A new voice for sustainable commuting at Duke


Brian Williams, left, Duke's transportation demand coordinator, talks alternative transportation with gradute student Chris Coutlee during a recent event sponsored by Duke and Triangle Transit.
October 27, 2010At a table in the Circuit Drive parking lot, Brian Williams waits for students, faculty and staff to pass by. He’s ready to hand out packets containing bus schedules and maps with how to get to campus by walking or biking.

On a campus where more than 27,800 vehicles have daily parking permits, Williams wants to see fewer sprawling parking lots where only one person drives a vehicle to and from campus. And that’s not all.

“Cars are more trouble than you think,” said Williams, who rides the Robertson Scholars Express Bus from Chapel Hill or carpools to work at Duke. “There are plenty of options that cost less and make your life easier, but only a few here at Duke have considered that.”

That’s why Williams, Duke’s new transportation demand coordinator, is working on a program to reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles coming to campus, while promoting the use of alternative transportation options by students, faculty and staff. It’s part of Duke’s Climate Action Plan to become carbon neutral by 2024.

With limited parking spaces but high demand and a growing customer base, Duke must reduce the number of single-occupancy cars coming to campus by about 1,400 by 2012. Through September, only about 1,400 students and employees are registered to commute to campus by biking or sharing a ride through a carpool, vanpool or public transportation.

“Duke has a great bus system, a growing bike infrastructure and lots of sidewalks,” said Williams, whose office is part of Parking and Transportation Services. “It’s time to start really utilizing these alternatives, especially as Duke’s population of students and employees grows.”

As part of his role, Williams will work to ensure the Duke community is aware of the options: carpool, vanpool, bike, walk, Zipcar and local or regional public transportation. He will educate the campus community about these offerings and encourage commuters to change their behavior and participate in the programs. He volunteers on sustainability committees at Duke and lobbies with local groups for improved pedestrian and public transportation around Durham. When he’s not doing that, he makes himself available to talk to anyone or any department about ways to get to campus without a car.

Sam Veraldi, director of Parking and Transportation Services, said the hiring of Williams is part of the university’s transit strategy to help manage rising costs related to Duke’s transit and parking system by promoting alternative transit options. Veraldi said the work by Williams “is the cornerstone for what our office is trying to do.”

“As a campus community, we need to reduce single-occupancy vehicles while finding creative ways to get people to campus because the way we’ve always handled parking isn’t sustainable,” Veraldi said. “Brian will make sure we motivate students and employees through programs and incentives that will help us reduce cars on campus and the greenhouse gases they emit.”

Williams – who previously worked as a multimedia production assistant in the Fuqua School of Business – became interested in alternative transportation two years ago after watching the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” The film covers the creation and ultimate demise of a mass-produced electric-powered vehicle in the U.S.

“It really got me interested because the path that we’re headed with everybody driving their own car everywhere is not sustainable,” Williams said. “We should be trying to do everything we can to build more sustainable transportation for our cities and Duke’s campus.”

Duke has already taken steps to make it easy to commute to campus through the fare-free Bull City Connector and Duke GreenRide, a free online ride-matching program that helps Duke community members find other students and employees to carpool or vanpool to campus.

“Typically, if people are driving more than 15 minutes a trip to get to and from work, they’re spending more on fuel than permit costs,” Williams said. “If people were to carpool, they’d save on fuel, car maintenance and they’d even get time back to read or check e-mail on a smartphone while riding in a car instead of driving.”

While working at Duke, Williams has volunteered with committees involved in the university’s Climate Action Plan and “Plug In America,” a nationwide organization that promotes the use of electric cars. Locally, he’s maintained a website and produced how-to videos for the Triangle Electric Auto Association, a local group that retrofits gas-powered vehicles to use electric sources of power.

Williams said that his prior experience has helped prepare him for getting Duke students and employees to change the way they commute.

“Duke leads the country in so many things, whether it’s academic or medical, so why can’t we be an example of a place that sees the future and leads in sustainable transportation?” Williams said.