People movers go to college
If Judy Jetson enrolled in college, she might have hopped aboard a self-driving shuttle to get across campus for her astrophysics class and then tapped a few buttons to summon a driver to take her home to her parents, Elroy, Astro and Rosie.
The Jetsons was set in 2062, but some of the high-tech predictions featured in the iconic cartoon are coming true now on college campuses, where driverless shuttles and ride-share partnerships are replacing traditional buses and taxis.
“Universities are the ideal places for public transit, [and] some of the new options are more affordable and space efficient than conventional transit,” says Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association.
Driverless shuttles and app-based ride services, once considered far out, are gaining ground.
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Seven in 10 respondents to a 2017 survey from the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis believed driverless vehicles would make up 20 percent of the rides on the road by 2040; 78 percent estimated that commercial ride-sharing services would account for more than 20 percent of passenger miles traveled in the same time period.
As options like driverless shuttles and ride-sharing become more widespread, administrators should consider the following strategies for integrating them with other campus transportation options.
Assessing the need
Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, experimented with several ideas for helping students get around, but none proved popular. Ridership on local transit to campus was so low that the bus route was cancelled. The number of students using a discounted Safe Ride program dwindled.
And the bus running between 12 consortium colleges, including Assumption, was discontinued because it was cheaper for the college to cover student cab fare than to continue with its $20,000 portion of the annual bus contract. Uber has proven to be the answer to Assumption’s transportation woes.
In March, the college partnered with the ride-sharing service to provide discounted rides, joining a growing number of colleges partnering with companies in that space.
UC San Diego and Arizona State University have partnered with Lyft; Rowan College at Burlington County in New Jersey and North Shore Community College in Massachusetts are among the schools using Uber.
Assumption diverted funds from its transportation budget and student activities fees to cover $4 of each ride with Uber. In the first three months of the partnership, students took 1,400 rides.
Administrators can access the Uber dashboard to monitor data, including the number of rides, average ride distances and peak service times, so that the college can better assess its transportation needs. “Transportation options are always a factor in student recruitment,” says Catherine WoodBrooks, vice president of student affairs.
Mcity, a public-private partnership for transportation research at the University of Michigan, introduced a driverless shuttle at its North Campus (where Mcity is located) in June, so researchers could better understand how students would respond to high-tech transportation.
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“We wanted to see how it could operate in this environment and be applied to our current transportation needs on campus before going to fully automated vehicles overnight,” says Mcity Deputy Director Carrie Morton.
Two 11-passenger driverless shuttles, which operate along a one-mile route between parking lots and the North Campus Research Complex, are outfitted with cameras, audio equipment and Wi-Fi communications to capture data and gauge passenger responses, including facial responses and audio comments.
The university also partnered with J.D. Power to survey users about their experiences. There are early indications of consumer acceptance, Morton says.
It took more than a year to set up the team for a driverless shuttle pilot on the campus of Texas Southern University. The university partnered with the city of Houston, local transportation provider METRO and the Houston-Galveston Area Council to secure funding and measure the impact of the driverless shuttle.
Starting in 2019, the shuttle is slated to run on a loop around campus every 10 minutes during peak travel times, according to Carol Abel Lewis, professor of transportation studies and emeritus director of the Center for Transportation Training and Research.
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If the pilot is successful, the partners hope to link the shuttle route and the city’s light rail station.
“We’re estimating it will cost up to $500,000 for the six-month pilot—and that was not in the university budget,” says Lewis. “For it to be a tool in our transportation toolbox, we needed to get the right team on board.”
Phasing out similar services
Once driverless shuttles and ride-share agreements change the transportation landscape on campus, administrators must decide whether to continue with shuttle buses and other conventional offerings.
Students often take a combination of buses and trains to travel to North Shore Community College in Massachusetts. For some, the commute takes up to two hours. The college operated its own shuttle between local transportation hubs and its campuses in Danvers, Lynn and Middleton, but it took 90 minutes to make the loop and the campus discontinued that option in 2016.
“The [lack of efficient] transportation could have been a deal breaker that led some students to enroll somewhere else,” says Vice President of Student Affairs
In 2016, North Shore contracted with Uber to provide ride-sharing services to its students, and the pilot proved so popular that the college declined to renew its $100,000 annual shuttle contract.
The savings helped offset the costs of ride-share subsidies, which range from $4 to $10. A portion of those funds are allocated to a program that covers ride costs for students with financial needs.
Assumption College still offers its Safe Ride program, though few students use it. Usage had started to decline before the school partnered with Uber, and WoodBrooks believes the availability of ride-share services led to the waning interest.
“Ride-sharing is faster and more efficient [than Safe Ride],” she says. “We’re still offering it, but we’re monitoring it and might phase it out.”
As it plots a course for a driverless shuttle pilot in spring 2019, Sacramento State University officials are laser-focused on the costs and potential return on investment.
The California campus plans to run a driverless shuttle between campus and the light rail station in the hopes of curbing traffic congestion, easing parking woes and making the trek between the points more efficient.
“When we can’t get students to campus in a reasonable amount of time on public transit, they decide [the light rail] isn’t a good fit for them and they get back in their cars,” says Tony Lucas, senior director of university transportation, parking and support services at Sacramento State.
The cost of the one-year pilot project is expected to top $300,000, but Lucas believes there is significant value in embracing more sustainable modes of transportation—electric- and battery-operated autonomous vehicles emit fewer greenhouse gases than conventional buses, for example. Lucas also cites the potential cost savings.
The campus has 13,000 parking spots for 36,000 students and staff, and adding parking is expensive. Running the driverless shuttle on part of an existing pedestrian path will also speed up its route, allowing one shuttle to replace two existing buses running between the light rail station and campus.
In addition to monitoring the bottom line, Williams at North Shore Community College says the intangible value of new transportation offerings should be considered.
“Transportation is an issue that disproportionately affects lower-income and minority students,” he says. “We felt we could better leverage the funds from the shuttle to help those students and provide greater access to higher education.”
Jodi Helmer, a frequent contributor to UB, is a North Carolina-based writer.