When I planned to meet a friend for breakfast in the Washington, DC neighborhood Georgetown last month, I wasn’t worried about getting to work on time. My friend suggested I take the Georgetown University shuttle to Rosslyn, Mobility Lab’s Arlington neighborhood.
Unfortunately, I was the only passenger on the bus and essentially took a single-occupancy vehicle trip on an extremely low-efficiency vehicle. After I got off, I watched the bus deadhead, or travel without a passenger, to its next scheduled stop.
This isn’t an isolated incident. As many universities utilize campus transportation to promote connectivity to nearby Metro stations, entertainment centers, or off-campus hubs of student activity, convenience can sometimes take precedence to efficiency. When filled with students, these shuttles reduce vehicle traffic, and emissions, but when campus transit using low-efficiency vehicles is mostly empty, it appears to do the opposite.
At the George Washington University, 24 passenger vehicles are used to shuttle students from the main downtown campus to the much-smaller residential and academic Mt.Vernon campus three miles away. The campus is home to 700 students and hosts several academic departments. Monday through Friday, the Mt.Vernon Express (called “the Vex” by students) makes 392 trips per day, prompting concern from some students about the environmental impact of an “every five-minute” bus service.
While buses or even the beloved GW Vex might temporarily deadhead, an empty bus means a full one next time. And unlike ride-hailing, there is a near guarantee that when a Vex deadheads to the Mt.Vernon campus, it will be bringing passengers on the return trip.
The sustainability concerns that transit users experience when onboard a near-empty bus is understandable, but the reason why campus transit is so successful is that it’s a consistent and reliable service. Students don’t need to download an app or check schedules online, because they know another bus is coming in five minutes – less time than it would take to order an Uber.
A report by the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida found that reliability was one of the biggest indicators of ridership – which explains why some transit systems are successful despite a lack of high-tech real-time service information.
A university isn’t the same as a transit agency, but the benefits of frequent shuttles are overwhelming to campus-transportation departments. Campus transit operates in areas of high residential density, with clearly defined users, and clearly defined needs. Universities can make efficient routes because they know where students are going and why they need to get there. The Vex’s clockwork dependability ultimately creates loyal users who opt to take transit over less sustainable options, like driving alone.
That isn’t to say that campus transit couldn’t do more to optimize efficiency and reduce emissions, but the answer to the problem isn’t necessarily to cut service. In February of 2014, Madison’s Metro Transit Authority in Wisconsin released a study to determine if some routes could be optimized by reducing or increasing the size of the bus based on ridership demand. Madison transit planners felt that the public had a strong perception that Metro was operating empty buses and misusing public funds. According to the study, utilizing smaller vehicles on an as-needed basis dispels the perception of the “big empty bus” in addition to reducing fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Residents who live near GW’s Mt. Vernon campus are also allowed to ride the Vex shuttle. According to the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT), the Vex is a successful transportation demand management program that significantly lowers solo driving trips that the DC street grid couldn’t handle. DDOT encouraged GW to further its sustainability efforts by using buses that run on sustainable energy and are equipped with bike racks, the latter of which was implemented this summer.
Understanding ridership trends and deploying smaller vehicles in off-peak times might make me feel less lonely the next time I find myself taking the Vex, but no matter what, I’m thankful for the university’s investment in dependable and accessible transit.
Photo of Georgetown University shuttle bus in Rosslyn by 7beachbum/Flickr.