October 23, 2018 - From the October, 2018 issue

USC Offers Portfolio of Mobility Options for Students, Faculty, & Staff

With more than 60,000 faculty, students, and staff traveling in and out of its halls, the University of Southern California is its own humming sub-economy in the heart of Los Angeles. On top of a development portfolio spanning medical, residential, and retail—including the $700 million USC Village—the university also operates a private transportation operation between its many busy satellite campuses. In this  interview, USC Director of Transportation Tony Mazza and Assistant Director Shawn Chavira shed light on USC’s investments in new mobility options, like e-scooters, car-sharing, and Lyft, and how the university’s services remain competitive with Metro’s when it comes to getting to, from, and around Los Angeles.

Tony Mazza

"USC Transportation is about exploring the mobility options that are coming to fruition—like rideshare, scooters, or expanded public transportation—in and around the university." —Tony Mazza

Tony, you serve as Director of Transportation for USC—a university just miles from Downtown Los Angeles and more populous than some small cities, with more than 60,000 faculty, staff, and students. Share your university’s mission and approach to offering mobility options.

Tony Mazza: My department is responsible for all transit and parking options at the university for faculty, staff, students, and campus guests. In my view, the opportunities are in the new mobility options that are emerging—such as rideshare, scooters, or expanded public transportation—in and around the university.

We’ve seen a major shift in the millennial generation in that fewer and fewer students are bringing their cars to campus. More students than ever are depending on rideshare services, public transportation, carpooling, and vanpooling. As a result, we are taking a harder look at where we invest our money long-term. We’re less interested in building new parking structures, for example, than we are in making sure our existing facilities can meet the changing needs of our constituents. As technologies continue to evolve, we are always exploring new options to stay ahead of the changes.

One way we’ve done that in our existing parking structures relates to electric vehicles. As the campus community has increasingly adopted EV technology, we’ve had to upgrade our infrastructure to meet that new demand. Over the last few years, we’ve added 125 EV charging ports to our structures, and we continue to explore ways to add more.

Bicycles are also a huge part of the way students travel around the university. There have been some challenges to developing a comprehensive, robust bike plan, but we’re working on it.

Your responsibilities extend beyond the main campus, to the LAC+USC Medical Center and the new University Village—two of LA’s largest new developments. How do you approach assessing demand and offering managed mobility to USC’s expansive operations and diverse users?

Tony Mazza: We provide a critical transit link between the University Park Campus (UPC), Union Station, and the Health Sciences Campus (HSC) for people who take public transportation. As the neighborhoods surrounding both campuses develop further, including the University Village, we will more heavily invest in mobility options around and between campuses.

In fact, we’ve just completed a traffic demand and feasibility study to develop a surface parking lot at the Health Sciences Campus in Boyle Heights. The study indicated that by 2020, parking demand will significantly exceed supply. The hospital will have grown tremendously, a new hotel will be open, and a new student housing project will be completed. The hospital alone is growing at a net rate of about 50 employees per month, and the new development projects will bring a whole new group of people to campus who need places to park. The challenges facing HSC are very different than those facing UPC.

We also serve both campuses with our dial-a-ride service, Campus Cruiser, which has been around for 40 years and now includes the Safe Ride program, which provides late-night service through a partnership with Lyft. That program provides about 35,000 free rides per week within about a mile radius of the UPC campus. It’s an incredibly successful program that keeps students safe in and around our community. 

This year, USC announced a partnership with the car rental service Maven, a subsidiary of GM. Elaborate on why USC contracted with that service.  

Tony Mazza: USC has had carsharing on campus for many years. It’s a great alternative for students who don’t have a car or who don’t want all the related expenses of owning one.

For the past 10 years, USC’s partner in carsharing has been Zipcar. While that relationship was beneficial, I felt it was time to see what additional services might improve the student experience, and after a competitive process, we wound up partnering with Maven.

Maven has been a great partner to us for the past year. They provide a lot more amenities for a lower hourly rate. For example, all the cars they put on our campus are the highest trim level for their make and model. Every car is equipped with CarPlay and Sirius XM radio, and allows up to seven people connect to inboard WiFi. They also offer a large variety of vehicles, including pick-up trucks and SUVs.

GM takes great care of students through the Maven program with the hope that once they rent a vehicles for an hour or two, they will become customers for life. Maven typically experiences between 500-600 reservations per month, so it’s been great business for them as well.

