Title

I Need Somewhere to Park

The real issue on campus.

February 27, 2020
 
 

My phone rang early Monday afternoon, and even though I was in a meeting (an internal one, mind you), I recognized the phone number and immediately answered. It was indeed the school nurse calling me to let me know that my son had a fever and I needed to come and get him ASAP. “I can be there in about 30 to 45 minutes,” I answered. The nurse was stunned -- couldn’t I be here sooner or get someone else to pick him up? I sighed and answered that I work in D.C. and that I would be there as soon as I could.

I made it in 30 minutes, mostly because it was early enough that afternoon traffic hadn’t started yet, but also because I am lucky enough to work in a space that is flexible and understanding, so all I had to do was send a quick email saying I needed to go pick up my son and would be back online once I was home and settled in.

But, not insignificantly, I was able to make it to pick my son up so quickly because I drive to work, even though I don’t, officially, have anywhere to park.

When I first started my job here, I initially took public transit for my commute, but it took me an hour, no matter how I tried to do it. When I drive, most days the commute only takes me 30 minutes in traffic. This is not insignificant when you’re trying to make it home after work to ensure that your kids get to their after-school activities (or to pick them up on time lest you incur a fee or, worse, embarrass your kid). And what if I got the call to pick up my son? I would be able to call an Uber or a taxi ( and hope they wouldn’t mind a trip out to the suburbs), but then, go home first and pick up the car and then pick up the sick kid? Have the car wait for me while I get my sick son, to then have them take me home (and given the heightened panic around the spread of viruses right now, would that even happen)?

I have almost exclusively worked at institutions where public transit is virtually nonexistent. And we have done our best to try and minimize commutes -- we tried, early on, whenever possible, to find a place to live within reasonable walking distance to campus. But that isn’t always possible, nor, with two kids, is it always possible to walk or bike every day to work. So then, in most cases, we had to pay for a parking pass, sometimes two. When you are a contingent faculty member making almost nothing, having to turn back over some of that money to the institution in order to be able to actually get to and from your job in a timely manner is another layer of cruel and usually harsh treatment by the institution.

But what about carpooling? In theory, carpooling is great, and when my husband and I for a time had a long commute into D.C., that’s what we did. But again, what happens when a kid gets sick, or my schedule dictates that I have to leave early or stay late? Most people don’t keep my hours on campus (arrive as soon as the building opens to be able to leave early for the kids’ activities), so whom would I ride with?

This bind particularly impacts, as you can probably imagine, women. It isn’t often seen as an equity issue, but to me, it should be. Often, as well, faculty and senior administration receive preferential treatment when it comes to parking, which leaves the rest of us, the staff who are largely women and people of color, in more precarious and lower-paid employment positions, and who are also at an age when we are caring for young children and even aging parents, scrambling for what is left. This also, of course, impacts the most vulnerable students, too, with nowhere to park and no money to pay for it. An hour a day can make a huge difference. A couple hundred dollars a month in parking fees can make a huge difference. Being late for work because of inadequate public transit can make a huge difference.

I am not so naïve as to think that the solution is easy and nothing more than “build more parking structures” -- particularly for public institutions, there is no easy way to fund that kind of construction because it is not considered an educational space and thus means charging the eventual users of the lot. And, on a lot of campuses, there is just no space. There is little an institution can do to improve public transit options; in recognition of the limited options to get to campus, my current institution does offer free shuttles, but I still have to get to those free shuttle locations. There is a generous and flexible telecommute policy, but there are still days where I need to be on campus, and more still where I would prefer to be on campus.

Eventually, my kid will be grown (or at least 16 and have their driver’s license) and this will be less of an issue, but until then, I spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about where I am going to park today.

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