St. Paul Smart Trips Educates Colleges on Use of Cars

Ask urban homeowners what they dislike most about living near a college campus and they likely won’t cite noise or partying but parking — especially the inability to park consistently in front of their houses when school is in session.

Macalester College in St. Paul is sensitive enough to the potential town-gown tension that it is running a shuttle for construction workers to a church parking lot a mile and a half south of campus while a new theater facility is being built. Otherwise, says Deanna Seppanen, director of the college’s High Winds Fund, early-rising construction workers would “wipe out” parking in the neighborhood.

With an electric vehicle charging station, a generously subsidized transit program for students, faculty and staff, and national designation as a “bicycle-friendly” campus, Macalester is a leader in sustainability-focused transportation initiatives among Twin Cities colleges and universities.

No surprise, then, that it is among five colleges chosen by St. Paul Smart Trips for a two-year, federally funded program aimed at reducing single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) driving and promoting more environmentally friendly, multi-modal options, such as walking, biking, transit and carpools. The other participants are Augsburg University, Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Saint Paul College and the University of St. Thomas.

“We wanted to work more in-depth with colleges, because there’s this captive audience. It’s one employer, one community,” says Becky Alper, program manager of Smart Trips Workplaces at St. Paul Smart Trips (recently merged with Transit for Livable Communities).

Her priority is to get in front of students, ideally during first-year orientation. “Students are at a point in their lives when they can make a change,” Alper explains. “That’s hard to do once you’ve formed a habit.”

Experiential learning

TDM — or travel demand management — is how Alper describes the $165,000 initiative, whose goal is to “shift travel behavior in the college setting.” She hopes to replicate the success that St. Paul Smart Trips has had at Augsburg in Minneapolis, where the loss of parking due to construction of a new science center has led to a campus-wide restructuring of how its community members commute to work and school.

The Augsburg Transportation Task Force, and its subsequent Transportation Plan, so impressed me that I wrote a paper about it a year ago for a graduate-level course in leadership. “People will continue to do what they’re doing unless something disrupts that,” Beth Reissenweber, co-chair of the task force and Augsburg’s vice president of finance and administration and chief financial officer, told me at the time. “You’ve got to get people rethinking the transit options.”

Among Augsburg’s tactics for achieving that? Transportation coaches, who counsel students, faculty and staff about alternatives to single-occupancy vehicle driving even a day or two a week.

Reissenweber herself switched from SOV driving to riding an express bus most days from Edina. She said she likes the sense of community, the worry-free ride — especially when it rains or snows — and the chance to work uninterrupted. “I get 20 to 30 minutes of quiet time to read,” she explained. “That space did not happen in my office or on the road in my car.”

College campuses generate employment, intellectual stimulation and cultural amenities — but they also encroach on residential neighborhoods, especially in an urban setting. At St. Thomas, where I work in neighborhood relations, students typically move off campus after a year and typically believe that a car, then, is essential.

“You need a car when you move off campus because you have to buy groceries,” a senior student told me recently. Other students say they need cars to get to internships downtown or jobs out in the suburbs.

Small changes, big difference

Research studies claim the millennial generation is driving less. I see no evidence of that on my daily walk to work, where cars, trucks and SUVs are parked in the driveways and on the streets in front of student-rental houses only blocks from class.

Neighbors complain about the confusing array of permit-parking zones in the Merriam Park and Macalester-Groveland neighborhoods of St. Paul, where some 1,500 St. Thomas students live. Some faculty and staff members get to work at 6:30 a.m. to nab the free parking spaces on the streets that border campus.

Alper sees those challenges as opportunities. “St. Thomas is in a position to make some small changes that could make a big impact on issues like parking in the neighborhood and getting more people to bike,” she says.

Among the ideas that St. Paul Smart Trips will present to the university’s Sustainability Task Force this winter are these:

  • Train key staff on transportation options, especially those who work in admissions, human resources and facilities, with a goal to “offer support to incoming students” and new employees.
  • Enhance the Metro Transit training that St. Thomas already conducts for first-year students who may never have ridden a city bus.
  • Encourage the faculty and staff members who live relatively close to campus to bicycle or use mass transit.

“We want to test a number of different approaches at these five colleges,” Alper explains. “Does the same approach hold true at institutions that are so different in terms of student body, size and location? We want to test what we know works in the Midwest, what we’ve seen work at other colleges and apply those techniques here.”

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

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Amy Gage is managing editor of A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging ( and contributes to the Minnesota Women's Press.