Finding a Parking Spot

Finding a Parking Spot

Find out how some institutions are easing parking challenges.

The institutions and campuses change, but the grievances remain the same. Across the country, college students, faculty, and support staff have similar complaints regarding parking demand and capacity: finding a spot during peak hours involves endlessly circling lots and chasing down individuals walking to their vehicles; using or purchasing a parking permit does not guarantee a parking spot; and the entire parking process often makes students and faculty late for classes and appointments.

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 impacting parking negatively, as surface lots often are used as the sites for new academic buildings, athletic centers or performing arts facilities.

A number of colleges and universities have attempted to correct this by implementing parking fees that are based on the salary of employees. A college or university should consider whether a salary-based parking rate program will help alleviate its ongoing parking difficulties.

Managing parking demand

Salary-based parking rate programs are not for every institution. If parking on a campus is plentiful, then charging employees for parking may not be seen as a necessity. Conversely, if a college or university features sufficient peripheral parking, but demand exceeds supply at the campus core, implementing a pricing system is a rational form of rationing a scarce resource. Salary-based parking rates attempt to achieve a balance.

Universities and colleges have pricing programs in place not to generate revenue, but to address a mismatch between supply and demand (a fact many students and faculty members are unaware of), particularly in those campus areas that are busy commercially or feature mixed-use development. Simply put, charging for parking is one of the simplest ways to manage parking demand.

In order for a parking-pricing program to be effective it must fairly allocate spaces, since the inability to find a parking space is often more of a problem than the need to pay for one. Pricing affects travel behavior and helps reduce demand for parking, as individuals are encouraged to walk or bike to a college or university, participate in carpools or ride public transportation.

Salary-based parking rates are one way to manage parking demand through pricing. The concept buys into a time-honored campus principle of egalitarianism: If students must pay for parking (typically done through a pricing system or at the very least, tuition fees), why shouldn’t faculty and staff pay as well? And if this is the case, does one price fit all?

Salary-based programs frequently are lauded for being more efficient than programs based on priority and seniority lists. These programs better allocate spaces to a college or university’s primary user groups—faculty members, administrators and students—based on a group’s individual parking needs.

There are several different salary-based parking programs that an institution can use:

•Tranche systems involve paying fees based on annual salary levels. At Lehigh University, for example, prices range from the $96 (for those employees making $60,000 or more) to $24 (for employees earning $20,000 or less). Meanwhile, at Towson University, employees making $80,000 or more pay $715, and those at $15,000 or less pay $75.

•Fees can be based on a small percentage of an employee’s yearly salary (not including overtime or chair stipends). For example, Rutgers University’s faculty, staff and teaching assistants pay a fee that is 0.001 percent of their annual salary. The University of Illinois instituted a program where employees pay 0.7 percent of their salary. The maximum rate was $40 per month, resulting in an average annual rate of $242. 

•A “zone” system has employees paying fees based on a percentage of their annual salary, as well as the proximity of parking facilities. At the University of Vermont, employees wishing to park in “green” designated parking facilities (classified as core parking), pay 0.56 of their annual salary. “White” zone users pay 0.42 percent, and “orange” zone (peripheral parking) users pay 0.28.

The other side

Salary-based parking programs are not without their opponents. Many argue that parking is a commodity with a specific price tag associated with it. For example, studies have shown that one space in a conventional parking lot costs about $5,000 to build and maintain. This means one employee may pay less than another to park when each space costs the same to build and maintain.

Others say that when compared with flat-rate systems, salary-based fees encourage single-occupant vehicle use—thus discouraging alternatives like carpooling—since payers with lower parking fees have less of a financial incentive to carpool. There is also the argument that salary is not the only measure of wealth and that lesser paid employees with higher-paid spouses or other assets should not be compensated with reduced parking fees. 

Opponents of salary-based fees also cite the lack of such programs being utilized by other campus services (i.e., cafeterias, bookstores, etc.), as well as how they seemingly punish those with high salaries.

Lastly, salary-based parking programs often lead to a greater pool of drivers having access to a campus’ most desirable parking. This forces institutions to implement parking lotteries and waiting lists, which are two methods that are less transparent.

Programs with income-sensitive options

Many universities and colleges are finding that deviating from a fixed salary-based approach and opting for a program that implements particular income-sensitive options is more effective in resolving parking issues. The aforementioned University of Vermont “zone” program is one such example. One administrator at a university that used such a program marveled at the number of employees who could afford the higher-priced parking “zone,” yet opted for the lower-priced ones.

Another example involved a university where parking prices were affecting lower-paid employees, many of whom couldn’t afford to live near campus because of the high cost of living. This institution’s challenge was to structure a pricing scheme that recognized the financial challenges of these employees (and doing so without the stigma of being relegated to a remote lot for low-income commuters), while not providing a low-cost rate to all employees. The solution was to create one established fee and then offer discounts to eligible employees based on salary.

Grappling with the problem

For decades now, colleges and universities have grappled with the problem of how to fairly price parking in a way that balances supply and demand. Faculty members, administrators and students often want their schools to build more parking. Certainly, some colleges and universities do need more parking facilities. However, for many institutions of higher learning, the problem is not the number of parking spaces, but that existing spaces are not managed equitably. 

Salary-based parking rate programs are one way in which colleges and universities can effectively resolving parking issues.

Efroymson is with Walker Parking Consultants, a parking consultant firm.

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