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Commuter Programs

Daily commuting to and from research campuses contributes to the carbon footprint baseline of climate action plans. Depending on the number of commuters and the distances traveled, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from commuting can attribute 10%–30% of a research campus' baseline.

The following outlines how daily commuting fits into climate action plans for your research campus.

Commuting Options

Photo of a woman straddling a bicycle and putting on a bicycle helmet.

Courtesy of Austin Randall Photography

Several options can help research campuses counter GHG emissions associated with daily commuting to and from campus. These options include:

  • Walking and biking: Staff members who walk or bike to work help to reduce GHG emissions. Research campuses should evaluate incentive programs to encourage staff to leverage human-powered modes of transportation to and from campus.

  • Public transportation: Most municipalities offer extensive public transportation systems. Providing incentives to employees to take advantage of this system decreases GHG emissions and helps to meet parking and infrastructure challenges.

  • Carpooling and ride shares: These programs have been available for years, but are often underused by research campuses. Both offer viable ways to significantly reduce GHG emissions.

  • Guaranteed ride home: A daily commuting program achieves nothing if staffs do not take advantage of its options. Human behavior errs on the side of convenience. Offering a guaranteed ride home option that provides free taxi or shuttle rides home in cases of emergency eliminates a common concern associated with alternative commuting.

Flexibility is critical to implementing these strategies. In the end, commuting programs depend primarily on cultural and behavioral changes rather than on policies.

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Considerations for Daily Commuting Programs

Research campuses should evaluate the following before assessing commuting program options:

Are commuting programs right for your campus?
  • Does your staff commute to and from campus?
  • Is there a shortage of campus parking?
  • Is traffic congested in the neighboring community?

Employees Commuting to and From Campus

A comprehensive review of the climate impact for a campus includes the contribution of commuters. The magnitude of this impact varies greatly depending on the nature of the campus and the surrounding community. For example, commuter travel can account for as little as 10% of total carbon emissions at a research campus where commuters live close by, to as much as 30% at a large undergraduate campus with many distant commuters.

Programs that attempt to change commuter travel patterns must take a broad view. A campus must partner with local municipalities for efficient transportation solutions.

Shortage of Campus Parking

Parking availability is a universal issue for research campuses, especially in times of rapid growth and expansion. Successful commuting programs allow campuses to hold parking capacity constant (and possibly reduce capacity) by reducing the number of cars on site. Surface parking lots consume large areas of valuable real estate. Parking garages offer better land use, but at a high cost.

Most campuses have been involved in commuter demand management systems for several years in an effort to slow the growth of on-campus parking. Measures such as increased biking, walking, and use of public transportation have the combined benefit of reducing the need for campus parking and decreasing climate impact.

Traffic Congestion

The simplest solution to traffic congestion is to reduce the number of cars on the road. Beyond that, a mix of simple and complex roadway projects often has a dramatic impact on traffic congestion. Research campuses should partner with local municipalities, counties, and states to find the best solution to traffic congestion. Coordinating public transportation with remote park-and-ride parking lots can relieve traffic congestion in core areas of the campus.

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Leading Example: Cornell University Transportation Demand Management Program

Photo of a man rising from the passenger's seat of an electric car; another man sits in the driver's seat.

Cornell President David Skorton with one of the university's electric cars. In 2007, Skorton signed the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment to climate neutrality by 2050.
Courtesy of Cornell University

Cornell University Sustainable Campus Transportation program is a model for other research campuses. The comprehensive program includes a variety of commuting options to limit single-occupant vehicles. It also entails incentives to appeal to as many staff and students as possible.

Cornell partnered with local public transportation systems and other organizations. Program features include:

  • Free public transportation on campus for faculty, staff, and first-year students. Public transportation is free to all students nights and weekends.

  • Unlimited public transportation any time or place for faculty and staff members who forfeit parking permits.

  • Car pool that discounts parking permit fees depending on the size of the carpooling group and the distance commuted. Fees can be discounted to zero cost if certain program conditions are met.

  • Parking is limited and permit fees are intended to discourage on-campus parking.

  • Guaranteed rides home for carpoolers and other program participants in cases of emergency.

  • Twenty individual parking passes each year for those using transportation means other than single-occupant vehicles.

  • Community-wide vanpooling program open to anyone commuting to or from neighboring Tompkins County.

  • Strong support for Ithaca Carshare, Inc., a local commuting alternative provider.

As a result of the Cornell University program, nearly 50% of all employee commuters regularly use means of travel other than single-occupant vehicles. The rates are for graduate students are 80% and for undergraduate students nearly 100%. The predominant mode of transportation for graduate students is public transit; undergraduates rely mostly on walking and biking.

Diagram of a bus stop at Cornell University that has a kiosk and is surrounded by trees.  A bus that has a destination label Cornell is approaching the bus stop.

Cornell University has successfully reduced its emissions from commuting. Most undergraduate students walk to classes, and most graduate students use public transportation to travel to campus.
Courtesy of Cornell University

Additional examples of research campus commuting programs include:

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These resources outline flexible work strategies. Some of the documents are available as Adobe Acrobat PDFs.

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