Emory Report
September 22, 2008
Volume 61, Number 5



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22, 2008
On the move: Transportation leader works to give commuters options

By Kim Urquhart

When Lisa Underwood goes to Disney World, she is more interested in how the Magic Kingdom moves the masses — the trams and parking areas — than the entertainment and attractions.

“I drive my family crazy, because we’ll be on vacation and we’ll have to pull into a parking deck and I’ll make notes about things. But they’re used to it by now,” says Underwood, who recently moved to Atlanta with her family to lead Emory’s transportation and parking services as associate vice president of transportation, parking and community services.

The 20-year veteran of the transportation and parking industry previously directed the same services at Washington University in St. Louis.

When researching best practices in transportation management for Wash U, Underwood occasionally turned to its peer, Emory. “I was very familiar with the commitment that the institution has made to transportation and its cutting-edge programs,” she says, “and when this opportunity came up it attracted me because of that commitment.”

Since joining Emory in August, Underwood says she has felt “right at home.” And she has hit the ground running. Her first month saw the unionization of the contractor First Transit that provides all of Emory’s Cliff shuttle services. A strike that could have greatly impacted campus was avoided and a contract was signed.

“It all worked out fine, but it was an interesting way to get started,” she says. “In hindsight it was a great opportunity to get up to speed and identify who my campus partners were, and see how quickly they all came to the table to work through a possible challenge.”

Challenge is a big part of Underwood’s position. She is charged with overseeing all transportation programs of DeKalb County’s largest employer, where more than 21,000 faculty and staff, 12,000 students and additional visitors travel to campus each day, and where the largest private shuttle bus fleet in metro Atlanta transports thousands of faculty, staff and students on and off campus.

As a train rumbles past the window of her office in the Clairmont parking deck, Underwood lays out her vision and priorities. Among them: Improving access and quality of life in the Clifton community by providing transportation alternatives to single occupancy vehicles. Included among these are extensive vanpool, carpool, bicycle, pedestrian, Zipcar and transit commuter programs.

“My goal is to ensure that these services are provided most effectively so that commuters to Emory have viable transportation alternatives,” she says, emphasizing that the goal is “commuter choice.”

Emory’s goal is for 25 percent of its workforce to be registered as alternative commuters by 2015. Key to achieving this is awareness, Underwood notes.

Rolling out this year is EmoryMoves, a new initiative to encourage faculty, staff and students to explore alternative transportation to get to campus.

“Emory Moves will help us make that connection and showcase existing programs for the campus community,” she says. “Once people see how others are making it work for them, it becomes a little more real and maybe a little more viable as an option.”

Underwood will be evaluating Emory’s transportation options to ensure that each program is working the best it can. “We are not talking major changes,” she clarifies. “It will be more about looking at an area where we can grow. For example, we have experienced incredible growth in the vanpool program over the last year. We will be evaluating the programs to which the community has responded to determine how to best support them.”

Helping universities’ parking and transportation operations run smoothly is something Underwood has been doing since she was a student herself. As an English major at the University of Iowa, Underwood took a part-time job with the university’s entirely student-run transportation service and discovered she loved it.

Instead of becoming an English teacher as planned, she moved to St. Louis to direct Madison County Transit’s paratransit system. “That opportunity came and I thought, this is what I want to do,” she recalls. “Looking back, when you realize that your passion is somewhere else, it is one of those ‘a-ha’ moments.”

When Underwood later joined Washington University, she was glad to return to academia “where there are so many opportunities for creative solutions,” she says.

“I’ve always enjoyed work that helps others or makes a difference,” says Underwood. “If programs we support can make someone’s life better, or help the environment, or help the University meet goals, that’s a good thing.”