Jeff Monson, Executive Director for Commute Options, has a vision for Oregon State University's soon to be expanded Cascades Campus: A student approaches campus from a winding trail, hops off her bicycle and locks it up at a covered rack. She is joined by classmates who have walked from their dorms or neighborhood apartments, and by friends who have sauntered over from the nearby transit terminal, and even others who pour out of a car share. Yes, it is a 21st century commuters' dream.
But, that vision has a steep hill to climb before it becomes a reality. With the college preparing to welcome its first four-year students in 2015, and ultimately hoping to attract some 5,000 undergrads by 2025, the influx of people—and their cars and bikes—is a pressing concern. Initial blueprints for the westside campus provide the concerning estimate that there will be on-campus housing available for less than 10 percent of the student population. That surprisingly low number is sounding the alarm bells that the influx of students will jam traffic corridors, especially given that students are likely to be pushed to the Bend's east side to find affordable housing, and that the current state of mass transit leaves them with few options but car commuting.
But along with the eight-member transportation task force of the Campus Expansion Advisory Committee, Monson is exploring ways to make sure that this potential traffic crunch doesn't happen.
"We've got to get students and staff out of their cars," Monson urges. "Rather than putting money into street infrastructure, we need to put it into alternatives."
Some of these alternatives, Monson points out, are low-cost and make use of existing resources, like encouraging students to walk and bike, and reserving the best parking spots to those who carpool.
But, Monson acknowledges, the elephant in the room is the region's bus system, which currently does not have the capacity or frequency to shoulder the responsibility of moving students around town.
In a recent OSU-Cascades report, the university estimated that approximately 300 students will live on campus—a fraction less than 10 percent of the campus' full population. Those low numbers have inspired renewed discussions about the possibility—and potential benefits—of housing a larger number of students on campus.
"What we are currently discussing is creating a campus environment where more students live on campus," says Matt Shinderman, a natural resources professor and member of the task force. "Where upperclass students in particular want to live on campus," he adds. One of the obvious benefits of a higher percentage of students living on campus is the lighter burden on transit systems. But, if thousands of students are forced to find housing elsewhere—likely on the less spendy east side of town—expanding the currently middling bus system will be critical for avoiding commuter student traffic gridlock. The current system—which stops running at 6 pm and has waits as long as 40 minutes—gives few incentives for riders to ditch their cars.
"I think we need something like a mini bus station where three lines are coming in all at the same time, from Redmond, South Bend, North Bend," Monson says. "Maybe even free for students."
Both Oregon State University in Corvallis and University of Oregon in Eugene work with their respective city's transit systems to offer free rides on public transportation with a student or staff identification card. The cost of the transit pass is included in student fees. But as Bend's meager routes stand now, there's not much incentive for student riding.
"I really think we need good quality frequent transit to make this work," Monson adds. "It is going to be expensive and require some planning, no doubt."