Want a Good Parking Spot? Read On

Colleges reserve spaces for hybrids or car-poolers to encourage environmentally friendlier commuting.
September 26, 2008

It’s no secret that the prime parking spot is a prized thing.

At Augsburg College, in Minneapolis, a three-year-old car pool program hadn’t caught on -- until officials moved the car-poolers’ reserved spaces from the edge to the center of campus this summer. The number of car pools climbed from one or two to five this fall, and there are also some other interested parties. “We know from what the car-poolers have told us that moving those reserved spots to the heart of campus, and adding that convenience factor, has been a big draw,” said John Pack, Augsburg’s director of public safety.

"When you're in a car pool group, you have your own reserved spot. Not even the president has his own reserved spot."

Short of converting to telecommuting or online learning operations, colleges may have limited leverage in controlling their employees’ or students’ commuting habits -- but what leverage they do have may lie partly in their parking polices. While changes haven’t been drastic, a number of colleges have put in place small numbers of “car pool only” or “hybrid only” parking spots to encourage greener driving habits (and, in the car-pooling case, also cut demand for parking at colleges with too few spaces).

To take just a couple examples, De Anza College, a two-year institution in California, has 37 parking spaces reserved for car-poolers and 13 for alternative fuel vehicles, which must have a factory insignia declaring them as such (i.e., “hybrid,” “bio-diesel” or “electric vehicle”). Western Michigan University has 15 spots for alternative fuel vehicles by its College of Health and Human Services -- an item noted in the college’s application for LEED certification for its building, occupied since 2005. “We’re quite excited about our new building and about our commitment to sustainability,” said the college’s dean, Earlie Washington.

Many might have characterized commuting issues as being outside a college's domain. But parking policies like these could become especially popular among signatories of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which requires colleges to factor emissions from faculty, staff and student commuting into their plans to go “carbon neutral.” At some signatory colleges, those commuting emissions are their primary source of emissions. Centralia College, a two-year institution in Washington State, reported in its recent inventory that 88 percent of all college emissions are commuting-related.

As of the start of fall quarter on Monday, Centralia has a new policy in place to create reserved spaces for car-poolers, as well as those driving hybrid or electric cars. (The college has plans to install outlets for the electric cars.)

"People like to park as close as possible to the campus and those spaces are somewhat limited. So I guess the easy way to get close to campus, close to classes, is to car pool or drive a hybrid vehicle," said Don Frey, a Centralia spokesman. He noted that the college has also long offered free bus passes to students.

Asked how Centralia plans to enforce the policy, “We’re doing this on faith, essentially, that the students are complying with the spirit of what we’re doing here,” said Frey. “Initially when they sign up, we get a commitment from the students that they are participating in the program, and that they agree to car pool.… We can’t police this continually and constantly, and there may be a risk that somebody’s taken advantage of it, but we have found that by and large students are honest.”

At Ohio State University, however, officials have so far shied away from reserving spaces for car-poolers and fuel-efficient vehicles because of concerns about enforcement. “People will try to push the envelope on this kind of stuff,” said Sarah Blouch, Ohio State's director of transportation and parking. She recalled, for instance, spaces that used to be reserved for compact cars. “But no one knew what that was…. The easy way is you say if you fit inside the box,” you’re a compact car.

“We’d have some SUVs crammed into the spaces.”

Blouch is receptive to reserving spots for fuel-efficient vehicles, but first wants to develop a list of which cars count and which don’t, to aid enforcement. And while it hasn’t done so for more informal car pools, Ohio State has, since 2007, reserved spots for 12-people van pools organized through the local regional planning commission. Where are those parking spaces located? Wherever the van driver wants.

Members of the van pool also get 10 free parking permits to use on days they must drive, for whatever reasons. Still, only two van pools are running.

“You’d think on a campus of 25,000 faculty and staff you’d be able to get more than two van pools.... I think the nature of the 24-7 operation has been part of the problem. People just have so many different schedules," said Blouch.

Colleges' policies on parking, of course, have been just a small piece of their overall efforts to encourage more eco-friendly habits, by moving to four-day work weeks, running bicycle-sharing programs, and subsidizing mass transit. As tempting as that prime parking spot may be, not everyone is convinced that parking privileges are the best way to encourage eco-friendly habits.

At De Anza College, a student newspaper editorial last May criticized reserved spaces for alternative fuel vehicles as “virtually unenforceable” and as privileging wealthier students who can pay a premium for hybrids.

As the La Voz opinion piece argues, “Earth-conscious students should be rewarded for their efforts to improve the environment, but not for whatever cars they may drive -- if people really want to make a difference with what they drive, they can buy a bicycle.”


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