UC Irvine Taking Sustainability Education to New Heights

Parking and transportation woven into common fabric to make the campus as eco-friendly as possible

If you stood on the University of California, Irvine (UCI) campus and only looked up at the sky, you might be tempted to think Mother Nature continues to smile upon Southern California, casting her storied sun rays down gently upon this land like a warm net meant to entice yet more people to the area. And if you had seen that sky when UCI was established in 1965, you would marvel at how now-clear blue has largely replaced the smog-brown blanket that used to lay every day over this rolling landscape.

But as you adjust your gaze to follow those rays down from the sky to the ground and look beyond this coastal campus, your heart sinks when you discover that the old brown blanket simply changed places and got baked hard into the Southland’s grassy hills parched by years of drought. Almost seems like whatever maternal instincts we used to project onto Nature were nothing but mirages in a desert fighting to reclaim itself from human habitation.

Turns out Earth, which we once assumed to be infinitely tolerant, has ways of ridding itself of irritants like us. So, we find ourselves struggling to figure out if we can be friendly partners with our increasingly fragile ecosystem or if we have instead become like fleas this planet is furiously scratching at with limbs and claws we never knew she had.

Committed to Sustainability

It’s a struggle Ramon Zavala, Lynn Harris, and their UCI Transportation and Distribution Services colleagues take personally. Eco-awareness had been building among the university’s 54,600+ educators, staff and students even before the department applied to Best Workplaces for Commuters (BWC), said Zavala, sustainable transportation supervisor.

Academically, UCI has integrated sustainability into its curriculum across a number of disciplines, said Zavala, as well as being part of the university’s operational fabric. “It’s become so important since I was an undergrad, it’s stunning. It’s the standard here,” he said.

Zavala credited UCI’s administration for setting the right tone and hiring employees who care. “Some other universities just try to stay afloat — parking comes first, transportation comes second,” he observed. “But when you make sustainability a top priority and see yourself as a global citizen rather than just one entity, a single campus, it really changes how you work.”

California has tackled its environmental challenges with a variety of tools over the decades, including leading-edge legislation, aggressive regulation and culture-changing education. The California Air Resources Board and its regional regulatory enforcement districts (UCI is within the jurisdiction of the South Coast Air Quality Management District — aka the SCAQMD) long ago targeted multiple sources of air pollution with controversial strategies that included enlisting employers in the fight against mobile sources by requiring employee transportation programs to reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles on the road. In 2005, the state legislature passed, and the governor signed, Assembly Bill 32 to reduce emissions down to 1990 levels.

As a major employer, the University of California — which has 10 campuses and a total of approximately 238,700 students and 198,300 employees — must comply with all applicable environmental laws and regulations, including reducing its emissions. But Zavala said UCI in particular sees its sustainability efforts as more than simply meeting the letter of the law. In fact, the University of California’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative commits to making the entire system carbon neutral by 2025 — the first major university to do so.

Zavala explained that the university combines its obligations as an employer with its role as an institution of higher learning to proactively educate its stakeholders about sustainability, even serving as a guide and example for other campuses. That philosophy helped drive UCI’s pursuit of BWC recognition.

“We’re not just educating ourselves, but always educating others,” he said. “It’s the UC way and part of our mission. So, when we do things well and earn recognition — such as from BWC — it helps us show other campuses they can do it, too. Our information sharing extends to other universities or even non-academic institutions, like cities, as well. Our overall is goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so by spotlighting our best practices we help others learn.”

Zavala explained that BWC recognition brings a dual benefit: It validates Sustainable Transportation’s work by spotlighting the team’s successes, and it starts conversations when other campuses and other employers see what UCI is doing to manage its transportation demand.

UCI has received so much recognition over the past two decades for its sustainable transportation programs, listing all the awards takes a whole page on the Transportation and Distribution Services website.

Zavala, who grew up in California’s Inland Empire region, said he has seen a genuine air quality change since he started in college in 2005. “Regulation does work,” he said, “but there is no low-hanging fruit anymore for reducing emissions.”

Plentiful Mobility Choices

That’s one of the reasons UCI uses a comprehensive, multimodal transportation strategy to ensure that students, faculty and staff have a full range of sustainable mobility options available in order to minimize the total number of vehicle trips made to and within the campus.

  • In addition to promoting walking and bicycling, UCI offers online carpool/vanpool ride matching through Zimride; a discount on University Pass membership; permits for occasional parking; and a guaranteed ride home
  • The 20-bus campus shuttle fleet is transitioning from biodiesel to all-electric vehicles over the next year.
  • Subsidized Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA) bus passes, plus Metrolink and Amtrak train ticket rebates, make public transportation an attractive option for getting to campus.
  • Carsharing through Zipcar, and a ZotWheels automated bikesharing program, provide extra connectivity and convenience.
  • Sustainable Transportation staff are always on hand to create personalized transportation plans for students, faculty or staff.
  • Complimentary daily parking permits — earned as an incentive for using alternative modes — enable program participants to park for free on the rare occasion they need to drive alone to campus.
  • The UC system’s Sustainable Transportation Policy and Guidelines are readily available online.

