A Plan in Place

On many college campuses, parking is a focal point of discontent: There's not enough of it; it costs too much; the spaces available aren't convenient.

But parking doesn't have to be a nightmare for campus administrators. By taking a strategic approach, schools can meet their parking needs in a way that satisfies most people who depend on having available parking.

More students have cars than ever before. That has made parking a more important and contentious issue than ever before. In fact, surveys indicate that on some campuses, as many as half of all students have cars, either to commute to campus or to drive to jobs when classes are over.

Universities competing for students should think twice about ignoring the issue or unreasonably restricting the amount of student parking. The challenge for administrators and planners is to figure out how much parking is actually needed — both in total and for each individual constituency (students, faculty and staff) — and then create a campuswide plan that provides sufficient parking that is safe, convenient and affordable, and does not detract from the beauty of the campus.

Determining need

The first step is determining how much parking is needed. A parking demand study helps do this by observing parking behaviors. For a college or university campus, the process generally involves a survey of faculty, staff and students.

Parking patterns are an important consideration — not everyone needs parking at the same time. For instance, staff generally will require parking during the day; commuting students and faculty will need a combination of daytime and evening parking. Some resident students will use their cars infrequently during the week, only using them to drive home on weekends, and others may need their cars every day. If they understand these patterns, parking planners can make more informed decisions about how much parking is needed and where that parking should be situated.

It also is important to recognize that not all parking demand studies are created equal. All too often, planners rely on cookie-cutter approaches that don't take into account the unique requirements and characteristics of a campus. For instance, an urban university with access to public transportation will have parking needs different from a campus in a suburban or rural setting.

A school can conduct a campus parking study in many ways. Survey methods can range from paper-and-pencil surveys in classrooms or at strategically situated survey stations to the use of campus e-mail.

An effective study will provide the necessary data about who requires parking; where students, staff and visitors need to park; and what time of day the greatest parking needs exist. Seasonally, peak need tends to occur in the fall, so many universities will use fall peaks as their baseline for making decisions.

However, existing need is only part of the equation. Planners also must factor in future expansion plans. It is just as important to understand likely parking needs and behaviors five or 10 years into the future. Also, if growth is anticipated for individual parts of campus — for instance, if a science or business facility is planned on a certain part of campus — parking planning must take into account the impact of that anticipated growth on parking.

Mistakes can be costly — insufficient parking leads to dissatisfaction among students, faculty and staff, and excessive parking can consume valuable space. University planners must make sure that their studies ascertain the distinctive needs and challenges presented by their institutions.

New parking

If a parking demand study indicates that additional spaces are needed, planners have to figure out what type of parking to build and where to put it.

Ideally, new parking will be adjacent to areas with the greatest need. For instance, if there isn't enough parking to serve a university's business school, it would be logical to place new parking close to that school. But in many cases, sufficient land is not available for more parking. Many campuses already are closely developed, and administrators are hesitant to take green space or eliminate sports fields for parking. In these situations, it may make sense to replace existing parking lots with multi-level structures that can accommodate many more vehicles on the same footprint.

Properly designed parking structures also may offer some safety features. The ceilings on parking decks provide more area for high-intensity lighting, and walls that are painted a light color reflect that illumination throughout a structure. Properly illuminated garages that limit access to legitimate users may reduce the potential for assault or vehicle-pedestrian collisions.

Features such as glass elevators and stair towers can enhance visibility, and placing a public safety “mini-station” in the facility can bolster the feeling of security. The walls and support beams in parking structures offer a good place for signs and other wayfinding tools that direct vehicles away from pedestrian lanes, and minimize the chance of cars colliding with pedestrians. In some cases, colleges can combine parking and academic uses into one facility.

Levels of service

It's not just the type of parking that affects convenience. Parking management also can play a role. Different types of drivers require different levels of service. For instance, instructors often will want to park close to their classes — they may have tight schedules or have to haul cumbersome loads of teaching materials from their cars. At the same time, students who feel that they are paying a premium for parking may feel their needs should be a priority. These conflicting interests can cause headaches for campus planners and administrators.

There essentially are three choices for addressing this issue:

  • Establish a variety of parking rates

    Many universities offer several levels of parking, each of which has a different cost. Central parking near residence halls and classrooms is provided at a premium, and peripheral parking is less expensive. Remote parking that drivers can get to by shuttle buses (or a long walk) is cheaper still. This can be an attractive option because it places the decision in the hands of parkers, and choice often results in parker satisfaction. However, this approach is possible only if there is sufficient space on campus to provide a variety of choices.

  • Specify different parking areas for students and staff

    This approach takes the guesswork out of parking and allows campus planners to retain control over parking. Planners who choose this approach must be sure that they understand the requirements of each of their parking constituencies.

  • Provide open parking

    “First come, first serve” parking (that still requires a permit) is the most democratic option. Not everyone will be happy with this approach (particularly those who don't have to be on campus first thing in the morning), but this may be the most efficient use of available spaces.

Burr is a parking planner for Rich and Associates, Southfield, Mich., a firm dedicated to parking design and planning.

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