In the tale of ballooning diesel-fuel budgets in the age of rising energy costs, perhaps numbers tell the story best. During 2004, the cost of diesel fuel for the University’s bus transit system was $370,000. This year, University Director of Parking and Transportation Services, Dave Miller, projects a cost of $688,000 – and that is an optimistic estimate.Put another way, this near-doubling can be understood as the difference between today’s $3-a-gallon gasoline and the fabled $1.50-a-gallon gasoline of the rosy past. Rising prices are compounded by increasing numbers of students, and while incoming students are being exiled to live farther from central campus and their classes, University buses scramble to add routes and times. Last year, the University transportation system gave more than 5 million rides, according to Fleet Manager Renee Jordan. This puts the system on par with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority and even Toledo’s public transportation system.”It’s almost a bizarro world for us,” said Cecile Lamb, a coordinator for transportation services. “This is a medium-sized metropolitan transit system we’re running.”The abnormal schedule of college students doesn’t help either. “Municipal systems have rush hours, but once our peak time starts, it stays peak. People go back and forth all day,” Lamb said. What’s a University to do? One solution takes a long view and much planning. In constructing new buildings, residence halls and pathways connecting them, the layout of the campus can play a big factor in adding or reducing strain to the transportation network. “The best transportation is if I can say ‘I’m already there’,” physics professor emeritus Marc Ross said.Emphasizing what he calls “locational efficiency,” the best transportation may be none at all, suggests Ross. “We have a very efficient arrangement,” he said. “North Campus aside, this is a very compact campus.”The layout of the campus provides a closely knit backbone to build upon. “The university was laid out and has continued to follow the original layout back in the 1800s. We’re trying to keep like disciplines in geographic areas, enabling people to do more walking,” said Diane Brown, spokeswoman for facilities and operations.”There has been intentional planning carried through the decade to provide for pedestrian-friendly environments,” Brown said. The striking image of the Diag at noon comes to mind when considering how compressed and overlapping the paths of pedestrian transportation are. “All of our paths blend and reinforce each other on the campus. It is really woven into the community fabric,” campus planner Sue Gott said. “An example is the new pedestrian bridge built over Washtenaw Avenue connecting the Life Sciences Institute and the medical campus. It has reduced vehicular trips, and now we have a more effective and beautiful way to cross a very busy line,” Gott said.Another strategy to conserve transportation costs is to provide out-of-the-way campuses and buildings with the resources that students need. “We’re seeing a trend where there’s a desire for food in one area, so the School of Public Health has added a new cafe. So it’s not necessary to get to the Union or back on campus,” Gott said. “There are also study and informal engagement areas, so those resources are available right in the facilities.” Next-generation communication technology may also help cut travel costs. Thomas Finholt, a researcher in the School of Information, is currently working on a system to facilitate human interaction with high-speed video networks. “In an environment of increasing transportation costs, it’s possible that people will be able to substitute interactions over these very hi-fi video connections, where previously they would have required face-to-face meeting,” Finholt said.While video may never replace in-person meetings for establishing initial contact, “video-mediated interactions can sustain the glow over a longer period of time,” Finholt said. While Finholt’s vision of wall-size high-definition displays that “let you look into another workspace” is compelling, today’s computers and the present capabilities of the Internet cannot yet support it. For now, students and faculty will still need to regard home and classroom as two different places. And it is the commuters who will feel the pain of rising energy costs most acutely. “If there is a crunch, it will be the drivers of private automobiles who feel it,” Ross said. “They need more compact living arrangements, rather than moving 20 miles out of town.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.