November 3, 2008
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Learning Green, Living Green
By LESLIE A. BUCHER, for Passenger Transport
The issue of climate change continues to permeate people’s thinking—and actions. Ads stress anything “green”; people are driving less; and the environmental imperatives of reducing greenhouse gases and developing alternative energy sources figure prominently on every political agenda —all trends that bode well for public transportation as the industry looks to the ingenuity of human resources to solve the pressing need for expanded, yet sustainable, system capacity.
Universities across the U.S. are also responding to this environmentally evolutionary way of thinking and acting. Every month, the Association of Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) reports scores of new campus initiatives to promote public transportation, switch to alternative fuel sources, conserve energy, and build greener buildings. For the first time ever, the 2009 edition of the Kaplan College Guide highlights the 10 hottest green careers—including Transportation Systems Planning—to help save the planet.
Also, more and more universities are embracing a multi-disciplinary approach to learning to provide students the myriad skills
they need to obviate today’s complex challenges of climate change, fossil fuel shortages, and spiraling energy costs.
Public transit agencies are teaming up with campus leaders to provide free or low-cost transportation for students, faculty, and staff. For example, the University of South Florida in Tampa, in partnership with Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART), offers free U-Pass transit to university students along with 25-cent fares to faculty and staff; the Sustainable Transportation program of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Environmental Center operates bike and bus pass programs and has developed partnerships with private and public community entities including Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD); and San Jose State University’s pass programs enable students, staff, and faculty to enjoy unlimited rides on all Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) bus and light rail routes.
These and other similar efforts not only reduce automobile dependency, carbon emissions, and congestion; they also engender an appreciation of the advantages and efficiencies of public transit.
“Transportation is a major focus of many campus sustainability initiatives, from car-share and U-Pass programs to campus hybrid and electric vehicles,” said AASHE Acting Executive Director Judy Walton, Ph.D. “It's a very visible and tangible place to begin practicing sustainability. Transportation initiatives drive home many of the sustainability concepts students learn in the classroom—from life-cycle costing to resource efficiency and long-range planning. These initiatives also enhance demand for public transportation and bicycle access.”
Another way higher education can promote green issues is through new forms of graduate study that incorporate new multi-disciplinary approaches into traditional master’s degree programs. A prime example of this new green approach is the University of Maryland’s Masters in Real Estate Development (MRED), established in 2006.
Based in the university’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, the MRED stresses a comprehensive and collaborative approach to real estate development that goes far beyond the traditional finance emphasis to cover the broad spectrum of issues involved in designing and developing communities. Its topics range from public-private partnerships that support mixed-use transit-oriented development and affordable housing to energy efficiency for structures and communities and adaptive reuse of older buildings.
“Our first graduates represent a new generation of professionals with a different way of thinking about development,” said Margaret McFarland, director of the program. “They hit the street at a moment of great opportunity—just as the private sector is beginning to embrace the imperatives of sustainable development and the financial markets have revealed their limits in the current credit crunch.”
Since 2000, George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, VA, has offered graduate programs in Transportation Policy, Operations and Logistics (TPOL), an interdisciplinary curriculum designed to educate the next generation of transportation leaders and professionals. U.S. News and World Report recently named GMU the top up-and-coming national university.
“The transportation education and training establishment is faced with a huge challenge as the industry prepares for a major turnover in its workforce,” explained Jonathan L. Gifford, GMU professor and associate dean for research and director of TPOL. “Not only does the industry face a wave of retirements with the aging of the baby boom, it also faces a major restructuring of its workforce requirements. We have deployed many major new systems in the last half century that are now in need of renewal. System operations and management have taken on an importance equal to or greater than design and construction.”
Begun as a partnership with Virginia DOT, TPOL has received high praise from U.S. DOT, both for providing an avenue for those seeking to enter the transportation industry and for enabling industry professionals to broaden their skill sets and position themselves for moving into leadership positions.
TPOL is designed for students and for practicing professionals engaged in transportation planning, regulation, management, and operations. The program provides a working knowledge of the theory, policy, law, research, and practices required to effectively and efficiently supply and operate transportation facilities and services.
According to Gifford, TPOL recently entered a partnership with the Senior Leadership Development Program at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), and a group of WMATA employees joined the program this fall.
Perhaps one of the largest servings of campus “green” can be found at the nation’s first college of sustainability. Established in 2007, the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University seeks to develop solutions to environmental challenges plaguing most of the world’s urban areas—including rapid urbanization, population growth, shrinking water supply, and the need for renewable energy—and prides itself on a transdisciplinary approach to teaching.
“At ASU, we’ve basically taken top faculty from all over the university to develop the curriculum, co-teach the core courses, and offer a wide spectrum of electives,” explained Dr. Aaron Golub, an assistant professor in the School of Planning and the School of Sustainability. “The civil engineer needs to understand psychology or the ecologist needs to understand anthropology. The problems are changing, and so is education. These mixed approaches are clear breaks from the past.”
He reported an increased interest in transportation-related graduate electives as well as transit-oriented thesis work, including such issues as light rail ridership and impacts, public transit financing, sprawl, and transit-oriented development planning.
Golub also noted the importance of public transportation as an essential option as well a matter of equity. “Not everyone owns a vehicle or is of age or able to drive,” he said. “In most cities, a good 25 percent or more of the population can’t drive. Limiting transit options is saying to this population, ‘Sorry, your mobility doesn’t matter.’ This will become even more important as the tens of millions of 60-year-olds become 70- and 80-year-olds over the coming decades. We need to prepare for this now.”
By continuing to develop and provide an impressive array of innovative, interdisciplinary programs, universities and colleges are ensuring today’s students will graduate with the skills needed to provide sustainable solutions for the challenges facing transportation and mobility.
Perhaps GMU’s Gifford said it best: “As the ad jingle says, human energy is our most valuable renewable resource. The enthusiasm of each new class of students in our program for tackling the most difficult problems and changing the world never ceases to amaze and inspire me. Our transportation system does face some serious challenges, but those challenges create conditions that allow new pathways and new technologies to emerge. It's the way each new generation of transportation systems has come into being, and it's the next generation of transportation professionals that will usher in new systems to address these current and future problems.”
Passenger Transport invites readers to send other relevant examples of green education initiatives to feature in future issues, as this subject becomes even more important in coming years.