Transportation Planning for a Green Campus

It’s no secret that green design is here to stay, especially on college campuses. Across the globe, colleges are working to adopt more environmentally responsible practices, from outfitting buildings with energy-efficient systems to adopting intensive recycling programs. But as colleges continue to develop and expand, they may want to consider how their transportation planning contributes to their “greener” goals.

Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, for example, is completing a comprehensive master planning effort to not only guide campus development for the next several decades, but also to help the campus focus its development efforts around more sustainable practices. Those practices include campus transportation. The planning team — which includes planners, architects, landscape architects, transportation engineers, infrastructure, utility, and other specialists — is working together to ensure that Cornell’s future development projects take advantage of existing infrastructure, such as utilities and roads, and foster a more pedestrian, public-transit-oriented campus, all of which contribute to a more sustainable campus.

Focus on Density
One of the ways a campus can make its sustainable vision a reality is by opting for density. On urban campuses, density isn’t optional — the limited space forces dense development. But for more rural schools like Cornell, it’s often easier to expand the campus by adding more buildings and resources around the edges, where land is generally more available. But expanding in this manner means more utility infrastructure will be required and more transportation systems (roads, sidewalks, transit routes, etc.) will be needed, adding more costs to the project.

Rather than looking outward, campuses should instead look to develop as close to the campus core as they can. That way, new buildings can tap into existing utilities and roads, and existing transportation systems (buses, shuttles, sidewalks, etc.) can continue delivering people to the same central locations.

The catch, however, is that adding more buildings in the campus core usually means replacing other spaces, like parking lots. A sustainable transportation plan can help solve that problem by establishing a circular roadway and transit system that loops around to key buildings and parking garages. A bus or shuttle service, for instance, can transport students, employees, and other campus visitors back and forth from larger parking areas to different locations on campus, eliminating the need to find room for parking within the core and cutting down on intra-campus traffic. To make this system even more appealing to commuters, the shuttle could be free and any parking in the core (e.g., street parking) should have meters or other fee systems.

Focus on Pedestrians
With a more densely developed campus, pedestrian access and connections become even more important. For Cornell’s transportation plan, “connectivity” has, in fact, become the name of the game. To determine how to improve that connectivity, the design team examined the college’s comprehensive geographic information system (GIS) maps to identify major concentrations of class activity and pedestrian routes, which illustrated where sidewalk and bikeway networks should be completed and enhanced to improve connections. In addition, the team established design guidelines for creating safer nighttime walking routes, complete with pedestrian-level lighting.

Focus on Commuters
For any campus, especially suburban and rural schools, there will, of course, always be a contingent of off-campus commuters. To be more sustainable, a campus transportation plan should de-emphasize accommodating all of the commuters’ cars and encourage them to use transit and park-and-ride programs. The plan helps set an improved environment that encourages remote parking and emphasizes internal non-auto campus features, such as sidewalks, bike lanes, buses, and shuttles. Some of the ways to encourage commuters from driving around campus include the following:
Bike paths and bike storage. Part of the Cornell transportation plan includes a bigger and more complete system of bike paths, as well as more bike racks throughout campus.

Strategic bus system. Coordinating with the local municipal bus service to best serve commuters is essential. However, be sure that the system does not clog the campus with too many bus routes — a strategic system based on a ridership study ensures commuters have access to bus routes that bring them to the places they need to go with enough frequency for their schedules.

Charging for parking. Provided a college has plenty of options for walking, biking, or riding to and from key locations throughout the campus, charging or increasing the cost of parking will discourage people from driving their cars, thus reducing traffic into, out of, and through the campus. A pricing strategy that starts with setting fees highest for premium parking spaces and decreases accordingly will help encourage drivers to use the various transit systems and connections the college transportation plan provides them.

As mentioned, building remote parking lots connected to the campus’s transit system allows commuters to park at a less expensive rate, or farther away, avoiding bringing the traffic onto campus where pedestrian volumes may be highest. The presence of fewer cars also reduces the stress at important intersections. What’s more, removing parking lots within the campus core frees up more space for development there, further supporting campus density.

Connecting the Campus
While the commitment to sustainability is admirable, it is not free. Replacing parking lots with a level or two of decked or below-grade parking, for instance, increases the cost of development. These costs are offset, however, with better use of existing infrastructure and a smaller carbon footprint. Cornell, with its majestic landscape as one of its greatest physical assets, has chosen this route.

The key to a successful campus transportation plan like Cornell’s is to thoroughly understand the way the campus works. Whether the school is urban or rural affects its transportation dynamics, as does the costs of housing, gas prices, available public transportation systems, and many other factors. But if a school has truly adopted a vision of sustainability, its transportation plan can support that goal by helping to remold its transportation pattern into one that fosters density, encourages walking and public transit, and reduces a reliance on cars. And those efforts, however small, can help your school do its part to protect its environment and its community.


Thomas Harknett, PE, is a principal and transportation engineer at Stantec in New York City. Stantec recently completed the transportation and utility portions of the Campus Master Plan for Cornell University. Tom can be reached at thomas.harknett@stantec.com.

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