Now is the Time to Raise the Bar
Ask anybody who’s been around long enough, and you’ll soon have your fill of parking horror stories—tales from the dark side of campus transportation—of gridlocked one-way streets, aborted commutes and backpack-swinging mad dashes; stories of vehicle impounds and curb-strewn students seemingly recruited into semester-long hooky. It makes you shake your head and wonder: maybe this year’s freshmen will think twice before bringing their cars to campus. After all, we have a parking supply problem, don’t we?
How will the market reach equilibrium unless parking is truly valued as a market commodity?
Of course, as always, in the world of parking, the answer is a resounding: it depends. Every parking solution is context-sensitive, and it’s certainly true that many universities and colleges do not have the wherewithal to tap into cutting edge programs. For so long, it’s been a tale of what to do with limited resources. How are universities going to meet the demand of their communities? What tools are available to better understand and manage campus supply? After all, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and universities have to start somewhere.
For some institutions, this means ramping up shuttle programs, reallocating parking permits, staggering class times more effectively, or even closing down the campus core to push congestion to the outer perimeter. These can be effective tactics in a parking manager’s toolbox, but still, we’re not thinking big enough. Incentivizing and disincentivizing, measuring and monitoring within individual spheres are important first steps, but now begins the hard work of associating.
With private and public parking resources lying dormant due to the effects of COVID-19, it may be the perfect time to examine the role campuses play, both as employers and major demand generators, within the larger municipal transportation landscape. With rebounding demand on the horizon, likely accompanied by a post-COVID bump in single-occupancy vehicle trips, universities and colleges need to enlarge the concept of community to include—that’s right—the entire community. Now is not the time to set out in search of greener pastures, purchase new land, and build the next “sustainable” parking garage that will provide the long-awaited deliverance. Instead, institutions need to focus on the bigger picture: what is our role within the community, and how can our role in the parking and transportation ecosystem better serve the community?
Of course, answering this question is too large for any one individual or department to fully own. Let’s take, for example, what happens when a university decides to “right-price” the cost of on-campus permits. Invariably, even within a well-allocated system, there will be those employees and students who feel priced out of the market. Instead, they will seek free parking in surrounding neighborhoods. And until local complaints bubble up to the surface for long enough, the university simply won’t know the true effects of the program. How could they? Unless the entire parking supply, both private and public is viewed, reported, and managed as a capped system. And even more challenging is assessing whether the resultant RPP program, however equitable in theory, truly solved the problem, if the city can’t measure the on-campus effects squeezing demand in the opposite direction.
For those in urban planning, this may actually be a good place to be, the natural squeeze creating more appealing transportation alternatives, fed by the roll out of additional incentives such as subsidized local mass transit, and other benefits for carsharing, carpooling, and local rideshare. But how will the market reach equilibrium unless parking is truly valued as a market commodity? And where can we start?
For large employers, such as universities and municipalities, this begins with unifying data along an open feed in order to balance competition and cooperation amongst all operators. Information needs to travel both ways, and for the public domain, this means borrowing the playbook from private operators, learning how to value (and more importantly, market) right-priced parking in a coherent fashion.
Parking needs more systems-level thinking, not less of it, and this requires getting back to the basics. Let’s talk about how to build bridges between institutions and municipalities, these users and those users, because as we all know, no student ever drove to school to park a car. Let’s look to create better campus transportation management organizations to pool resources, enable strong advocacy roles with local government, and support commuter strategies rather than individual commutes. The fundamentals haven’t changed: cap the parking supply, find the right price, and reinvest in the right places, so now it’s time to talk more seriously about how we raise the bar and reach program goals.
Which is why we begin with stories. In attempting to build the next generation of commuters, we should keep the real story of parking in sight. This is about peoples’ experiences as they navigate the world. The goal is always to serve the community and provide readily-available opportunities for all people to live and work. Parking is a process, not an outcome, and it’s time we get serious about thinking in systems and breaking down the artificial boundaries drawn at the edge of campus, because the future of university parking and transportation is also the future of our cities.
David Skophammer is Project Coordinator with Dixon Resources Unlimited. He can be reached at email@example.com