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A Campus on Clean Wheels

Before visiting UC Santa Barbara last week, I knew the campus was committed to implementing a Climate Action Plan geared toward achieving full carbon neutrality by 2050. Being there to witness the steps already being taken was an inspiration, and it wasn't just the solar arrays - planned and in place - that impressed me.

Most of the university's dorms are a mile or more from the central campus, but instead of commuting by car or bus, the majority of students use non-motorized wheels - bikes, skateboards, and scooters - or simply walk.  Admittedly, Santa Barbara's climate is as inviting as the near-campus topography is flat, but I still found myself in awe of the mobility statistics, posted prominently on a "Sustainability" poster outside one of the science buildings. In a population of nearly 22,000 undergraduate and graduate students, cars carry about 7% of commuters and buses transport another 8%.  By contrast, 52% of students rely on bikes and 21% walk.

With awe and some apprehension, I witnessed on-campus rush hour.  Streams of students traced their way along a network of designated bike paths that encircle and, in a few cases, crosscut the campus. Calm, generally considerate, and yet maintaining a brisk pace, the bikers rode in single file until reaching one of the massive parking zones where they would lock up wherever they could find a space amidst the long rows of steel racks.  From there, they set off on foot to class, walking past signs clearly cautioning that bikers who stray from designated bikeways will pay dearly for their misdeeds. One sign proclaimed a minimum fine of $194; another warned of a $120 penalty.  Whether deterred by the strain on their wallets or by civic virtue, almost all bikers seemed to obey this campus rule though scooter riders and skateboarders seem to ride freely into and across the campus.  As I walked along campus sidewalks, the most noticeable sound was the rhythmic thump of skateboard wheels hitting breaks in the pavement.

For faculty, the story's a bit different. 57% of them arrive solo, by car; 13% carpool; 14% bike; 4% bus; and 7% telecommute.

Even within the student population, some interesting sub-generational differences emerge. While the percentage of bike commuters is notably higher for undergrads (54%) than grad students (46%), and many more undergrads walk (23% compared to 9% of grad students), there's another striking difference: 9% of undergrads commute on stakeboards whereas no grad students do so. This is most likely a function of commuting distance: the mean commute for undergrads is just over 2 miles; for grad students it's nearly 8 miles. Then again, I couldn't help wondering whether the skateboard gap - to some degree at least - reflects a lifestyle shift from a slightly older to a slightly younger age cohort.

From the perspective of trimming UCSB's carbon footprint, the toughest transportation hurdle seems not to be what happens on the ground, but what happens in the air -- when faculty fly to conferences and university administrators travel to business meetings and outreach events. As the Climate Action Plan notes, "business air travel accounts for 30% of UCSB's total emissions, making it the largest source of emissions for the University."  The Action Plan recommends upgrading teleconferencing tools and facilities, setting an air travel mileage cap for each department, and requiring departments that exceed their caps to purchase carbon offsets -- all with the goal of achieving a 5% reduction in air travel-generated carbon emissions by 2020.

As I sat in my motel room reading these provisions, I had to wonder about my own carbon sins as I've traveled the country talking up the need for a fundamental shift toward sustainable energy policies and practices. The transition may be necessary, but it won't be easy.