Rockstar Parking, for a Price

Should professors and students pay more for the best spots? Yes, say parking reformers. 

July 23, 2014

SEATTLE-- The University of Pennsylvania would roll out the carpet for athletic recruits and their parents — and then tow their cars.

“They would come back to their car and it was gone,” said Brian Shaw, who oversaw parking at UPenn as its former director of business services.

Consider it yet another woe of American higher education: parking.

Now, though, some parking reformers are looking to make major changes. Shaw, who is now director of parking and transportation at Stanford University, is a proponent of what he calls “the dark side of parking.” That means, among other things, charging people more for rockstar parking spots.

At colleges and universities around the country, parking is heavily subsidized.  Parking spaces are surprisingly expensive to build: It costs about $18,000 per space in a typical concrete parking garage, according to Casey Jones, a vice president at Idaho-based SP Plus Corporation, which does consulting and manages about 2 million parking spaces.

“It can simply no longer be about just building more parking; you can no longer just build yourself out of the challenges you have today,” Jones said.

And if people paid what it actually cost to build a spot, “We would have a revolt. People like me would be run out of town,” Jones said.

Jones and Shaw gave a presentation Monday at the National Association of College and University Business Officers’ annual conference in which they talked about the merits of demand-based parking. Under that model, the best spots near the center of campus and high-traffic buildings would cost the most and spots off in the hinterlands would cost less.

Jones asked how many people in the room had volunteered to take on oversight of parking. Few, if any, raised their hands. And perhaps no wonder. Parking is an “emotional and sensitive thing,” Jones said.

Parking has long been a problem on college campuses. By 1957, amid the glory days of American car culture, California higher ed leader Clark Kerr’s fundamental insight when he was chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley was to realize his job had come to be “providing parking for the faculty, sex for the students, and athletics for the alumni."

Decades later, perhaps little has changed, though the woes are now shared by students. For instance, during the 1980s, the University of California at Los Angeles surveyed students and discovered far more students were worried about parking than about their reading and math skills or the quantity of work they were assigned.

The problem hasn’t gone away, and now campuses are looking to reduce both parking headaches and their carbon footprints by increasing non-car transportation. The problem may not be the number of spaces but rather how they are assigned.

Parking is often not subject to typical laws of supply and demand. Right now, it seems common campus parking permits are what parking insiders call “hunting licenses”: They all cost the same, but it's up to the permit holder to find a spot.

If a college wants to add 1,000 spaces, that’ll be $18 million. Of course, the cost gets spread out over 30 years, perhaps, but garages still have to be kept up — and that’s an expense — and it’s not like donors are clamoring to get their names on the side of the parking garage.

“I don’t believe we’ve ever dedicated a parking garage to an alumni or a donor, which means we are still in a certain place in our thinking about parking,” Jones said.

Some parking reformers are pushing demand-based pricing. Hunting license and flat-fee parking permits are problematic for a few reasons. First, hunting license permits don’t necessarily guarantee someone a spot.  Second, flat fee parking fees give people an incentive to hold on to a prime spot even if they don’t need it.

Either way, parking reformers are trying to do something about it. And parking plans are only part of comprehensive transportation plans that are also being used to discourage unnecessary commuting in the first place. If parking close to campus is cheap, people will buy permits. But if it’s cheap and still scarce, they will drive around, burning gas and causing traffic. Also, if campus parking is cheaper or easier than public transit, it will give people no excuse not to drive, even if they could walk, bike or take a bus.

But changing any of this, Jones said, tales quite a bit of commitment. Oregon State University just moved to demand-based parking, a move it made after parking caused a deterioration in the campus’s relationship with its non-university neighbors. “That political will from the highest level was absolutely critical,” Jones, whose firm worked on the plan, said.

As a result, Oregon State plans this fall to charge $100 a month for permits to its high-demand lots and $20 a month for its low-demand lots.

At Penn, Shaw also oversaw gradually price increases for prime parking spots. Before that, permits cost the same but there were waiting lists for garages. “There was no incentive for someone to move off a wait list and move somewhere else,” he said.

So, starting in fall 2012, Penn started increasing prices on everyone, but not at the same rate. Parking spots in three prime garages went up 5 percent, while rates for less attractive spots went up only 1 to 3 percent. As a result, the wait list for one garage disappeared and the wait lists for the other two shrank. Why? Some people decided to keep the spaces they had and walk farther rather than pay more to park their cars.

At Stanford, Shaw is planning to deploy the same approach. He said a key will be to give people options as prices on permits rise. If colleges are raising prices, they also need to provide alternatives, like easy-to-obtain and affordable transit passes or campus buses. Shaw said he plans to add more express buses at Stanford modeled after the Google buses that prowl the Bay Area.

“Otherwise, they have no choice but to fight you on this,” he said. “You are going to put them into a corner, and when we do that to people, they are going to fight back."

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