No Place to Park

The institutions and campuses change, but the narratives remain the same. Across the country, college students, faculty, and support staff have similar complaints regarding parking facilities. They frequently point out that finding a spot during peak hours involves endlessly circling lots and chasing down individuals walking to their vehicles. Others will say how the entire parking process often makes students late for classes. Another common complaint is that using or purchasing a parking permit does not guarantee a parking spot. And finally, because it is often students who lack sufficient parking, they will say that when all else fails, they are forced to park illegally, resulting in a ticket, or worse, getting towed.

Without a doubt, parking is one of the most widespread and frustrating problems afflicting U.S. colleges and universities. Thanks to rising enrollment numbers, more students are competing for limited spaces. Meanwhile, campus expansion projects are negatively impacting parking as surface lots are often used as the sites for new academic buildings, athletic, or performing arts facilities.

To properly improve parking facilities, as well as the services that link them to campus destinations, colleges and universities need to conduct a comprehensive analysis of their parking and transportation management systems.

Addressing Shortfalls

A parking and transportation analysis will include a wide variety of data: parking supply inventories detailed by assignment (faculty/staff, resident student, commuter student, service vehicle, handicap accessible, reserved, metered parking, etc.); class schedules and student enrollment numbers by semester; information from online surveys and focus group interviews involving students, faculty, and staff; on-street and off-street occupancy counts during peak class days; and traffic counts on campus and adjacent roadways. This data will be useful in creating a comprehensive plan to improve an institution’s transportation and parking systems.

One of the core components of a parking management plan is how efficiently parking facilities link up with nearby pathways. Many institutions are unable to provide all the required parking close to existing campus buildings. This means students, faculty, and support staff must park their vehicles outside the campus core and then walk some distance to their destinations. A comprehensive parking and transportation plan will ensure this happens efficiently, thanks to a variety of enhancements: good sight lines and signage, proper landscaping (such as shade-providing trees), and bright lighting after dark. These modifications will improve circulation around campus by making the walking experience more pleasurable and reducing, if not eliminating, opportunities for any pedestrian/vehicular conflicts.

Transportation and parking management plans can also include upgrading bicycle paths. These can be quite effective in getting individuals to campus destinations. Well-planned paths typically feature convenient parking spots and bike racks, as well as links to regional bicycle networks. A bike path won’t be truly effective, however, unless there’s consistency in where it runs. For example, a bike lane that runs along the curb lanes of roadways and then switches to a sidewalk or pedestrian path will only create confusion for riders, as well as potential conflicts with walkers.  

Promoting bicycle usage is also essential. For example, incoming freshmen at Wisconsin’s Ripon College are offered, through the College’s Velorution Project, a free mountain bike, helmet, and bike lock in exchange for not bringing a car to campus. The program is made possible by donations from alumni, trustees, and friends of the school.

Encouraging Mass Transit Usage and Carpooling

Transportation and parking management plans can also encourage the use of mass transit options. Many colleges and universities are accomplishing this by offering students free or reduced-price transportation passes.

Institutions are also developing their own shuttle bus systems, which typically connect high-volume destinations on or near a campus with residence halls, remote parking lots, and neighborhood areas where students often live. The service can be paid for through a student-imposed fee that is added to the tuition. Shuttle buses are particularly useful in making the overall parking experience more pleasant, as they significantly reduce the amount of time individuals spend searching for available spaces since drivers knows beforehand which lots to utilize.

Of course, increased mass transit ridership may mean roadway improvements are often needed to facilitate  efficient traffic movement. This can include roadway modifications, restriping changes, and traffic signal relocation.

Car- and vanpools are also proving to be effective solutions. For example, at the University of Washington, students who utilize carpools can park for free, while others pay $192 per quarter. Car-sharing programs are also being implemented at some schools. Members reserve vehicles online or by phone; reservations can be made minutes or a year in advance.

Another option is to reduce demand for parking spaces. At many institutions, it’s not uncommon for freshmen and sophomores to be denied parking permits and restrict permits only to upperclassmen. Some urban colleges have taken this a step further. Columbia University, for example, doesn’t allow any students to park on campus; only faculty and support staff members are issued parking permits.

Why More Parking Facilities Don’t Work

One of the frequently cited parking solutions is to turn empty spaces on campus into more surface lots and garages. An obvious barrier to being able to provide additional parking is its cost. According to studies, one space in a conventional parking lot costs approximately $2,000 to build and maintain. When it’s in a parking garage the cost is even more, as it can exceed $15,000 per space.

In addition, many believe that parking lots take away from the overall physical appearance of a college or university. Too many paved-over spaces can negatively impact the physical appeal of a campus.

Finally, development of additional parking within a campus typically means an increase in traffic, something existing roadways may not be able to accommodate. Overall, institutions would be better off discouraging the use of cars, as automobiles create health and safety risks and can discourage a sense of community on campuses.

Healthier, Safer Environments

For years now, U.S. colleges and universities have battled with parking issues. An effective parking and transportation management plan can help resolve a system’s shortfalls and in the process, reduce an institution’s reliance on the automobile. Doing this can not only make a longstanding college headache a thing of the past, but transform a campus into a healthier, safer, and friendlier outdoor environment. 

David W. Burr is senior parking planner with Rich and Associates. He can be reached at

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