Future of sustainable campus transportation

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Nashville-based Vanderbilt University’s new mobile app CommuteHub wants to change the future of campus transportation for the Vanderbilt community. Launched in March 2020 by the Transportation and Mobility Office, the app is a full-service information resource for Vanderbilt commuters. The Commute Hub boasts several features, allowing users to find riders for carpool or vanpool, record their traveling habits, understand the environmental impact of their commute, and earn rewards for making sustainable choices. Overall, the app will support the university’s sustainability goals, improve air quality, and enhance health and wellness through promotion of active commutes. 

'Re-think your daily commute with our new MoveVU Commute Hub. 1. Download Luum; 2. Enter your Vanderbilt email address; 3. Helep us to be more sustainable!"
Image from MoveVU.

The idea for the app arose from the university’s Academic Strategic Plan and FutureVU initiative. The Academic Strategic Plan aims to assert the university’s presence as a high-quality institution rooted in research, with focus areas pertaining to topics such as community, sustainability, and creativity. FutureVU, a framework for the physical development of the university campus over the next few decades (e.g., infrastructure or building investments, physical upgrades to facilities, etc.), seeks to infuse the university’s core values as stated within the Academic Strategic Plan.  FutureVU specifically targets transportation through MoveVU, its transportation and mobility plan. 

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Through stakeholder engagement, MoveVU has identified an overabundance of parking spots as a key land use problem. A main goal is to promote other forms of transportation beyond single-occupancy vehicles, as outlined in the 2018 MoveVU Mode Share Goals. Vanderbilt University hopes to decrease the rate of single passenger commutes from 76.5% in 2018 to 55% by 2025 by boosting other forms of transportation such as biking, walking, and carpooling.

MoveVU and the CommuteHub project free up former parking spots to be used for alternative uses, such as dormitories, green spaces, or academic buildings. In line with the Academic Strategic Plan, the plan increases space for academic and community connections. 

Users of the app can earn discounts on university services or other rewards for their sustainable commutes; these incentives are expected to roll out over time. 

Students enjoying spring-like weather on Vanderbilt campus.
Students enjoy spring like weather on campus.(Provided by Vanderbilt’s Transportation and Mobility Office)

 MoveVU has also started a pilot program for daily parking via the app, as opposed to promoting monthly or yearly parking permits. Daily parking allows the university to use space more efficiently, freeing up parking spaces to be used by multiple commuters. 

When longer term parking permits are purchased, commuters may be more inclined to drive to campus every day to maximize the value of the parking permit. The Transportation and Mobility Office hopes that daily parking rates will encourage commuters to pursue more sustainable options, as they will no longer be worried about the sunk cost of long-term parking. 

Student parking bike on Vanderbilt campus.
Student parking bike on Vanderbilt Campus (Provided by Vanderbilt’s Transportation and Mobility Office).

“We think that a lot more people have flexibility with their schedules to drive some days or telecommute or carpool. So, it just gets people thinking about that payment each time and whether or not it’s something that they have to do,” Michael Briggs, Assistant Director of Mobility, said. 

In other words, on days commuters have a doctor’s appointment or have to pick up the kids from school, it may make more sense to drive. But other days, more sustainable options like taking the bus or carpooling would seem more attractive. 

The new daily parking program also has the added benefit of making tracking easier: “the more people that are in the daily parking program, we get a better idea of how parking is being utilized,” Briggs said.

CommuteHub also includes the Guaranteed Ride Home program. In the event of an unforeseen circumstance or emergency, users who have used a sustainable commute option can receive a ride via a rideshare service. “If you take the bus or carpool with someone and you have an emergency that comes up, you aren’t reliant upon the bus system and its schedule, or the coworker that you carpooled with to kind of get home at the same time,” Briggs said. The program helps relieve concerns associated with travelling more sustainably.  

With the app being launched a little over a month before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, MoveVU has had to adjust. Some features of the app that promote carpooling, vanpooling, and public campus transportation have been deprioritized for safety.  

Daily parking has proven to be a major success. “It’s been really popular. People have really positive things to say about it because you’re not having a monthly parking fee that is deducted from your account, you are just paying as you use it,” Briggs said. This proves useful in a time where commuters are telecommuting more often. 

Despite signs that telecommuting might be here to stay in some departments, Briggs points out, “There’s always going to be the importance of having teaching and research being done on campus.” 

In the future, MoveVU aims to focus on other issues besides parking such as the electrification of buses and the addition of shuttle shelters along bus routes. To support micro-mobility, the Transportation and Mobility Office plans on improving campus infrastructure, ensuring 80% of trips made on campus are done via foot.

Vanderbilt University mascot posed in front of public transit bus.
Vanderbilt University mascot posed in front of public transit bus (Provided by Vanderbilt’s Transportation and Mobility Office, photos by: Susan Urmy)

In addition, they are pursuing other manners of providing direction to employees on sustainable transportation options via internal structures, refusing to limit their transportation solutions to a tech-focused approach. 

Overall, MoveVU’s CommuteHub aims to make it easier for the Vanderbilt Community to pursue more sustainable modes of campus transportation. As Briggs outlines, the goal is “getting people to think that ‘if there’s one day a week I do something different’ that makes a big difference and impact university wide.”

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