UO-Lane Transit District partnership brings brainstorms to reality

First published in The Register-Guard on January 29th, 2020.

University of Oregon students’ ideas for future of LTD are starting to take shape during the 10th year of Sustainable City Year Program.

The University of Oregon’s Sustainable City Year Program in the fall partnered with Lane Transit District and set students to work on a variety of projects meant to make local transportation more efficient and sustainable. With the first two quarters of the school year now finished, many of those student projects are taking shape.

“It’s been a really good experience. It provides a good opportunity for students to gain professional experience and work on real world issues and experiment and try new things,” said Rachel Cohen, a second-year UO business graduate student participating in the Sustainable City Year Program.

The projects undertaken this year asked students to examine physical infrastructure, such as design ideas for the transit station at the former Santa Clara Elementary School site, and those that require some long-term imagination, such as re-imagining River Road for the residents who live there.

There were 10 classes during the fall term and six classes are ongoing through the winter term, all centered around LTD projects, according to Sustainable City Year Program Manager Megan Banks. It’s not yet determined how many classes will focus on the LTD goals in the spring, she said.

The Sustainable City Year Program, part of UO’s Sustainable Cities Initiative, is in its 10th year of pairing students from across college disciplines with community partners in need of fresh ideas. In past years, the program has paired with groups such as the city of La Pine and TriMet, the tri-county transit agency in Portland.

The program has been so successful, Banks said, it’s being replicated in 35 universities nationwide.

“Transit is evolving. It’s going to be different in the future than it is now, and universities are this resource for helping guide that,” Banks said.

Transit in Eugene is about more than making sure the buses run on time, and many of the student projects identified by LTD are focused on the MovingAhead initiative, a citywide plan to update and expand services on and around some of the area’s most important transportation corridors: 30th Avenue to Lane Community College, Coburg Road, Highway 99, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and River Road.

LTD already is getting a look at some of the student project ideas.

Nine teams of landscape architecture students on Friday showcased their visions for the former Santa Clara Elementary School site to LTD managers. The eight acres of property is where the agency plans to put a new transit station, but only about half of the property is needed for the station’s operations.

“After that construction is done, people want to know what we should do with this property. It’s one of the few large lot vacant properties in the community that could be something that both supports transit and becomes a community amenity,” said Jennifer Zankowski, LTD senior development planner and project manager for the Sustainable City Year Program.

Zankowski said the students were asked to include housing, mixed-use commercial offices, a public plaza, a playground and a pavilion in their proposals for site development. She said members of the community told LTD while plans were being made that they lacked a local gathering place.

“They see this site as an opportunity for that. They were happy to see the ideas students were coming up with,” she said about the community’s input. “From the LTD and city perspective, this idea of taking this opportunity to have land development that compliments transit and helps achieve some of the density the city is trying to achieve within our urban growth boundary. It’s fun to give students that challenge to work on.”

The landscape design work the students presented is the kind LTD normally would have hired an outside contractor to complete, and the students’ presentations provided the additional benefit of having members of the community in the room, as well, so they could offer LTD live feedback.

″(Community members) were very encouraging, yet they had specific things they were interested in,” Banks said. “These are really difficult concepts and questions that the students are addressing.”

The project covering the Santa Clara Elementary School site runs for 10 weeks. The pitches made Friday are only drafts for the students’ final contributions to those LTD plans. Zankowski said the meeting was an opportunity for their creativity to encounter real world design challenges.

“These are younger, undergrad students. They’re not going to be able to, for example, design something that considers the grade of the ground or how storm water detention would work or where you would locate utilities,” Zankowski said. “We had an interesting discussion on Friday because our safety officer was in attendance talking about fire lanes and emergency response, and that is something new to the students.”

Some of the work that was completed in the fall now is being assembled into reports for LTD by students like Cohen, who is integrating seven projects into a report for UO professor Joshua Skov’s course on industrial ecology. Those seven teams conducted analyses on topics such as potential partnerships LTD could form with ride hailing companies based on similar alliances in other cities, data privacy and security issues, and LTD use of e-scooters.

“My job is to really take out the most poignant insights and recommendations and put them on display for the public agency,” Cohen said. “Business students, we are able to provide a very different perspective to the public sector. We have so much knowledge and learning and work that’s going on within the business school. It’s sort of gratifying to be able to provide that back to our community and the city of Eugene and LTD.”

John Arroyo’s students have been working on a project “re-imagining River Road for ecological equity” in which LTD plans for the corridor are examined based on how those already living there might be affected. He challenged his students to find options for improving residents’ lives as the transportation infrastructure changes around them.

“In places like Eugene, in places like Oregon, there is this general narrative of ‘green equals good.’ A lot of people don’t challenge that green also can have problems. There are issues where green development displaces people, green gentrification,” Arroyo said. “Once transportation comes through in a neighborhood and there’s infrastructure, it can lead to uneven development.”

His students’ proposals looked at case studies from other parts of the country to see what they could bring to scale for local projects, which included one proposal for a mobile produce drop-off site and urban farming library in Rasor Park.

“There’d be not only a lending library but actually a tool library and a demonstration site there at that fixed spot. They’d have a secondary component which they called the ‘Volks Veggie Van,’ a mobile produce stand that would drive around different parts of Santa Clara and River Road and provide produce for anyone who was immobile,” Arroyo said. “A project like this has occurred in Boston and Evenston, Illinois, and parts of Canada.”

Exactly which proposals or what parts of them eventually will be incorporated into wider city projects still is to be decided. It may be years before any of them come to life, Zankowski said. But UO students may one day be able to point to physical manifestations of work they’re doing now.

“Some of the ideas, what we’ve gotten back so far has been a range from possibly implementable to some that are perhaps more aspirational. But overall the idea generation is having LTD staff start thinking about the future and things beyond projects that are day to day,” Zankowski said. “The things the students are working on are in the next five to 10 years, but it’s making sure to shine a light on what’s coming up next.”

Follow Adam Duvernay on Twitter @DuvernayOR or email [email protected].