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Three people board a bus along Washington Avenue by Coffman Union.

Rush hours were less trying than some expected during fall semester, thanks in part to the number of students, faculty, and staff who signed up for U-Pass and Metropass.

U gets creative, wins award

Commuter Choice Award honors U for creative transportation solutions

By Rick Moore

December 27, 2007

Almost four months ago, the University of Minnesota community on the Twin Cities campus braced for the worst. It was a month after the I-35W bridge had collapsed and fall classes were about to start, the day after the Labor Day weekend.

Everyone assumed that the holiday would be over in more ways than one--that ordinary commutes to campus would turn into extraordinary gridlock, frustrating students and staff alike. Fortunately, that scenario never materialized, thanks in part to the efforts and ingenuity of the University and its Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) department.

The University was recently recognized with a 2007 Commuter Choice Award in the category of Outstanding Promotion for a Large Organization.

The awards, sponsored by Metro Transit and the region's five transportation management entities, recognize organizations and individuals from across the seven-county metro area for their creative solutions in promoting alternatives to driving alone to work, such as mass transit, carpooling, and bicycling.

"We're real pleased to be honored and recognized for the hard work we did," says Mary Sienko, PTS marketing manager. "And it really was a lot of hard work, because we had to do it in such a short period of time."

PTS at a glance

The Twin Cities campus at the University of Minnesota is the third largest traffic generator in Minnesota. Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) is committed to establishing, maintaining, and improving a comprehensive transportation system that reduces congestion, eases accessibility, and enhances a friendly U community.

PTS offers a wide array of parking options for the Twin Cities campus, including hourly, daily, carpool, event, motorcycle, and discounted options. The department has also developed a number of services designed to encourage the use of alternative transportation modes, like U-Pass and Metropass, Zipcar (see story), and the Helmets and Headlights promotion.

Without the I-35W bridge in place as a major artery to and from the Twin Cities campus (it's estimated that the bridge carried about 140,000 vehicles a day), it became incumbent on the U to promote various alternatives to driving. And so Parking and Transportation Services came up with five major initiatives: ease traffic flow; lower the cost of Metropass, the unlimited-ride employee bus pass; add bike racks; develop a new Park and Ride location at the corner of Como and 29th avenues; and communicate the message about changing commuting behaviors to the public.

As part of those initiatives, the price of Metropass--originally scheduled to increase from $62 a month to $64 in October--was lowered to $45 for the current fiscal year. Some contract parking spaces, meters, and a bike lane were removed from Pleasant Avenue to better accommodate the increased automobile traffic there. The timing of traffic signals was modified along Washington and University Avenues, which meant working collaboratively with outside organizations, including the City of Minneapolis and Washington County. The U also pushed hard for the 10th Avenue Bridge to be reopened in time for the start of classes.

And there was a multifaceted communications campaign to encourage members of the University community to, as much as possible, leave their cars at home.

Looking at the numbers, it appears the strategy worked. Sales of Metropass rose by more than 430, an increase of 29 percent. Sales of U-Pass, the all-you-can-ride pass for University students, went up another 10 percent from fall 2006 and have now topped the 20,000 mark.

And perhaps the most telling indication that commuters responded to the message could be found at the East Bank's parking facilities, which were not even full as the semester kicked into stride. According to Sienko, that's even more impressive when you consider that the U was 800 parking spots short from a year ago due to the stadium construction.

"We really were expecting horrible congestion the first week of classes, and it just wasn't there," says Sienko.

Which is not to say that commutes to and from campus won't occasionally be difficult until a new bridge is finished, especially during snowfalls.

But thanks to some quick work, creativity, and quality communications, the U helped students and staff navigate to campus this fall much more easily than expected.