Located on steep hills interrupted by a river, Oregon Health & Science University is a kind of American Shangri La, accessible by only two main roads. So if everybody drove alone to the campus, no one would get there.
To avoid traffic jams, OHSU had to get creative with transportation, including an aerial tram, free shuttles every 10 minutes to half hour, multiple bridges, copious bicycle and walking paths and bridges, and even kayaking.
The campus also limits parking to 7,700 spots: 4,400 for employees and students and the rest for patients. You won’t see many cars circling around looking for one of those spots, though. Only 38 percent of employees drive solo to the two main campuses, according to OHSU’s Transportation Demand Management Plan.
Ads for transit don’t need to be sexy, according to John Landolfe, transportation options coordinator for OHSU. What really helps people is information about the available options. Since everyone needs to get around and avoid those traffic jams, a hard sell is unnecessary.
“On day one, before day one if possible,” is the best time to inform new employees and students about transit options, Landolfe told me. It is critical to do so before they form commuting habits. Once these are set, it’s challenging to “convince people to change what they do every single morning of their career.” OHSU therefore sets up a 30-minute orientation for new employees and students, along with their other publicity.
A page from OHSU’s transportation brochure.
Although he has a creative writing minor, Landolfe believes in sticking to the plain facts when helping people determine their commutes using OHSU’s website, which “is actually often pretty dry,” he said. “That’s by design.” He added that “when folks are trying to trip plan, they want to get their facts as quickly as possible and as orderly as possible.”
Sparse but useful facts, complemented by a few basic pictures and graphics tightly tied to the text, are the principle behind OHSU transit brochures and web pages. A presentation by Landolfe and Mobility Lab’s Paul Mackie at the 2018 ACT Conference shows how effective the right pictures can be, pointing out that photos of places people actually use beat stock photos any day.
It’s important to think “from the commuter’s perspective” when designing these materials, Landolfe said. “If I opened up my phone, what would I want to see?” To that end, OSHU makes available a number of trip planning tools for transit, aerial tram, bikes, car sharing, and even walking. The key is making just the right information easily available for just the right user.
While advertisements on the Internet can be easily ignored, internal and staff meetings are a key avenue OHSU’s transportation team uses to inform employees and students about transportation options. This ensures that communication is credible and trusted. Landolfe also emphasized that communication is a two-way street, that actually listening to staff and students is critical to getting transit right.
Responding to such communication, OHSU has added earlier and later shuttles, as well as the Lyft Off program to provide ride-hailing for those off-peak commuters who might otherwise be stranded.
Popular programs at OHSU include a bike valet, making bicycle use easy. Of course, the aerial tram is crucial, bypassing all kinds of obstacles and providing a gorgeous view.
But besides making sustainable commutes easy, OHSU makes unsustainable, costly commutes harder.
To discourage car trips, OHSU charges $15 daily for parking. Free parking, Landolfe pointed out, too often hides major expenses. OHSU does have numerous parking plans, including a monthly pass, but would like to evolve toward a daily plan only, removing the incentive to rely on an automobile every day.
When pricing transportation options, the cheapest thing should be the one that contributes least to vehicular congestion and vehicle miles traveled. This way, people are incentivized to walk, bike, carpool, and use buses and light rail.
Landolfe hopes to add electric bikeshare, critical for those less fit in hilly conditions. OSHU is also curious about water taxis to take advantage of the Willamette River. And of course, telecommuting takes bodies off the streets and pathways. Landolfe points out cultural barriers: much of America still assumes that work is best done with employees clustered at the same place every day. Still, that is changing.
Through imagination, communication, and a range of policies, OHSU has turned its geographical position on top of a mountain from a problem to a strength. Perhaps it is pioneering the America of the future, with diverse, healthy transportation options.
Photo of the aerial tram at OHSU by David Wilson on Creative Commons.