Wheels of Fortune
Whether they drive it, bus it or bike it to their campus, Big Ten students are exposed to harmful pollutants that muddy the skies.
By Chris Jackett, Kristin V. Johnson and Katelyn Patterson
Many Big Ten students, faculty and staff rely on cars and buses to get to and around campus. But these forms of transportation are big-time polluters, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population, but is responsible for emitting almost a quarter of the automotive carbon dioxide that pollutes the atmosphere. Americans drive more SUVs than any other culture, and according to Britain’s Environmental Defense, the gas guzzlers emit the same amount of CO2 as 55 large coal power plants. With thousands of cars concentrated on each Big Ten campus, this pollution is felt by the students and the environment alike.
Diesel buses are also a popular way to get around campus. While mass transit might be a friendlier option for the atmosphere, diesel bus exhaust is one of the largest sources of fine particulate matter, which is responsible for 15,000 premature deaths each year, according to the EPA. Buses are also known to contribute to acid rain, climate change and haze.
Clearly, campus transportation has environmental and health impacts.
Big Ten universities have been growing for decades, adding new colleges, housing units and sports facilities. But some schools have grown so much that their green spaces are densely packed with parking lots and structures.
College enrollment has grown by more than 25 percent nationwide since 1990, according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics. With the growing importance of a college degree, administrators are scrambling to find room to accommodate students while continuing to improve their schools. The easiest option for many universities has been to turn undeveloped land — everything from potential grass fields to dirt patches — into something of direct use to hold more students.
Parking lots and structures are two forms of that increased land use on college campuses.
Ohio State University has about 41,000 spaces for its 52,000 students, accounting for about 79 percent of the student population.
Other universities, such as Illinois and Purdue, are nowhere near providing enough parking spots for their student bodies. Illinois had only 2,700 spots for 42,000 students, whereas Purdue offered about 3,500 spaces for nearly 39,000 students. This covered a little more than 6 and 9 percent of their respective populations.
The rest of the Big Ten, however, shared similar numbers and ratios in terms of parking spaces per students enrolled. Indiana University, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin each offered between 18,000 to 23,000 spaces for their student bodies, which range from 38,000 to 50,000 students. Between 40 to 58 percent of the university population had a place to park
Data on parking spaces were unavailable for the University of Iowa, Northwestern University and Penn State University.
Despite the convenience of parking outside a class or residence, parking availability may lead to overall congestion on Big Ten campuses.
While Purdue and Illinois offered fewer parking spaces than the other universities, they were able to maintain 1.49 to 1.85 parking spaces per acre.
In comparison, OSU and Wisconsin each had between 23 to 25 spaces per acre, making for a much more congested environment. The remaining four schools in the Big Ten were more moderate with, 3.6 to 9.3 spaces per acre, with Indiana on the high end and MSU on the low end.
So many vehicles in such small areas have the potential to cause a detrimental effect on the environment and public health via air pollution and chemical residue.
Bus systems at Big Ten universities vary from transportation offered by the university to privately owned bus fleets. Many universities contract with local bus companies, some of which are raising the standards of environmentally friendly buses by adapting alternative fuel types.
Typically, it is the schools that contract with private companies that have the most progressive environmental policies within their bus systems.
Adding buses that run on alternative energy sources appears to be a trend at Big Ten universities. The Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA), a private company that operates at Michigan State University and in the surrounding community, added three hybrid electric vehicles into its fleet in 2006. CATA was the first bus company in Michigan to adopt hybrid buses. The company uses ultra-low sulfur fuel to reduce emissions by more than 20 percent from regular diesel. Natural gas burns cleaner than diesel, and most of the gas that CATA uses is produced locally.
Penn State also uses a local bus system with the acronym CATA. The Centre Area Transportation Authority started using compressed natural gas (CNG) in its buses in 1993, and today every bus in the CATA fleet runs on CNG.
Purdue University uses the services of CityBus, a local bus system run by the Greater Lafayette Public Transportation Corporation. Of the 67 buses in the fleet, two run on hybrid diesel-electric fuel.
Indiana University has its own campus bus system and uses Bloomington Transit, a private company operated in Bloomington, Ind. The company recently added two hybrid electric buses to its fleet.
Other universities in the Big Ten, including Northwestern, UW-Madison, Ohio State and the universities of Michigan and Iowa, have bus systems that are free to students.
Schools with free bus services tend not to boast about progress with the fuels their buses use. One exception is Ohio State University, which uses buses that run entirely on B20 bio-diesel. And the university is trying out other methods, too.
“We have also recently presented an ‘idling guideline’ for approval and campus-wide adoption to attempt to reduce the time vehicles spend idling and wasting fuel,” said Sarah Blouch, director of OSU transportation and parking services.
A tour through any Big Ten campus will show biking is popular. But unlike a car, registering a bike is not required on many campuses.
University authorities acknowledge many students, faculty and staff bike to and from campus, but the exact number is unknown.