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U.S. Colleges Score Big on Sustainable Transportation

Bike rack at Georgetown University. Photo by Patricio Chile.

Bike rack at Georgetown University. Photo by Patricio Chile.

Is the recession putting the brakes on sustainable transportation projects? Not at colleges and universities, it seems. The 2010 College Sustainability Report Card, released earlier this month, gave 105 institutions an “A” for transportation. Only 34 schools received that grade last year.

The Report Card, published by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, assessed 332 U.S. and Canadian schools over nine categories The Transportation category recognizes schools that have implemented pedestrian and bike-friendly services, car-sharing options, the use of alternative-fuel campus vehicles and other sustainable policies.

And the results are positive (see breakdown here). Almost 64% of schools surveyed were found to offer some form of financial incentive for the use of public transportation. Hybrid or other alternative-fuel vehicles are used in 77% of campus fleets. Another 46% of schools have instituted bike-sharing programs. Only 17% of schools received a “D” or “F” in the Transportation category.

The inclusion of 32 schools to the survey this year and the use of a new methodology process may have contributed to the higher scores. Nevertheless, the results also point to a nationwide trend: a higher demand for mass transit options in the midst of higher gas prices and lower incomes. U.S. Census data released last month shows that public transportation use is up to 5%, the highest in six years. The number of people carpooling has also increased.

The Report Card also repudiates concerns that the financial downturn will delay or slash green transportation initiatives. TheCityFix previously reported that stimulus funds could be ineffective in areas with financial shortfalls and other budget priorities. A decline in revenue forced Charlotte, N.C. earlier this year to postpone construction on a rail extension. Other transit systems including those in San Francisco, Atlanta and Boston have cut services and/or increased fares. However, the Report Card’s results suggest sustainable transportation can be favorable in a recession.

“Surprising the skeptics, most schools we surveyed did not let financial reversals undermine their green commitments,” SEI Executive Director Mark Orlowski said in a press release. “New financial realities encouraged saving money by adopting environmentally friendly innovations.”

These innovations also reflect the growing youth involvement in sustainable advocacy and practice, a trend the New York Times has attributed to “Generation E.” National events like Power Shift have seen a heavy youth presence in the past several years. Highlighting this trend, many colleges have even begun offering sustainability curriculums.

Furthermore, events like Urban SOS and the Buckminster Fuller Challenge give students opportunities to plan and share ideas on how to confront urban growth, environmental degradation and transportation. TheCityFix reported in May on the various urban mobility projects being showcased at these events.

The Student Involvement category on the Report Card is indicative of this youth trend. The University of Maryland-College Park, which received an “A” for transportation, lists among its student groups UMD Students for Clean Energy and Rethink College Park, a group which follows urban development issues including transportation (connect with TheCityFix blogger David Daddio, who co-founded the blog.) MIT students, staff and faculty participate in Carbon Rally, a national competition in which teams attempt to reduce carbon emissions.

Sustainable policies are clearly more visible on college campuses. But can these initiatives continue to grow under the financial strains of the economy? Orlowski made it clear that many schools see sustainable policies as long-term budget solutions. It’s also notable that the recession has been easier on school budgets than it has on many corporations and government bodies. In fact, university endowments fell by only 25% in 2008, compared to the 40% drop in the U.S. stock market that year, according to U.S. News and World Report. However, the article also notes that the prolonged recession could worsen the situation for many schools.

In the end, colleges and universities could serve as microcosms for sustainability efforts across the country. The widespread use of alternative-fuel buses and bike-sharing programs, for example, demonstrate that these programs are efficient, effective and popular. The financial constraints may be existent and uncertain, but the enthusiasm and willingness to enact change is also inspiring.

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