In addition to the environmental motivations, UCI depends on its sustainable transportation initiatives to help accommodate rising enrollment. For a growing university that can’t easily expand beyond the borders of its campus, everything is temporarily not a building, explained Zavala. Land is too valuable and scarce to provide unlimited surface parking.

“If you don’t have a sustainable transportation program to reduce parking demand and limit the space devoted to parking, your growth as a university is stymied,” he said.

Zavala and his Sustainable Transportation colleagues get a quantitative snapshot of their progress via an annual survey, mandated by the SCAQMD for all employers of 250 or more employees, which asks employees how they travel to work between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. weekdays. UCI administers the survey during the third week of the spring quarter — and all employees are required to complete it. The survey enables UCI to calculate and report its average vehicle ridership (AVR) in order to comply with SCAQMD regulations. The minimum required AVR is 1.5.

“We blew that [AVR] out of the water at least six years ago,” said Zavala. “Now we’re at 1.96. UCI leads the region for employers of our size or higher.”

He attributes the AVR to not only offering plenty of mobility options, as well as supportive policies and programs like alternative work scheduling and telework, but also to UCI’s land-use decisions. A large amount of on-campus housing for faculty and students reduces the need for vehicle use. Zavala said about 75 percent of the faculty lives on campus, in addition to a large proportion of the students. Their motivation isn’t only to have short commutes, but also to enjoy affordable housing in an area where off-campus home prices and rents are prohibitive for many.

“We really attack the philosophy of commuting on all sides,” Zavala said. “We’re working hard at it and making steady progress. Plus, there’s a generational shift underway: The newer generation tends to not want to own a car or drive alone, preferring alternative travel modes.”

Looking Ahead

UCI’s next big sustainable transportation push will focus on bicycling, said Zavala.

“It’s cheap for the end user, leaves no carbon footprint, promotes good health, and is easy to use for the large cluster of people who live within five miles of campus.”

To facilitate biking, the Sustainable Transportation team went through the entire campus and replaced all the old bike racks with higher density post-and-loop racks — a step which alone increased bicycle use by 50 percent thanks to this visible security improvement.

They also figured out an innovative way to increase the supply of available bikes for those who don’t have easy access to their own: using abandoned bikes.

“If a bike looks abandoned at a rack, we give the owner 72 hours to claim it. If it’s still there after that, we collect it and hold it for 30 to 90 days so people can reclaim and register it. Remaining unclaimed bikes are sold monthly through our ReCycle program to people who need one.”

Zavala’s team also puts a lot of time and energy into education to help cyclists learn how to ride safely around cars — and vehicle drivers to learn their rights and responsibilities around cyclists. UCI also holds two big, two-day events that emphasize bicycling: Ridetoberfest in October and WhimCycle in May. A variety of agency partners — including Metrolink, OCTA, the UCI Police Department, campus shuttle operator, and others — participate in the events to offer their own tips that help defeat the hesitation some people feel about bicycling. The education includes sessions on how to use the bike rack on the front of a bus, how to prevent bikes from being stolen, how to make basic bike repairs, minimizing bike vs. vehicle road conflicts, and more.

Zavala said his team “bribes” people to participate in the bike education by offering them nine different raffle drawings with various prize packages at stake — each of which contains a bundle of equipment around a particular theme, including security, cargo, visibility, and others.

Participants have to show they learned something during one of the education sessions to get a raffle ticket. The more they learn, the more raffle tickets they get. Following the events, Zavala’s team sends hundreds of participants a detailed follow-up survey, which asks some demographic questions as well as inquiring about what actions each participant plans to take as a result of the bike education, such as riding more often or improving their bike-locking habits.

The ZotWheels automated bikesharing program, installed six years ago, is also being improved and expanded, said Zavala. The program will go from four stations to 15, offering 100 bikes. And the bike itself will be redesigned to make it lighter and more user-friendly.

In addition to all the bicycling growth, Zavala said he believes “transit is ready to explode — and we’re ready to jump on it, but we have to work within the environment of the county.”

He said OCTA has reduced service in the south part of Orange County and enhanced it in the northern portion. Since UCI is located in middle, Zavala’s team has worked closely with OCTA to advocate for keeping a route that had been slated for elimination, while negotiating the merger of two other routes to expand the system’s reach. Also, conversations are ongoing with OCTA about creating a possible feeder route to the rail station on weekends to help students visit their families in outlying areas via Metrolink or Amtrak.

“It’s an example of transit awareness on the part of our riders, and of the strong partnership we have with OCTA, which enables us to talk about issues and find a resolution to issues,” Zavala said.

Through its many initiatives, UCI has taken a no-holds-barred approach to environmental responsibility. And, while the university obviously can’t control the weather, end the drought or single-handedly roll back the effects of climate change, it’s philosophy and innovative strategies show other campuses and employers what’s possible in sustainable transportation.