It wasnt that long ago that entering students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were told that their town had more cars per capita than anywhere in the United States. Was it true or speculation? Well, no one can fail to notice theres no shortage of rolling stock in the congested Southern Part of Heaven.
But N&O Road Worrier Bruce Siceloff says theres good news on the traffic front. National highway data show that American drivers ages 16 to 34 cut their annual driving miles by 23 percent from 2001 to 2009. And in Chapel Hill, 18 percent of students drive alone to campus, compared with 30 percent in 1997.
A big reason for the decreases, Siceloff reports, is free regional bus service around the Triangle, with students having passes. GoPass users make up more than 35 percent of all the ridership on Triangle Transit.
Chapel Hill reaped clear benefits after Chapel Hill Transit eliminated fares for all riders in 2002, leading to a 42 percent increase in local bus traffic in one year.
More bus transit also leads to environmental benefits, with reductions in pollution, and goodness knows such transit can be cheaper for cost-conscious students than firing up their cars at $3.35 or so a gallon.
Plato is credited by many with the phrase, Necessity is the mother of invention, but to borrow from the philosopher (who never drove a car), in Chapel Hill, the invention of more buildings where parking lots used to be made a necessity of alternative transit.
The town with a growing university in need of places for professors to do their research and teach students was finding it had less and less room for parking lots. And in the quaint neighborhoods surrounding the campus, there are and should be strict rules to prevent residential streets from becoming campus lots.
So when students or downtown workers or visitors have a tough time finding a place to park their wheels for longer periods of time, a bus to take them to the precise destination theyre seeking begins to look pretty good.
Visitors to Chapel Hill can tell a difference. There are paid lots, if virtually no free places to park, but it does feel these days as if parking isnt the onerous burden it used to be.
Duke and N.C. State also provide campus bus service. And they have vehicle-sharing programs that make it more attractive for students who once wouldnt have wanted to be separated from their cars to make the break without suffering withdrawal.
NCSU believes changes in roads (gates on Dan Allen Drive, for one) have improved the interior of the main campus. But State has a problem in making too many drastic changes, as it has a lot of students who dont live on campus and a Centennial Campus some distance from home base.
The university does have park-and-ride lots at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Its impossible to predict, of course, what effect a Triangle regional rail system might have on car traffic on campuses, but it most certainly would be a positive effect, if only Republican Wake County commissioners would get off the dime and allow their constituents to vote on a transit tax to cooperate with Orange and Durham counties.
It certainly appears that, the politics aside, this regional home to multiple universities is undergoing a sort of cultural change when it comes to transportation, with students leading the way. Let us hope the rest of us, including politicians, will be wise enough to follow.