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Metro Rail program helped UB be more eco-friendly

A gentleman waiting for the arriving metro

The study found that more than 100 parking spaces at UB sat empty every weekday as a result of members of the university community riding the Metro Rail instead of driving to campus. Photo: Douglas Levere

Published July 10, 2014

“Free Metro Rail use led people to make healthier, more environmentally friendly decisions that improved the quality of life in the city of Buffalo and its surrounding regions.”
Daniel Hess, associate professor
Department of Urban and Regional Planning

Reducing one’s carbon footprint. Becoming comfortable with public transit. Exploring Buffalo.

Those are some of the findings of a study led by UB faculty member Daniel B. Hess that examined a pilot program that offered Metro Rail use to some UB students, faculty and staff for 20 months in 2011 and 2012.

A partnership funded by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) and UB, the program provided participants free and unlimited use of the 6.2-mile Metro Rail system, which includes stops at the university’s South and Downtown campuses.

To qualify for the program, participants had to demonstrate a UB-related need to travel between campuses or they had to live within three-quarters of a mile of a Metro Rail station.

The study, “Connections Beyond Campus,” was funded by the University Transportation Research Center at the City College of New York and prepared in partnership with the UB Regional Institute. Co-authors include Paul Ray, research assistant professor, and Nathan Attard, an urban planning student and research assistant.

It states that 3,123 UB community members participated in the program. Of those, 2,813 were students. The remaining 310 were faculty and staff. The UB research team surveyed the participants, of which 708 responded.

“Our analysis revealed some expected, as well as some unexpected, results,” says Hess, associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, School of Architecture and Planning.

Perhaps most surprising is that slightly more than 10 percent of the respondents — 72 people — indicated they ceased owning a vehicle during the program. In doing so, they saved money by not having to pay for vehicle maintenance, insurance and other costs. This led to roughly $640,000 in combined annual savings for those participants, the study states.

Among the study’s other findings:

  • 25 percent of the respondents stated they did not own a vehicle and delayed purchasing a vehicle.
  • 61 percent reported they walked and bicycled more.
  • 69 percent used Metro Rail to visit new places in and around Buffalo.
  • At least 108 parking spaces at UB sat empty every weekday as a result of participants riding the Metro Rail.

“The findings are significant because they show how a transportation program affects human behavior. In this case, free Metro Rail use led people to make healthier, more environmentally friendly decisions that improved the quality of life in the city of Buffalo and its surrounding regions,” Hess says.

Most respondents, 87 percent, indicated they rode the Metro Rail at least occasionally prior to the pilot program. Of those who rode the transit system, 13 percent purchased monthly NFTA passes. Also, 42 percent of Metro Rail users did not have access to a vehicle.

Monthly NFTA Metro passes, which include access to the agency’s bus system, cost $75. However, the pilot program included only the Metro Rail system.

UB paid NFTA $10 per person per semester for the student passes and $30 per person per year for the faculty and staff passes — a total of $70,990 for the 20-month program. This figure was provided by UB’s Parking and Transportation Services and is based on the fixed pass cost the university paid to the NFTA.

UB also cut service in half on the Blue Line, a bus route the university runs between its South and Downtown campuses parallel to the Metro Rail route. This resulted in $133,333 in savings. All told, UB realized a net savings of $62,343, the study says.

Estimating the NFTA’s costs are not as easy. The authority utilizes a “barrier-free fare collection” system for Metro Rail and does not have mechanisms in place, such as turnstiles or swipe cards, to track individual participants. The researchers estimate the program cost NFTA between $101,000 and $361,000 in foregone revenue.

Participating students, faculty and staff, meanwhile, saved an average of $240 and $223 per semester, respectively, in pass and fare payments they otherwise would have paid to the NFTA. For students, the savings could help pay for their education, the study states.

Ultimately, the study’s authors recommend that UB and the NFTA resurrect the program, and offered several options to make it affordable and more equitable. Among them:

  • Canceling UB’s Blue Line, which would save the university about $160,000 annually. This money, the study states, could be applied to the program.
  • Charging UB students, faculty and staff per semester for a Metro Rail pass. Determining a cost that works for UB and NFTA may be the most difficult part of the process, the study states.