• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


In Defense of Free Parking

Gains and losses.

September 6, 2018

(I’m listening to Mike Myers’ book about Canada right now, which makes me all the more aware that “In Defense of Free Parking” may be the most American headline I’ve ever written.)

My college has free parking, which is not common among public colleges. It’s facing some long-term budget issues, as I may have mentioned once or twice.  Every so often, someone suggests charging for parking.

Context matters. This is a non-residential campus -- no dorms -- so everyone has to get here and get back daily.  It’s in a suburban location with plenty of land, and more parking spaces than get used. (At peak times, the only open spaces are farther out than some folks like, but they’re there.)  It’s in an area with limited public transportation. It was built in the 1960’s, on the assumption that everyone would drive. One of the branch campuses isn’t accessible at all by public transportation. 

In other words, a parking charge wouldn’t be in the service of allocating a scarce resource. It would simply be for the sake of revenue.

But I’m not sure it would be a revenue source. 

Having worked previously at colleges that charged for parking permits, I can attest that if you charge for parking, you’d better have some kind of enforcement.  That means hiring parking enforcement people, and paying salaries and benefits for them. It also means adjudicating parking disputes, which will absolutely happen. Those adjudications take staff time away from other tasks; depending on volume, you may have to hire more staff to pick up the slack, which means more labor to cover. Worst of all, you have the ill will generated by parking fines. For students who are already economically fragile, a couple of parking tickets can be a big deal. For others, it’s just insulting. 

I’ve never seen a formal study on this, but I’d bet money that part of the reason that for-profit colleges never charge for parking -- at least, never that I’ve seen -- is that they understand intuitively the effects of that sort of charge on students’ willingness to show up, and to keep coming back.  Say what you will about for-profits, but they’re attuned to what gets people in the door. In this case, they may have a point.

I’ve gone on record supporting Open Educational Resources in place of expensive textbooks, and Free Community College in place of tuition.  Free parking, when practical, strikes me as another version of the same thing. It’s a straightforward way to get economic barriers out of the way of education.

And that’s only on the student side.  Folks in places with hellacious parking battles can describe the effects on employee morale when their tickets pile up.  Charging people for coming to work is counterintuitive at best; I, for one, like it when employees show up. Adding a fee discourages that.

Free parking has another beneficial side effect that I hadn’t appreciated until I saw it in action.  The parking lots aren’t broken out by status; there’s no faculty lot, no administration lot, no student lot. There are just lots, and you park where you park. Walking through the lot, you get a sort of sociological reality check on a regular basis. There’s value in that.

Yes, free parking allows drivers to externalize the costs of pollution, and that’s bad. No argument there. But adding parking fees wouldn’t magically generate a robust mass transit system. It would just annoy drivers. If I could be assured in a credible way that parking fees would go to the development of some sort of practical, clean, safe, useful mass transit system, I’d happily reconsider my position. But if the funds mostly go to pay for parking enforcement, let’s not. Life is complicated enough without parking tickets.

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Matt Reed

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