For three-quarters of U-M staff and faculty, the daily commute begins and ends with the turning of a car key. But from a carbon impact perspective, the effects of a commute are a product of more than a single car trip.

In support of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, an analysis team of students and faculty is examining commuting trends at U-M, with the goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled.

The team is one of eight working for the commission, each examining distinct topics critical to U-M’s carbon neutrality push.

“Our job is to figure out how to reduce the vehicle miles traveled in a commute, as opposed to how to reduce the impact of each vehicle mile traveled,” said Jonathan Levine, professor of urban and regional planning at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and team faculty lead.

“The distinction is, if we think about the impact of each vehicle mile traveled, that’s a technology-based question. Reducing vehicle miles traveled is a behavior-based question.”

Gains in fuel efficiency and sales of electric vehicles remain critically important. The commuting team, however, is focusing on an array of strategies that extend beyond the car. Those strategies pertain to on-campus housing, public transit infrastructure, improvements to cycling and walking paths, and parking.

While the bulk of U-M housing currently caters predominantly to undergraduate students, some comparable institutions in higher education offer on-campus housing to faculty and staff. Intuitively, this lessens their commute distance.

At the same time, the team is assessing ways to elevate alternative transit options.

That could be something new, like a rail-based or bus rapid-transit system connecting the North, Medical and Central campuses, and the broader city. Or it could mean improvements to existing systems, like expanding SMART transit access to the Dearborn campus or growing ridesharing and vanpooling programs.

The team also notes tremendous opportunity in improving cycling and walking infrastructure across the Ann Arbor campus, complementing efforts from the city of Ann Arbor.

“We need a very clear, safe and well-maintained facility for bicycling between North Campus, Medical Campus and Central Campus,” Levine said.

“For a lot of travel with the city of Ann Arbor and between University of Michigan campuses, cycling beats every other mode. The implication is that if we make cycling into an attractive, amenable and safe activity, there’s huge potential for growth.”

“There’s only so much room to eke more miles out of a gallon,” said Grif Barron, an undergraduate junior studying environmental engineering and a member of the analysis team. “All you can do is move people closer, and move people into more efficient modes of travel.”

Barron focuses on sustainable urbanism and comes to the work with a strong interest in social equity and environmental justice. Among Barron’s tasks: working on recommendations to elevate cycling, ridesharing and vanpooling improvement, and assisting on a matrix that quantifies U-M commuting behavior. The tool aggregates anonymized human resources data and maps the carbon impact of each commute.

“The horizontal axis marks how far people live from campus and then the vertical (axis) marks what campus they go to. We’re just placing information about what carbon impact that commute has for a single person,” said Abas Shkembi, an undergraduate junior studying statistics, who is also contributing to the matrix.

He contributes prior experience in public health data analysis and came to the team with an interest in making data broadly accessible and applicable.

With the matrix, the researchers can determine potential opportunities for U-M to create new housing developments to lessen commuting distance or transit infrastructure improvements so that people have the option not to drive.

“As you can imagine, emissions are pretty much a direct function of distance,” Barron said. This effect is compounded as distances increase. When commutes are longer than five or seven miles, walking, cycling and transit use all become impractical. It all happens by car, Levine said.

The team’s work to date has been no small feat, not least because of the scale of data collection required from various campus units and the Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program. They lacked a comprehensive universitywide survey that dealt with transportation and commuting exclusively.

The team’s forthcoming recommendations will also require broad buy-in from community partners. To that end, the team has met with stakeholders with the city of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority, UM-Flint and UM-Dearborn, as well as with personnel at other universities.

Parking policies are a primary focus of the team’s analysis, complicated by the fact that parking is often seen as in-demand in Ann Arbor. Furthermore, long-distance commuters who lack alternatives to driving are often less advantaged economically than those who can choose to walk, cycle or take public transit.

With those takeaways in mind, the team is considering recommendations that incentivize people away from parking, but do not financially penalize those who need to drive.

One idea that has surfaced: potentially replacing the annual parking pass with a daily pass that has a yearly price ceiling. Under the current pass system, commuters often feel that they have to drive to get their money’s worth out of their annual passes.

The team also discussed the importance of making alternate options highly visible.
“Having (alternative transportation) options there and making them accessible to more people is what we’re really trying to move toward,” Shkembi said.

Added Barron: “We want to give you the option not to drive.”

The commuting team’s work will be highlighted again in the commission’s second interim report, due this spring. The commission expects to deliver its final recommendations in late 2020.

Other internal analysis teams are evaluating biosequestration, building standards, campus culture and communication, energy consumption policies, external collaboration, food and university travel.

More than 50 students are adding their expertise to the analysis teams. Subgroups are also examining other topics, such as carbon accounting, vehicle fleet electrification and social justice considerations.