A Smarter Commute for U

The 2014 cohort of GCSC fellows.

The 2014 cohort of GCSC fellows.

By Shaun Daniel, Sustainability Resource Center

If you find yourself doubting what impact students can have on sustainability, take a look at the graduate students from the Global Change & Sustainability Center’s (GCSC) First Year Fellowship Program and related course Global Changes & Society (BIOL 7961).

In 2012, they chose to focus on water and revitalization of Red Butte Creek. In 2013, the next cohort continued the effort by forming Friends of Red Butte Creek. Then, this past spring, the 2014 cohort of GCSC fellows put together a suite of proposals to improve air quality on campus and in the Salt Lake Valley more broadly, an initiative they called Smart CommUte.

“The process of coming up with a project is challenging,” says Brenda Bowen, instructor for the fellowship course and associated director of the GCSC. “They had the last two cohorts set the bar pretty high.”

Bowen helped facilitate the students’ learning once they chose air quality as the focus for the 2013-2014 class, a decision that came even before inversion season hit. “We kept coming back to that it’s us—‘us’ being the U of U,” adds Bowen.

A student carries sign boards of the Smart CommUte GCSC project funded by SCIF at Earth Fest on April 10, 2014.

A student carries sign boards for Smart CommUte at Earth Fest on April 10, 2014.

Emily Shulze, a member of the 2014 GCSC cohort, says the group chose to focus on transportation and commuting because of the high percent of harmful emissions attributed to mobile sources. As the largest employer in the region, the University of Utah has a significant footprint in terms of its employees’ and students’ commuting patterns and the impact that transportation choices and options have on air quality.

The GCSC students submitted three proposals to the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF), each of which was ultimately approved and is now in the process of coming to fruition. These Smart CommUte programs focus on improving awareness about air quality, encouraging biking, and facilitating carpooling.

Outreach and Education: Air Quality Literacy

Long-term changes in behavior often require changing the way that we understand and relate to the world. Many people simply don’t realize the impact of certain actions on air quality. That’s why the Smart CommUte program aims to raise awareness about how commuting choices impact local air quality and educate community members about actions they can take.

The project’s SCIF grant included funding that allowed the hire of two interns, Michael Curfew and Maggie Fey.

Fey, whose position is also supported by the MUSE Project, says, “People are interested in what they can do—especially new students.”

Air Quality Literacy coverCurfew notes that students are a key focus of the program in part because they comprise the majority of people on campus. “Before they can make sustainable choices, they have to know what their choices are,” he says.

To deepen understanding of local air quality, the GCSC fellows created Air Quality Literacy: A Guide for the University of Utah. The guide explains the types of pollutants in the Salt Lake Valley, health impacts of poor air quality, and information on how to carpool, ride transit, or bike to campus.

One More Bike Today, One Less Car Tomorrow

The second SCIF-funded initiative of Smart CommUte is a bike rental program to provide students with an air- and pocketbook-friendly transportation option. The program aims to encourage a sustainable habit in students as they transition into independence as adults.

At $25 per semester or $40 for the year, the bike rental program is a tremendous deal for getting around. When the program kicked off during Welcome Week this fall, students were swift to take it up. All of the initial 10 bikes were claimed within two weeks of the launch.

The rental program is coordinated by the U of U Bike Collective and Commuter Service’s Bike to the U program, with free maintenance provided for bike renters at the Bike Collective’s campus location. A tune-up at a local bike shop is also included in the rental fee.

A student poses with the bike he rented through the Smart CommUte program

A student poses with the bike he rented through the Smart CommUte program.

The bikes are commuter style Fuji Absolutes with fenders, rear rack, lock, and lights. Alexandra Zimmerman, bicycle coordinator with Commuter Services, provided an advisory role in the development of the rental program and helped with bike selection. She says, “The flat bars and 8-speed mountain bike gearing make these bikes a great choice for navigating the hills around our campus.”

Zimmerman adds, “New bike commuters often go through a trial and error phase to figure out what accessories and gear will help make their commute easier and safer. We wanted to provide students with a complete, versatile commuter bike setup to ensure that they have a positive experience.”

So far student experience has been positive. Schulze shares how one student she knows is able to forego driving from Sugar House. The student takes the bus to campus with her rented bike and then rides back home in the evening when the buses have stopped running.

Depending on the success of the first round of rentals, feedback from participants, and availability of future funding, Curfew and Zimmerman indicate the bicycle fleet could expand. As bikes become available again, look for the rental application at http://environment.utah.edu/smartbike.html.

Smart CommUte table at the U’s farmers market last season.

Looking Ahead

Beyond these two initiatives, a third program focused on making carpooling easier is poised to come online soon. Ultimately, each of these initiatives is a step toward reducing single-occupant vehicle (SOV) trips and the University’s goal to become climate neutral by 2050. The Smart CommUte program aims to reduce commuter-generated emissions by 50 percent before 2050, says Megan Walsh, another member of the 2014 cohort of GCSC fellows.

Speaking to the potential impact of these programs, Fey says, “I’d like to think that if I’d discovered public transit [when a new student], I might have developed more of a habit. Now that I have a bike, it’s really changed.”

Bowen explains how working with students on Smart CommUte changed her own commuting behavior. “I had credibility issues driving to class,” she says, “so I learned to take the bus.”

Promoting Smart CommUte at Earth Fest to educate the campus about PM 2.5s.

Promoting Smart CommUte at Earth Fest to educate the campus about PM 2.5s.

These changes in habit and culture are what the Smart CommUte initiatives are after. Success will be judged in part by the number of parking spots left open, the number of bike stalls filled, and whether the buses and TRAX are more crowded.

“Viewing our habits is valuable in terms of sustainability,” Curfew says. “Rather than looking at how we’re going to fix this problem, we can look at how we’re going to prevent it.”

Looking at the programs initiated by the GCSC fellows and the impact they’re already having, one might borrow from Margaret Mead to say: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed students can make a difference; indeed, Smart CommUte already has.

Shaun Daniel is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities and a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center.

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