Letter: The potential future of carpools at UBC

As one of Canada’s largest university parking operations, UBC Parking and Access Services proudly manages over 8,300 parking spots on the Point Grey campus. Since 1997, the organization has been moving towards sustainable travel and alternative means of transport such as transit, carpool, biking and walking.

The introduction of the U-Pass in 2003 made groundbreaking progress towards the initiative, with transit riderships of 73,000 in 2016, compared to 45,400 in 2003 and 19,000 in 1997. Taking into account the substantial increase in students and staff since 1997, this lead to an impressive 144 per cent increase in transit trips per person.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story; a look at the mode share over 19 years reveals some concerning information. Transit has grown immensely and taken the lead while carpools have decreased significantly, but the percentage of single occupant vehicles (SOV) has remained relatively the same.

Not only does this not meet UBC’s 1997 goal of reducing SOV traffic by 20 per cent, but it comes even after UBC’s reduction of parking stalls by 25 per cent and increase of daily parking prices by eightfold. UBC attributes this failure to unexpected growth in student enrollment, but one thing is clear — cars are here to stay.

Mode Share Comparison for 1997 and 2016, UBC Vancouver Transportation Status Report Fall 2016
Mode Share Comparison for 1997 and 2016, UBC Vancouver Transportation Status Report Fall 2016 UBC / The Ubyssey

In recent years, UBC has started to make a shift back towards encouraging high occupancy vehicle (HOV) traffic by partnering with companies like Car2Go and Modo. However, these rideshare options are geared towards single-time use and are only targeted to students who reside on campus.

Carpools, on the other hand, are a long-term option whose main users are commuters. Requiring little investment for infrastructure and implementation, carpooling serves as a happy medium between SOV trips and public transit, acting as a “gateway to sustainability.”

UBC may have one of the biggest university parking operations in the country, but its carpool program is quite lacking in comparison to other universities, especially in terms of incentives.

Currently, UBC’s website mentions only two primary incentives: transferrable parking passes and an emergency ride home program. These two amenities are universal to basically every other university carpool system in Canada and in the United States. What other universities such as Waterloo, Western and the University of Washington have in common over UBC, other than the letter W, is the availability of designated parking spaces across campus for carpoolers.

A few reserved parking spaces exist at UBC, but they are only limited to members of the Jack Bell carpool program and are located in only one part of the 993-acre campus, according to the Director of UBC Parking. Generally located near the entrances and exits of parking structures, these preferential parking spots provide convenience and reduce the stress of driving up six floors of parking looking for a open spot. And if these designated spots are not in use by a certain time of day, they can become open to the public, ensuring high utilization of available space.

Another way UBC’s carpool program can be improved is with the increase of publicity. A study done in 2005 at the University of Oregon showed that only a small minority of students and staff felt “well informed” about their existing carpool program, with 66 per cent of respondents indicating that they were “not very informed.” Similarly, the UBC website offers little information about the program, and even less is visible on campus. Poster boards in the Student Union Building and large ad spaces in the parkades would be excellent areas for advertisement with high traffic flow and wide target demographics.

UBC should also invest in a better streamlined platform for potential carpoolers to search for others who match their schedule and route. There is no single, overarching system that the majority of carpoolers use, with current platforms including Craigslist, ride-share.com and various small Facebook groups. Many of these options only take the route and schedule into account and leave out the matching of driving habits and social behaviour, which may be important to some people. One option UBC may want to keep an eye on is an app developed by UBC graduates, called Spare Rides. It offers real-time information on the locations of drivers and passengers, similar to Uber, and includes in-app transactions, taking out much of the hassle of carpools. With increased structure in place and ease of access via technology, commuters will be more inclined to look into carpooling as an alternative.

So who should be the primary target? Referring back to the mode share, it is reasonable to assume that the majority of carpoolers switched to public transit after 2003 due to the lower associated costs. These commuters likely live in areas where public transit is accessible and reliable, but a significant amount of SOV drivers likely live in suburban areas like Delta and Coquitlam where transit runs much less frequently. Without the same luxuries, these students must opt to drive even though the cost of a U-Pass may be far cheaper. Even as UBC jacks up the price of parking over the years, these suburban commuters still pay up, simply because there is no reasonable alternative. In other words, the price elasticity of demand is very inelastic for these commuters, and they are prime candidates for carpools.

As a result of the rise of technology and companies like Uber and Airbnb, consumers have become more open to the “sharing economy.” When the right incentives are utilized along with proper regulation and pricing, carpooling will become a more viable option and usage will increase drastically. Thus, while focusing on public transit is important, UBC should also take a closer look at carpooling, which has immense potential to decrease the number of single occupancy vehicles that drive to and from campus every day.

Henry Tang, Christie Mong, Nathan Leung, Zack Zhang and Bryan Ong are second-year students studying economics.