Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I &*%#(%*& hate parking.

There is no obvious, elegant way to handle a sudden influx of students when parking is already tight.

The two iron laws of parking:

1. There is never enough.
2. Thou shalt not add parking, anywhere, ever.

Corrolary: Calling attention to the contradiction between 1 and 2 is bad form.

Adding parking involves several sins. It's environmentally suspect, since it acknowledges the private automobile and it (usually) replaces green space with pavement. It's incredibly expensive to build, since you have to address water runoff, lighting, grading, snow removal, yadda yadda yadda. And politically, there are few harder sells than spending great sums of money on parking lots or decks. Nobody wants to be remembered as the Parking President, and philanthropists aren't tripping over each other for parking lot naming rights.

In a perfect world, students would heed the call to use public transportation and/or carpools. We encourage that; we help them set up carpools, and they get free municipal bus passes with their student ID's. But students have complicated lives, off-campus jobs, and quotidian issues that often just don't fit the locations and times of local bus routes. (Depending on where they live, they may not be within reasonable striking distance of a bus in the first place. I'm not. If I schlepped myself to and from the nearest bus stop, I'd spend literally 5-6 hours per day commuting, not counting errands or off-campus meetings. Not gonna happen.) While I'm all for making our campus as public-transportation-friendly as we can, I'm under no illusions that this will solve the problem.

Online classes are similar. On paper, adding online classes should ease the parking problem, since you don't have to get to campus to go online. In reality, though, most of our online students also take onsite classes; they just use online classes to build friendlier (i.e. all "prime time") schedules. They probably help on the margins, but again, they're not anywhere near the scale of a real solution.

Offsite parking ('park and ride') is no picnic, either. It requires people to show up considerably earlier, and it requires expensive shuttle bus service. It's particularly unfriendly in inclement weather and at night. The time delay involved in 'park and ride' systems makes the added capacity least relevant precisely when it's most salient -- if I'm already late for class and can't find a space, how likely am I to drive five minutes away and wait another five minutes for the ten minute shuttle ride back to where I started?

Some community colleges are built basically as vertical compounds surrounded by moats of asphalt. In those cases, it's sometimes possible simply to expand the moats. (Although it's still expensive and sometimes surprisingly challenging even then. A single observation of the rare three-toed hornswaggler, and you're hosed.) Mine isn't built that way, so topography and local land use don't cut us much slack.

Worse, enrollment fluctuates, but a parking lot is forever. It's a commonplace of the hospitality industry that you don't build for peak. As expensive and politically difficult and environmentally ugly as they are, you don't want to build them just before your enrollment starts to decline.

(In high school, some friends of mine pranked the rest of us by sending us mock enrollment materials for Bessotte Sanitation University, whose motto was "plenty of free parking." Every year, that gets a little bit funnier.)

We've had some talk of congestion pricing -- require a paid permit for prime time, but allow free parking during off-peak periods (i.e. late afternoon). The problem there is that anything regressive enough to make a difference would crash into our 'accessibility' mission, and anything sufficiently painless as to be completely nondiscriminatory would also be ineffectual. There's also an issue of inflated expectations when students actually pay. Not being able to find a free space is annoying, but not being able to find a paid space feels like being ripped off.

In a few weeks, we're going to get an entering class of a magnitude we haven't seen before. I wish them well in their quest for parking spaces.

Wise and worldly readers -- has your commuter college found a reasonably elegant solution to the parking problem?