Parking on Campus

I've written about my experiences as a winter cyclist in Cleveland. One of the things that got under my nerves the most was the reaction people had to the fact that I was bicycling 1.5 miles to class at John Carroll on cold or snowy days. Of course, I'll admit, it was slightly crazy for biking in those conditions, and I understand why more people don't do it; but there were a number of people who made note of the fact that they drive to campus in the winter, but they live close enough that they could walk or bike in nicer weather. The question is: do they?

Last Thursday was just about the most perfect weather day you could imagine. I shot two photos around noon. The temperature was 75 degrees, it was sunny, and there was no wind. First, the primary "commuter" parking lot:

And second, the bike rack on campus where I park my bike:

Now, you could look at this and hypothesize that most of those "commuter" students live far away and bicycling or walking is simply not an option. While true for some, the dirty secret is that most of the "off-campus" students, like me, rent a property in the neighborhood and live within a two-mile radius of the campus. It also happens that University Heights, despite being annoyingly suburban in many ways, has a street grid that makes it possible to bike just about anywhere within that two-mile radius of campus on secondary roads.

The university has a serious parking problem: there's way too much. And amazingly, the administration thinks exactly the opposite, that there isn't enough! Most of the university's expansion plans are aggressive about adding more spaces for cars. When they knock down the now vacant old science building, what are they going to replace it with? You guessed it - a new parking lot.

This post is more than a criticism of one university and its parking lots. The reason you have so many people driving less than two-miles to campus on the most beautiful day of the year is because that's the culture. It's normal to drive to campus - expected, even. Walking or biking is what's outside the norm. People don't even consider it.

Every place has its own culture, whether it's a country, city, neighborhood, campus, etc. All else equal, the more dominant car-culture is, the more people you should expect to drive everywhere. You can invest in better bicycling infrastructure, install racks, paint bike lanes, etc; but if you do nothing to challenge the dominant car-culture, then all those new facilities will be underutilized.

Changing the culture solves practical problems too. If my university truly believes it has too few parking spaces, one solution is to encourage fewer people to use them. This makes the university more sustainable in the long-term, as building a never-ending supply of new parking spaces as the campus grows is costly, both financially and politically. Incentivizing fewer people to park on campus is not unreasonable. There are more than a few universities that have strong walking and biking cultures. Many urban universities significantly restrict the number of students who are allowed to park on campus, at any price. And believe me, people aren't turning down offers to good universities because someplace else is offering a cheaper or a guaranteed parking space.


    On April 21, 2010 rg said...

    It really is the culture and what people are used to.

    When we have out of town guests normally ordinary trips to nearby destinations suddenly become exercises in planning. For example, to go to the commercial strip 9 blocks from our house, we would normally never give a second thought to how we make that trip. We walk or bicycle. That's just simply how we get around and it makes no sense (to us, at least) to take the Metro one stop when walking there only takes 10 minutes. (Driving is not an option since we do not have a car, but even if we did, why deal with the parking hassle when our destination is so close?)

    But, a 9-block, 10-minute walk is a long one for people used to driving everywhere, which is to say, for most Americans. So, when we have out of town guests we either have to convince people to walk, or we take the Metro one stop or, if they have a car, we take their car. On more than one occassion, we have convinced our guests to walk 9 blocks to dinner only to have them insist that we take a taxi back home.

    So, everything is indeed relative according to your culture and your life experience. For most Americans any walk of more than a few blocks is, unfortunately, a long one.

    Another example: my office is in downtown DC three blocks from the Convention Center. There is a Marriott Hotel across the street from my office. Anytime there is a big meeting at the convention center, the street is invariably clogged up with a line of huge shuttle buses to take conventioneers from the Marriott to the convetion center. Granted, in a convention of several thousand people, there will undoubtedly be attendees who are unable to walk for a variety of reasons. But the sheer number of shuttle buses hints that the convetion organizers, probably correctly, assume that most attendees, at least the Americans, will not want to walk 3 blocks. The funny thing is that because of one-way streets, the buses have to take a pretty circuitous route that is considerably longer than 3 blocks. If traffic is congested, the buses probably take as much time as to get to the Convention Center as two round-trip walks would take.