Straddling her orange road bike, Heidi Goedhart enjoys chatting with motorists and pedestrians, and checking out the yards and houses she passes between her Salt Lake City home and the University of Utah's College of Architecture + Planning.
"I'll remember more things from the commute. You observe more when you move more slowly," said the student, who graduates next week with a bachelor's in environmental studies and urban planning.
Goedhart exemplifies what U. officials see as the campus commuter of the future: someone who arrives on bike, foot or public transportation.
For years, the campus has been organized around private automobile use, which imposes a stiff cost in the form of expensive paved infrastructure that fragments the campus. Planners now envision a campus that relegates parking to multistory structures and reclaims surface lots for pedestrians, buildings and quads. This is already taking shape where the Honors College, Business and Arts and Education buildings are rising on the southeastern segment of lower campus.
Officials estimate the U. has more than 2,300 regular bike commuters and anticipate that number tripling or quadrupling. Cycling offers advantages over other modes in terms of personal health, convenience and cost.
"It's faster than driving and it's more pleasant. I interact with way more people than if I'm sitting in my car listening to NPR," said Goedhart, who lives about a mile west of campus but figures she rides about 15 miles a day. She interns as the bicycle coordinator with the U.'s office of commuter services.
Last week her office unveiled the university's Bicycle Master Plan, an addendum to the campus master plan that provides guidance for accommodating two-wheeled access in the coming years.
"Everyone on a bike is someone who doesn't need to park a car," said Alma Allred, director of commuter services. "Those places are expensive and getting more expensive. Twenty years ago you just find vacant land and pave it over. Those places are gone."
The U. plans to build three parking structures this year, at a cost of between $19,000 to $25,000 per stall. The investment to support a single car could accommodate 20 to 30 bikes, Allred said.
Big public universities are increasingly embracing cycling as a way to minimize the presence of cars. Many campuses, such as the University of California at Davis and at Santa Barbara, are miles ahead of others, but those schools occupy flat terrain and enjoy year-round mild climates. The U. is on a hill, and the climate features snowy winters and blistering summers.
But bike use is expected to become more attractive here as the U. builds more pathways, storage, showers and fix-it stations, and as the price of gasoline and parking fees climb.
Goedhart estimates cycling saves her between $50 and $70 a week. And riders like her are already saving taxpayers serious money, shaving the U.'s parking needs by 506 spaces, according to the bike plan. Building that kind of capacity would cost $3.5 million.
However, cycling doesn't generate revenue that can be invested in racks, paths, showers, and storage lockers to serve cyclists.
"We need someone to pay for it. We don't want to charge people for riding their bikes. That would be counterproductive," said Allred, himself a bike commuter.
It will be years before the plan's goals will be achieved, but progress has been made, particularly with security and new bike-fixing stations.
Under the U. police department's "lock it or lose it" campaign, bike thefts plummeted. In 2010, thieves stole 226 bikes versus 88 the following year. And new buildings include bike-friendly features as part of LEED certification.
"It's more of a foundation plan for people to follow later," said cyclist James Allen, a chemical engineering major who leads the U.'s Bicycle Collective. "It wouldn't be hard to accommodate bike infrastructure into things being built."
The plan's influence can be seen best in the recent reconstruction of the "HPER highway," necessitated by the installation of a utility tunnel. This pedestrian boulevard runs from the Legacy Bridge west to the social science tower. A bike path now meanders along the north side of the crowded pedestrian path.
The plan envisions a network of such paths. They would minimize conflict with pedestrians and divert cyclists to routes that avoid stairways, an unavoidable feature of a campus built on a grade. East-west trips across campus typically entail frequent dismounts to shoulder bikes up and down these obstacles. But the bigger barriers might be the U.'s hillside location and arterial streets, such as South Campus Drive and Mario Capecchi Drive, that rim the campus.
"You can't get by on a fixed-gear bicycle," Goedhart said. "It's a challenge if you live downtown and you have a 400- or 500-foot elevation gain to upper campus. People new to cycling can find the roads very intimidating."
Salt Lake City has worked to integrate its own bike lanes with the campus's. The busiest access point is Guardsman Way, a complicated multi-modal entry on the U.'s south side. The campus has six major access points that last year logged an average of 802 cyclists a day, according to Goedhart. That's a 43 percent increase over the previous year.
Bicycle master plan
The University of Utah has a plan for boosting bicycle use on campus • http://bit.ly/IXaUu9.