Who Put the “Argh” in Campus Parking?

Maria Shine Stewart bemoans the current situation on most campuses and provides 12 suggestions for improvement.

November 14, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Youst

OK, maybe I’m the one at fault. I never purchase the most maneuverable or sporty car. I don’t like to leave for class three hours early. My penchant for sprinting from distant parking lots, or conducting a stealthy night hike in a winding concrete garage, is nonexistent.

My car is whatever I can afford. I transport rough drafts and demand 50 pounds of revisions per student. I have a lot of aches and pains. And I was born with no sense of direction, on foot or by car.

Nevertheless, I persist.

At 8:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 6 p.m. -- name your time -- there is no place to park. On the weekend or between terms -- well, that is another matter. Stay a while. Just make sure the lot is not gated before you leave.

A New Campus, an Old Problem

Last year around this time, the choice parking passes at another campus were already sold out when I was offered a class to teach there. As an adjunct, even the second-best pass was more of my income than I care to reveal.

My first time on another campus as a freshman, the only spot I could find involved a trajectory my little Vega could not achieve, despite its galactic name. Luckily, the driver of the car I scraped left the sweetest of notes, saying he was planning to paint it anyway. That kind of grace happens only once in a lifetime.

My college yearnings -- if not the ability to find a parking space -- began early. A kindly garden-tending professor lived next door while I was growing up. My eldest sister took me to the college cafeteria when I was at an impressionable age, and my other sister left her textbooks strewn about the house when I was at an older, still impressionable age. If college today doesn’t offer the beauty of flowers, the warmth of good food and the solace of books, what does it have? Answer: a lack of parking spaces.

Bobbing for Spaces

At one institution where I’ve worked, a predictable row of cars waits at 9:55 a.m., 10:55 a.m., 11:55 a.m. and so on for the lucky catch of a spot. And there is competition. That doesn’t mean the vehicle heading into the spot really fits the space, but ready or not, there it will squeeze. Never mind the one-eighth of an inch it leaves for the driver’s door to its left or the passenger’s door to its right. Each car for itself! Does this harrowing test of hand-eye coordination and steely nerves exist to ensure that students with superior spatial skills prevail? Probably.

In a brainy environment chock-full of planners and engineers and geographers and even astronomers (as in, let’s design a car that rotates the Earth while we’re in class and then gently parachutes down), the fact that the odds of winning the lottery are better than getting a choice parking space on most campuses makes no sense whatsoever.

“Aw, she’s a sissy,” you may be thinking. “She’s from the Midwest. She thinks she knows what a parking problem is.” I do not doubt it’s even worse where you are, big-city college driver or remote rural driver. But I’ll have you know that an esteemed professor at one of our local colleges circled and circled and circled the campus looking for a spot -- like a bird maps out at prey -- and then finally headed back home. His 10:00 a.m. class was delighted to have the morning off.

Truths We Will Not Face

Revealed: the real reason some campuses don’t want their freshmen to have cars. It’s too tempting, when thwarted with the fundamental human need for a parking space, to say, “Nope, college is not for me.”

Revealed: the perpetual parking shortage made worse by drifts of snow. It’s an experiment to see who the hardiest people on the campus are.

Revealed: why even seasoned faculty members must march from lots in the weary distance. We must always remember that the feet, not just the brain, are part of the body.

A Kinder Parking Plan

Here are 12 suggestions that colleges and universities might consider:

  1. For students and faculty members who are new to your campus, offer visible signage that makes it crystal clear where to park. Campus signs are not intended to double as weather vanes or to promote head-on collisions. Stamp out ambiguity.
  2. Replace portable campus maps filled with color and pizzazz and six-point typeface. Even with power lenses, stress and fingerprints make a mess on that glossy paper.
  3. Have a human -- a human unfamiliar with the campus -- do a trial run to test out that expensive standing map, as in “you are here,” before you bolt it into the ground. Such maps may appear upside down and backward to the directionally challenged. Many people will stand elbow to elbow with other bewildered strangers before deciding the hassle is not worth it.
  4. Provide contingency plans, even a parking hotline or a parking app.
  5. Have a policy with some graciousness toward those who often give more than they ever get. Adjunct faculty members sometimes pay relatively high parking costs and then are penalized further if they need a space on a nonteaching day. Is this as fair as it gets? I don’t think so.
  6. If you have a more distant venue for overflow parking, staff it with human beings, plus timely shuttles, to get people to classes. I nearly turned my ankle in a muddy pothole in what looked like a rough draft of a lot that was way too far from campus.
  7. Make sure disability parking access is truly accessible. It should not require first heading into a cavern to get the permit and then circling shadowy parking garages where drivers exceed the recommended speed.
  8. Expect nondrivers to play fair. Playing chicken with texting pedestrians is not fun. Nor is having to resort to Mario Andretti moves to avoid the skateboarder surfing the lot erratically before his 10 a.m. class.
  9. Allow space for more than a dozen cars in the visitors’ lot, and make sure that it is not the dumpiest-looking on campus. That 17-year-old prospect or 71-year-old returning student who needs it today might invent the solution to parking snafus of tomorrow. That visitor may be a visionary able to blend insights from mathematics, physics, urban planning, psychology, business and marketing. Nobel nomination? Who knows? But if parking is too much of a hassle, the student -- and the glory -- will land elsewhere.
  10. Start at the top. The first question posed to interviewing college presidents should be, “What do you plan to do about campus parking?” If the answer is “I will only park in my assigned spot,” proceed to the next candidate.
  11. Eliminate steep fines for just wanting to go to class. I got a $15 ticket for running a few minutes over in an evening class when the meter had just expired. The lot was almost empty, and it was summer.
  12. Create a kinder parking slogan: You do belong here. And so will your car.

Bio

Maria Shine Stewart is a licensed professional counselor and adjunct lecturer in writing.

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