In a continuation of the 2023 Wilkes Student Innovation Prize winner interviews, Audri Dara joins us to speak about her idea to improve ridership of the public transit system at the University of Utah. Audri’s idea won third place last May and she presented her idea at the Wilkes Climate Summit. The proposal covers multiple potential routes for implementation including bolstering the UTA system itself and providing incentives to students for increased usage. She estimates her plan could lower carbon emissions from the University up to 100,000 metric tons, making a substantial difference in the effort toward becoming carbon neutral.
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Yeah! Thanks for having me, Margaret.
Yeah! So, to get us started, could you give us just a general introduction to you and your background?
Yeah, of course. I am a senior at University of Utah, starting my master’s in materials science engineering. I also study philosophy and I have a minor in Arabic.
Awesome! So your project that you submitted for this competition, can you tell us a little bit about just the basic tenets of it? What exactly was it, what do you want to accomplish with it?
Definitely! I noticed as a commuting student at the University of Utah I have had to use my car for about three years consecutively, which just feels awful on so many levels. Looking at this project, it was the one that hit closest to home for me as I do have to commute around 45 minutes sometimes with the different locations I’ve lived at. Looking at the bus system and noticing that a lot of my friends have started to use it more, I was wondering at why it is not utilized more by commuting students. As is seen by the parking passes that are not available anymore because all of them are being bought, the University of Utah is a commuter school. So, I just did the calculations of how much greenhouse gas we were emitting as University of Utah as a whole and our student body and what could be eliminated by further promoting the public transit system and what can be done by that.
Oh, so with those different, I guess, ideas moving forward, what would be the stages of like basic implementation? How would we move that forward and get students on board? What would that look like?
My general project was implementing a reward system for using public transit. The inspiration was Pocket Points. It was an app that was implemented a few years ago, where if you were off of your phone during class you got a certain amount of points; like 500 points for every hour that you’re off of your phone. Those points were converted into rewards. I used it for bowling all the time. It’s a free bowling game at the union or different types of passes for food trucks. So I was thinking that if we just brought awareness to the bus system and gave a prize for students to use it more. I think it’d be pretty easy to track as you do need your U-card, and then that could accumulate points that could translate to maybe 10% off at the student store or something like that. So, step one would be bringing acknowledgement to the bus system. Then there’s also another issue that I encountered in not enough support for public transit. Since COVID hit, I did a lot of research seeing that the current bus drivers are very overworked, still suffering consequences from COVID where everything went down. So I did a second part of this, which was allocating some funds from University of Utah, where University of Utah and UTA are already partnered, where the students can ride for free to further support Utah Public Transit, as it would benefit both parties greatly.
Awesome! In your plan it talks about… You just said like reallocating some money from the university and it talks about potentially like increasing a student fee or just reallocating a part of that fee. As a student also at the University of Utah, I would wonder what student response would be to that kind of an idea. Do you have a response to that? Do you have ideas on how to, like, mitigate a disruption if people weren’t in favor of that?
Absolutely! I stipulated in my proposal that my calculations only included commuting students. The students who do live on campus wouldn’t have to pay this, as that would be a little bit redundant to have to pay for on-campus housing and commuter fees. For the fees, $50 was more than enough and it could be reduced to $25. I’ve noticed in my fees they have increased $400 since my freshman year for reasons I have no idea why. I have inquired endlessly because I don’t know what I’m paying $863 for in quote unquote miscellaneous fees. It’s very frustrating as a student. Then on top of that, I pay engineering fees, which I don’t see what that correlates to directly. If this was outlined on the direct impact that this would have on students, so “You will get a substantial reward, you’ll get $10 off at a food truck, if you use the bus you’ll get 10% off. There’s reasons why we’re doing this, and it’s in support of reducing CO2 emissions.” I think that transparency would be very supported by the students and realizing what an individual can make a change for the environment could do, I think would be really impactful and powerful and could mitigate some of those concerns.
