How Davis is turning car-loving college students into transit riders

76 percent of Americans commute to work by driving alone. But for many people, car dependency evaporates when they go to college.

In a 2014 analysis of per-capita transit utilization, FiveThirtyEight found that a plethora of college towns, sprinkled across red, purple, and blue states, boast ridership rates right up there with metropolises like San Francisco, Washington, and Chicago. The compact housing developments, concentrated job centers, and open-minded young populations inherent to campus environments make them natural fits for multimodal transportation.

Yet some incoming college students might not have any transit experience beyond enjoying train rides at theme parks. At college, they are likely to depend on the bus to get to their classes, jobs, and social outings – experiences that could shape their lifelong impressions of transit.

Davis, Ca. knows this. That’s why they’re actively publicizing their convenient transit system to the community and giving students a chance to become involved in its operations and management.

Whenever I visit Davis – my hometown – I have access to a diverse array of transportation options, thanks largely to the UC Davis campus. One can quickly and easily get anywhere in town via the local Unitrans bus system, which the university’s student government oversees, or via bicycle. (Davis was the first U.S. city – and still one of only five – with cycling infrastructure the League of American Bicyclists has deemed worthy of its highest Platinum rating.)

In contrast to other Northern California transit systems, including Yolobus (serving the entirety of the county) and Regional Transit (nearby Sacramento’s light rail and bus system), Unitrans has largely bucked the harmful trend of declining ridership that has hurt transportation in many parts of the country. It posted year-over-year increases during the latter part of FY 2017 after resolving a driver shortage and moves nearly 4 million riders annually.

Approximately 90 percent of Unitrans passengers use the bus system for travel to or from UC Davis. A tuition fee subsidizes undergraduate students’ trips, effectively turning the tables on the high fixed costs of car ownership that can incentivize people to drive everywhere. Jeff Flynn, the agency’s general manager, said that ridership numbers strongly correlate with student enrollment, explaining that many of the system’s passengers commute from relatively outlying apartment complexes beyond comfortable cycling distance from the school.

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