, using E85 (an ethanol fuel blend that reduces exhaust emissions) in its flex-fuel vehicles is a no-brainer, says Wellik. Faculty and staff commuters can access vanpool programs, and students have WeCars for hourly rentals.
Her team also recycles vehicle waste, from brakes to tires, whenever possible.
While an idling campus truck might gain more negative attention by sustainability-minded students and staff than cars used by campus commuters, fleet managers should not be alone in tackling green transportation goals—or in easing traffic congestion.
West Chester University in Pennsylvania discovered during a climate action plan report that 25 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions were coming from campus commuters.
In response Jessica Schedlbauer, co-chair of the Sustainability Advisory Council’s Transportation Committee on campus, helped pilot a bike-sharing program in 2016. The goal: reduce single-occupant vehicles driving around campus while providing a viable alternative. So far, so good.
“With two campuses separated by just three-quarters of a mile, we see people going back and forth by bike,” says Schedlbauer. During the academic year, over 600 rides were logged, and adoption continued to increase over the summer.
While efforts to go green are noble, fleet managers still need to consider the limitations of their campuses, says Flansburg. “On a small campus, electric golf carts and cars make sense,” he says, adding this caution: If public roads are involved, having these vehicles could increase the college’s liability.
6. Customer satisfaction: “It’s my job to tackle any identified problem or need.”
Whether it’s vehicle availability or easing congestion on campus, fleet managers must be ready to help the campus population through challenges.
The “Lube at FIU” program, which offers Florida International students and faculty full-service oil changes for a fee, launched in 2016 based on feedback from students and faculty in an annual survey.
“With 50,000 students, 4,000 employees, and 40 retail locations on campus, we’re like a little city, but we never had an opportunity to provide oil changes before,” says Berriz.
So when FIU signed a maintenance and servicing contract with First Vehicle Services for its fleet of 450 vehicles, administrators added in the retail component of oil change services—even including a shuttle for customers to use while vehicles are being worked on.
In another example of meeting customer demand, the University of Southern California worked with the carsharing, ridesharing and autonomous fleet platform Ridecell to improve its Campus Cruiser safe ride program, which offers walking or vehicle escorts.
“Our partnership with Ridecell has really improved the student experience in this area,” says Michelle Garcia, senior associate director of guest relations and special events for USC Transportation.
“We used to take all of our requests via phone,” she adds. “Ridecell has been able to move us into the world of smartphone apps, allowing us to take advantage of smartphone technologies, including GPS and push notifications.”
With new technology and considering the speed at which fleet management best practices are moving, fleet managers must be open-minded about change. As Wellik says, “If you’re just sitting at your desk, you’re going to be left behind.”
Dawn Papandrea, a Staten Island, New York-based writer, is a frequent contributor to UB.