No, I totally agree with that. I would love to know that the money that I’m spending has a direct impact on things that I care about, like this.
Yes, and it’s very frustrating when it just increases for no apparent reason. It’s not supported by funds for traveling, for clubs. That’s not supported with my fees. So I don’t know what it’s supporting at all, and I really don’t like that.
Yeah, so with an implementation of your plan or this proposal, what kind of short term impact and then what kind of long term impact are we looking at? Is it quantifiable or are we just going to be able to observe it? Is it a change in attitude with students? What are we looking at?
Absolutely. I think short term impact would be that shift in mindset that would be required initially because I do it myself. “Oh, it’s so much quicker to take my car.” That’s not true. You realize after a long period of time it’s gas, it’s traffic, it’s parking passes. I suppose that would be more long term would be that change in mindset for students to realize, “Wow, this is so convenient. I only need to walk 5 minutes to my bus station. I’m not stressed about my car getting ticketed.” I’ve noticed that shift within myself in the past year. And then short term I think would be just less crowding car wise, less concern about finding a parking spot. And then, sorry I’m doing this a bit out of order, back to the long term. I think it would put stress on the UTA system to have so many students being encouraged to use it because we have a very large population and most of which does not utilize the public transportation system. That’s why the allocation of funds would be needed to support UTA as we encourage the students to use the public transit system.
No, that totally makes sense. I spent all summer commuting on the bus. So you see other students and figure out how that’s all going. But um, just a little bit more of a personal question, I guess. What inspired you to be passionate about working on climate change and working towards coming towards solutions and things like that? How did you get there?
As a material science engineer we see the very harsh reality of what materials do to the environment. We have to do analysis of what every single thing does to the environment, from the components of a coffee pot and cars. CO2 emissions is just catastrophic for so many reasons towards the environment and the ozone layer. And personally, just like I said before, I commute so often, and it’s really tragic to know the direct impact that I’m having on the earth and to be aware of that is a little bit crushing of like, “Wow, I am a part of the problem and I need to do this as a student.” And I really wish that there was a better way or more encouragement for me and other students to be able to take steps toward it. And this is very feasible. It’s very possible to do. It’s not too difficult, but it does require some help from our university and group thinking that this is the way that things should be done. We should be on board with public transportation when it can have such a great effect towards the environment.
Yeah, that’s awesome. I think it’s really cool that we can take that personal guilt feeling and then redirect it towards empowerment almost with using the transit system. I think that’s really interesting. Um, what has been your favorite part of coming up with this proposal or working on this issue?
I was able to do a lot of research into things I was already concerned about of, “Hmm, what am I, what am I actually doing? The University of Utah seems pretty crowded. What are the actual numbers?” And getting those down on paper and writing them out. In my proposal, it confirmed exactly what I thought. It is an incredibly large sum and grows every year with our growing population and then also realizing how possible this is is pretty cool and very, very hopeful. I would actually like to see if it could be implemented even if it wasn’t my idea necessarily, something close to it or adjacent to it would be really great to see.
That’s awesome. Yeah, I would love to see something like that too. So that’s pretty much all of the questions that I had for you. Do you have anything that you want that we missed, that you want to tell us about your project or that you feel is important?
Um, not necessarily that I can think of, other than the only loose ends is that this project has not been implemented, and I wonder what steps I could take to get it going before I graduate. I only have two years left until my masters is over, and I’d hate to see it just go to waste because I think it’s not too difficult. I think it’d be pretty easy to do and to even just use funds that are already used, that are already in an area that’s not being utilized. I think that would be really empowering for me individually and then to hopefully get the ball rolling on this project overall would be lovely to see.
Awesome. In your master’s are you continuing on this issue or are you studying something different?
I’m studying neural materials, so a bit different, more medical based, but I don’t know, I’m still worried about the environment regardless.
Most of us are. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. We’re super excited to talk to you, and we’re really excited to see where all of this goes, so thank you.
Yeah, thank you for having me.