Careful Campus Planning Means Safe, Sustainable Commuting

Tens of thousands of people converge on UW-Madison every day. Some live in dorms or apartments on campus; others navigate the narrow geography of the isthmus from nearby neighborhoods; and still others travel upwards of an hour to reach downtown.

Whether they are regular commuters working steady shifts, graduate students juggling teaching, coursework, and research, or custodial staff working deep into the night, a constant stream of people must travel to, from, and around the campus.

It’s no surprise, then, that Transportation Demand Management, or TDM, is an integral responsibility of Transportation Services, a department of Facilities Planning & Management (FP&M). TDM is a “program of information” that furnishes customers with a range of options in order to make transportation as efficient and safe as possible. At UW-Madison, Transportation Services has created a unit dedicated to TDM called Commuter Solutions, and sustainability is one of its watchwords.

“Our goal is to reduce the amount of single-occupancy vehicles that are coming to campus,” says Peter Armstrong, who is the Commuter Solutions Coordinator. So far, the university has made significant strides in this regard: as of 2015, UW-Madison ranked second in the nation in the number of faculty, staff, and students who commute to and move around campus in other than a private vehicle.

Peter Armstrong
Peter Armstrong, Commuter Solutions Coordinator.

Transportation Demand Management is a key component of the UW-Madison Campus Master Plan, which is updated every 10 years by FP&M and a team of consultants. The most recent version, finalized in 2017, establishes infrastructure goals that expand and optimize bike, pedestrian, and mass transit options while improving green space and recovering historic landscapes. In this way, the Campus Master Plan helps put the university on the road to a more healthy, efficient, and environmentally sustainable campus.

Vertical bike racks
Vertical bike racks maximize efficiency in this campus alley.

Transportation Services and Commuter Solutions play a key role in achieving the goals of the Campus Master Plan, while also working with the City of Madison to improve congestion in the overlapping campus and downtown areas. This means deploying a suite of options, including a subsidized bus pass program, Zip Cars, a pay-per-use parking program called Flex Parking, a free campus bus, and bicycling and pedestrian programs and policies.

Deliberate campus planning complements these options. For instance, there are only 13,000 parking spots on the campus—a relatively small number given the roughly 60,000 people who live and work at the UW.

But limiting parking is a key strategy in TDM. Transportation research reveals that “if you build it, they will come,” says Armstrong. He explains: “If you provide 100 parking spots at a restaurant, for example, and you don’t provide any bicycle parking, everyone is going to drive. It’s the same on campus. But if we provide amazing bicycle infrastructure, like a protected bike lane on University Ave, and significant and ample bicycle parking, we know people will bike more.” It makes sense, then, that there is even more bike parking on the UW campus than car parking, with roughly 15,000 spots, including weather-protected bike lockers in some locations.

Commuter Solutions provides an additional incentive for participating in sustainable transportation options in the form of cost savings. The subsidized employee bus pass, for instance, saves riders roughly $700 per year compared with a normal pass.

Parking sign
Strategically limited parking on campus helps encourage sustainable transportation choices and eases congestion in downtown Madison.

Financial upsides are not limited to bus riders. For many people, taking a bus isn’t feasible every day of the year—nor, for that matter, is biking or walking. Armstrong offers himself as a prime example. “People who typically bike, walk, or take transit to campus also have days when they may have an appointment and need a car, and that’s what the Flex Parking Plan is for. It’s for someone like me, for example, who bikes to campus every day, but maybe on Friday, I have an appointment that’s across town, so I would need to drive that day. The beauty of [Flex Parking] is that I have access to my car, and I also save money—I don’t have to invest in long-term parking. An annual parking permit on campus could be upwards of $1200 a year.”

Newcomers to Madison, meanwhile, may be unfamiliar with options or confused by the most efficient way to reach campus depending on the weather. For these customers, Commuter Solutions offers customized route-planning through their website. The bottom line, Armstrong emphasizes, is that “each customer has their own specific situation and specific needs, and our role is to help you get to campus in a convenient manner.”

University Avenue bikers
Students taking advantage of the protected bike lane on University Avenue.

But ultimately, sustainable transit options like walking and biking offer an advantage, especially for personal health. “Our bodies are meant to move,” Armstrong says. “We do follow research, and we know that the more time people spend in a car, the more physical and mental health trade-offs there are.”

TDM directly impacts students as well, many of whom hail from rural areas in Wisconsin where biking or transit are not feasible ways of getting to work or doing errands. “The message we want students to understand,” Armstrong notes, “is that this is a safe campus for walking and biking, meaning we have adequate infrastructure.” Indeed, in 2017, a study by Smart Growth America ranked Madison as the third safest city in the United States for pedestrians.

Getting savvy about Madison transportation options also helps prepare students for their lives in the broader world. “Knowing how to use transportation options takes away a lot of stress,” Armstrong suggests. “If you’re in Chicago, sometimes driving takes twice as long as a train. So get comfortable using these options in Madison. Just like you’re learning here from your studies, also learn from your experience using the campus transportation.”


Text and all photos by Nathan Jandl