There must be scores of mobility providers constantly coming to USC with proposals for new mobility options—electric vehicles, scooters, and the like. What services draw your attention? How do you evaluate these new opportunities?

Tony Mazza: We get solicited all the time. Years ago, the focus was on various dockless bike-share systems, but we haven’t been approached by them in a while. That’s also true of docked bikeshare programs, but I don’t envision our students overwhelming the Metro bikeshare stations around our campus, despite the MyFig project that opened last August.

Recently, there have been more conversations on the electric scooter-sharing front. Because USC is private property, our approach has been to confiscate any of these scooters left on campus; this actually aligns with their own user agreements about not leaving scooters on private property. We’ve taken the same strong position with Bird, Lime, and other scooter-sharing companies because I feel they just contribute to clutter on campus and create safety hazards.

Having said that, we do maintain relationships with those scooter-sharing companies, because I recognize that they are eventually going to end up here whether we like it or not. Students believe they are a convenient, viable mode of transportation, so at some point, we’re going to have to put some official policies in place to deal with clutter and safety concerns.

USC does have a partnership with one electric bycycle company - URB-E. Why?

Tony Mazza: URB-E is a fully-electric folding bicycle that customers typically purchase as a last-mile alternative to supplement their normal commute. It’s a relatively expensive option versus a bicycle, but they have sold appromiately 500 units on campus to staff, faculty and students who do have them take more responsibility for them, because they represent a significant investment.

I think that’s why the URB-E option is fundamentally different than a Lime or Bird scooter. When customers use either Bird or Lime, there’s no pride of ownership. They’ll get wherever they need to go and literally just abandon it—it doesn’t matter if it’s on an ADA ramp, in a red zone, or even the middle of a sidewalk. There’s pride of ownership with an URB-E because you pay a lot of money for it. Customers take care of them, keep them charged, lock them up where they’re supposed to, and don’t leave them just lying around.

What has USC learned from other universities with similar transportation management challenges and opportunities?

Tony Mazza: The collaborative university environment gives us an opportunity to share ideas in a different way than a private environment would. A few years ago, Stanford initiated the Pac-12 Conference, and invited all the parking and transportation directors. It’s one of the better conferences I’ve attended where we can share ideas, learn what other universities are doing, and understand how other operations compare to ours.

At USC, we’ve always prided ourselves on being early adopters. Our Safe Ride partnership with Lyft is a good example. Most universities have a Safe Ride program of some sort, but they always want to learn more about our partnership and how they could also partner with Lyft or Uber. Lyft takes the same opportunity to approach other universities and say, “Here’s what we’ve done at USC; can we talk to you about a similar program?”

One thing we like to learn about is how other universities are addressing their parking inventories. We’ve found that results are mixed: some universities are continuing to build parking structures, but others are not, because they don’t want to invest $30-60 million in a structure when they feel that other mobility options are going to eventually replace cars on their campuses.

For example, UCLA is twice the size of USC when it comes to parking inventory; their revenue is also about twice the size of ours. They spend a lot of time and money addressing the congestion concerns in and around UCLA; one of their solutions is a robust vanpool program, with over 150 sponsored vanpools. Our vanpool program faded out years ago, but we enjoy a much better public transportation infrastructure with the Metro Expo Line literally wrapping around campus, and we provide free transportation to Union Station for 8,000 people a week who want to take buses and trains.


On the other hand, Stanford builds parking; they recently completed an award-winning subterranean parking structure underneath a soccer field at a cost of about $45,000 per space. But Stanford also has a vibrant mobility program. They have one of the leading bike programs in the nation, and they really encourage cycling on campus. They also have partnerships with local transit agencies that allow their students to use public transportation at a heavily discounted rate. We haven’t been able to develop those sorts of programs yet, though we would like to.

USC recently opened its USC Village and operates several other satellite campuses. How does your department plan for and service the new campuses and student/faculty/staff neighborhoods they have spawned?

Shawn Chavira: In addition to the new location at University Village and a new Health Sciences satellite campus in Beverly Hills, we have people coming to our campuses from Apple Valley all the way out to Marina Del Rey. We transport everybody from the mountains to the sea.

As our campuses continue to grow and evolve, our goal is to create mobility hubs—interactive spaces where anyone can go for mobility management advice/planning. This is a big part of our Transportation Demand Management Program. We want to provide one platform that shows people all their mobility management options, how much they can reduce CO2 emissions, and how much money they can save.

