Commuters discover serendipitous pleasures while reducing peak traffic at Stanford

While Stanford comfortably achieved its morning trip-count goal, afternoon peak-hour trips were only one trip under the limit last fall.

L.A. Cicero Commuter traffic on the Stanford campus

Commuters who must drive to campus are encouraged to arrive before or after the peak hour of 8-9 a.m. and leave before or after the 5-6 p.m. hour.

Let us count the benefits of walking, carpooling, vanpooling or riding a bike, bus or train to campus.

There's Clean Air Cash, of course. There are drawings for prizes, including gift cards and iPads. There's the money saved by not buying gasoline. There are free bus and train passes for points north, south and east. There's Zipcar at Stanford for convenient access to vehicles on campus when you need them.

And then there are the serendipitous pleasures of traveling by foot, bike, bus, carpool or train that Stanford commuters shared through the "Tell Us Your Story" contest held by Parking & Transportation Services (P&TS).

The 35 winners lost weight, made new friends, strengthened family bonds, read books, studied for tests, saved money, slept better and smiled more.

Rachel Isip, a development associate in the Department of Art and Art History, said she finally found the quiet, uninterrupted time she had long desired to read for pleasure after she exchanged her daily drive for a train ride.

"Whether it is a 10-minute or 30-minute train ride, it is my 'me' time that I look forward to each day, guilt-free," she wrote.

By walking to work, Catherine Baker, a research associate in the Developmental Biology Department at the School of Medicine, has befriended a group of people and their dogs, including a corgi, a spaniel, terriers and Bernese mountain dogs. She also learned the names of birds she encountered during her daily walk.

"Why were there so many female robins?" Baker wrote. "Answer: Those weren't robins, they were California towhees. And are these birds sparrows? No, juncos. Are these? No, phoebes. Wow, sorry guys! So joining the Commute Club has provided a very relaxing commute, with new friends human, canine and avian."

Mike Gallagher, events and resources coordinator for the Knight Fellowship Program, said he has saved thousands of dollars in tolls, gas and time – an even more precious commodity – by commuting to campus from the East Bay by bus.

"Because of my discretionary time, I was able to accept the invitation of another dear colleague who recommended I read The Hunger Games so that I can better connect with and relate to my teenagers," he wrote in his winning contest entry.

Brodie Hamilton, director of P&TS, said he hopes the stories will inspire the many people who still drive alone to reconsider that practice – even if it's only once a week or once a month.

"It doesn't have to be all or nothing," Hamilton said. "It could be incremental. Every trip really does count."

Eligible Stanford employees can get free Caltrain and VTA passes and keep their parking permits, allowing them to take the train or bus certain days of the week, or to decide spontaneously that they'll take the train or bus when they hear of a traffic back-up on their solo commute route.

For those who must drive, Hamilton hopes they will consider entering campus before or after the 8-9 a.m. morning commute hour and leaving campus before or after the 5-6 p.m. afternoon commute hour.

There are incentives for those commuters too, under the Capri program, which offers the chance to win cash rewards for drivers who travel during off-peak hours.

Under General Use Permit, every trip counts

Under the General Use Permit approved by Santa Clara County in 2000, Stanford has a goal to keep the number of vehicles entering and leaving campus during peak commute hours below the number recorded in 2001.

The approach dovetails with Stanford's commitment to sustainability, since limiting the number of vehicle trips during peak commute hours helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions, helps improve air quality, reduces the need for parking and helps reduce traffic in surrounding communities.

The county does "cordon counts" every year, recording the number of vehicles that enter and exit campus at 16 locations.

While Stanford has achieved its goal during the morning commute by a comfortable margin, the afternoon commute has always proved more challenging, Hamilton said.

During last fall's cordon count, the county tallied 3,599 vehicles leaving campus between 5 and 6 p.m. – only one trip under the limit.

While Stanford can apply "credits" earned primarily through Marguerite Shuttle ridership outside the cordon count area – taking hospital employees to the train station, for instance – Hamilton said the university endeavors to accomplish the goal without credits.

He said commuters aren't the only people who may have contributed to the fall trip count. Construction traffic might have been a factor, or campus residents leaving the Farm to visit friends, go shopping or go out to dinner. The drivers may have been visitors leaving campus after an event or a daylong conference.

"There are a number of variables like that over which we have little or no control," he said.

Still, Hamilton hopes faculty and staff who drive to and from campus will heed the university's plea to change their driving habits if they can.

According to a P&TS survey of Stanford commuters, the percentage of people who drive alone to work is heading in the right direction – it dropped from 72 percent in 2001 to 47 percent in 2012.

However, the decline in solo drivers must be seen in the context of the rising number of employees over the last decade, Hamilton said.

Those statistics showed that 7,388 people drove alone to work in 2002, compared with 5,946 in 2012.

"We encourage commuters to reassess whether they want and need to drive alone for their commute," Hamilton said. "One way we motivate commuters is through promotions. Currently, we offer a grand prize drawing of $3,500 for those who join or remain in the Commute Club this spring. Those who pledge to use alternative transportation part time can enter a drawing for $1,500."

Hamilton said if Stanford exceeds the trip-count baseline in two out of three consecutive years, the university would have to share the cost of revamping a number of intersections in the area to improve traffic flow.

Events bring visitors – many in cars

With the expansion of conference facilities on campus, there has been an increase in the number of events held on campus, said Lisa Kwiatkowski, manager of marketing and transportation demand management outreach at Parking & Transportation Services.

Among the new event facilities on campus are the Cemex Auditorium at the Knight Management Center, the Conference Center at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge at the Medical School, and the NVIDIA Auditorium at the Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center.

Kwiatkowski said she hopes to reach out to event coordinators around campus in coming months to remind them about Stanford's commitment to reducing afternoon vehicle traffic and the impact event scheduling can have on those trips.

She said ending events before or after the afternoon commute hour would result in a better event experience for visitors.

"If event attendees are leaving campus at 5 o'clock, their departures are going to be delayed because traffic is heavier then," Kwiatkowski said. “These are impacts people may not realize at first. In fact, whether you are an event planner, commuter or resident, all members of Stanford’s community can help reduce peak trips at Stanford, and we have a range of programs to reward those who do.”