Commuting analysis team exploring options beyond driving


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.



  1. Susan Bowers
    on March 30, 2020 at 7:07 am

    This is great that a commission has been formed for reducing our footprint! But, while you are at it, don’t forget the staff that commutes daily. Many of the jobs – including my own- can be done from home. Until the recent crisis, we were told that this was not possible; however, now we are working from home ! After the crisis, I believe that we will be put back at our department. If we can shift an abundance of jobs to working remotely, we will greatly reduce our footprint ! There are many articles out there that prove that working from home is actually more productive ! Thank you for studying this !

    • David Malicke
      on March 30, 2020 at 11:00 am

      I agree. This is an opportunity to review how working-from-home can be a part of addressing the climate crisis. Is it possible for some roles to work 1,2,3+ days a week from home? Keeping those cars off the road will certainly have a positive impact on the environment, and the COVID-19 crisis is showing that staff can be productive while working from home, even under crisis conditions.

      The COVID-19 crisis is an example of the climate crisis but in fast forward. Are we going to continue to take a wait-and-see approach to the climate crisis (like many did for COVID-19), or are we going to make the drastic and necessary changes that are needed now in order to address it?

  2. Max Bajcz
    on March 30, 2020 at 8:35 am

    There has been discussion for some time about moving the Amtrak station to Fuller Park. This would put the station at the feet of the medical center, which is the single largest employer in the county. Local rail service from Jackson, Dearborn and points in-between to Ann Arbor could then be added. Nearly all of the University’s transit service and much of AAATA’s already run through the immediate area, making transfers to other parts of campus and the city very easy. The Border-To-Border bike path also runs through there, making it a good location for a bike center. There had been an opportunity to get Federal dollars to support the project to move the train station, but I don’t know if that window is still open. There are some local political issues involved, as well, but I feel that moving the station to a more accessible location would go a long way to supporting our goal of reducing our carbon footprint by making rail transportation a viable option for commuting. The railway infrastructure already exists and many of the communities along the line have historic stations from days gone by and some revitalization of these areas could be a welcome side benefit.

  3. Noah Weaverdyck
    on March 30, 2020 at 11:46 am

    Climate, affordable housing, transit — as the team makes clear, it’s all related.

    Yet, right now as the graduate student union is bargaining for a new contract, U-M has *refused* to negotiate on *any of these issues*, despite their obvious and deleterious impact on young people.

    U-M is largely driving the housing crisis in Ann Arbor, yet their response to graduate students who want to discuss affordable housing policies? “No. Nobody says you have to live in Ann Arbor.”

    If past experience is any indication (with the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee, among others), this subgroup will produce detailed, well thought-out recommendations for how to make critical progress on these issues, and they will get filed away and forgotten. There will be no processes put in place to follow-up on or implement them, let alone resources allocated. There will be no progress updates.

    In five years, when we’ve recovered from the recession, rent is even higher, and we’ve almost blown through our carbon budget, shackling ourselves and all future generations to a planet unlike one human beings have ever lived on, people will point to the PCCN and ask, why haven’t you acted?
    The lie will oscillate between “U-M is a large institution — it takes a long time to change” (see CODVID response, or that people have been pushing U-M to address this for literally 30 years), and blaming community members for not reducing their individual carbon footprints, shirking responsibility for driving the system that keeps emissions high (see e.g.

    President Schlissel and the PCCN co-chairs have made it clear that they don’t recognize the grave responsibility they have — they see goal of the PCCN being to improve U-M’s image as a climate laggard, not to implement real change (see e.g., and they will only act as much as the U-M community pushes them. For a year and a half, they have refused to implement even the most basic of accountability measures, such as committing to regular progress updates on the recommendations after they are released.

    In the face of the climate crisis and the disproportionate impacts it has across our communities, it is imperative that we do better. As a community, we must *demand* that the University stop its intransigence and move quickly to implement affordable housing policy, expand transit and bike infrastructure, and rapidly draw down its emissions. We cannot let this team’s work go to waste.

  4. Noah Weaverdyck
    on March 30, 2020 at 11:47 am
  5. John Mirsky
    on March 31, 2020 at 3:07 pm

    Noah Weaverdyck’s comments are on target. Commuting-related carbon emissions cannot be sufficiently reduced without re-imagining land use and housing approaches. Current U-M and A2 policies and practices are resulting in outcomes which prevent many people from living where they would like, close to where they study, work and play. They also reveal a lack of empathy, something on the order of “U-M and A2 First!”. (Sound familiar?)

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