We’re trying to both raise awareness and get people out of their cars—from new hires at orientation, to employees who’ve been driving to work for 30 years.

How do you determine when, for example, to add another bus route to serve a new campus or office location?

Shawn Chavira: As a new campus evolves, we pay close attention to our customers there. A department head or Dean, for example, will tell us that 40 people are going to be moving to a certain building where we are currently running a bus every hour, so we may look at running it every half-hour instead.  It’s all about managing expectations and meeting demand.

Tony Mazza: We can often have these conversations preemptively, because senior administration is moving toward a model where staff members who don’t typically interact with students—administration, the gifts and grants department, etc.—work primarily in buildings off-campus in order to make more room for student-facing departments on campus.

For example, by November, close to 500 people will work in the newly-renamed USC office tower in Downtown LA. We started preparing for that migration as early as two years ago. Being prepared enabled us to better understand the demand, and even to look at Lyft as an option to supplement our transit system for people who need to get to meetings that don’t line up with our bus schedules.

As transportation professionals, why don’t USC customers find Metro’s Expo Line to be a viable option for getting to your downtown campuses?

Tony Mazza: When the Expo Line opened five years ago, we were already providing free bus service between the University Park Campus and Union Station. We thought that once the Expo Line opened, we might be able to reduce that service and cut some costs. We found that not to be the case for a few reasons.

One of the main factors is time. The Expo Line runs at grade and has to stop in intersections, and because you have to make a transfer at the 7th Street/Metro Center Station, the ride between USC and Union Station can actually take longer on Metro than if you took one of our free buses. Whereas an Expo Line trip could take 30 minutes, our buses can get people there in 20-22 minutes, depending on traffic. We’ve also heard comments that people don’t feel safe on Metro, especially at night for those work later hours.

We never did decrease service between campus and Union Station—in fact, we have probably increased it. More people are taking Metro and Metrolink into Union Station, so we have to fill the gaps in local service to and from the station. 

Shawn Chavira: In addition, our buses offer essentially door-to-door service from campus to Union Station. The route runs along 34th Street on the interior of campus, and there are multiple stops convenient to staff offices.

Creating this higher-level kind of experience is where mobility management is going, and we are on the cusp of that transformation. 

How do the growth and development of new developmentsLucas Museum, the new LA Football Club, and more­around Expo Park impact USC mobility, given that the epicenter of these new regional attractions is right in your neighborhood?

Tony Mazza: There’s so much development. The Los Angeles Football Club stadium opened in April, replacing the old Sports Arena. The Coliseum interior will be completely renovated by the end of next summer, in time for the 2019 football season. The Lucas Museum is currently under construction, and they’re building two subterranean parking structures to make up for the surface parking they’re displacing with the building. There’s also talk of a complete revitalization of Figueroa Street that would expand the LA Convention Center and add a hotel and all kinds of retail and mixed-use buildings.

My concern is that the infrastructure won’t keep up with the pace of these changes. I hope more people will be essentially forced to use public transportation, because I don’t know what the alternative is.

Lastly, Metro is in the midst of its NextGen Bus Study, a major review of its bus network to better serve the public. Based on your experience at USC—a major node in the LA County system—what should they consider?

Tony Mazza: Metro needs to look at how they are developing routes for people to get to work, because a big part of those longer-distance trips are being outsourced to private entities developing businesses specifically around that model. 

Shawn Chavira: If you look at what large employers—the Googles and Facebooks of the world—are doing in terms of mobility management, you’ll find that USC offers all the same options that they do. Both larger and smaller employers are concerned about how their people are getting to work and back home. A major threat Metro is currently up against is private companies taking on mobility on their own or through an outside company.

Transportation is sexy again. There’s a sense of pride and brand protection around it now; companies like Google, as well as USC, are branding their buses. Case in point: Geoff Palmer’s Lorenzo, a luxury student housing complex down the street from USC, has four branded buses that bring students to campus.

Metro is getting buried. Private services like Chariot and Pablito are taking up space on the road and kicking public buses off the street. These companies are flooding the streets, and Metro doesn’t know how to handle it. They’re behind the curve. I think Metro needs to look at its service in each of the 88 cities they serve and offer solutions for each of them individually.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.