Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Campus Parking and Surrounding Neighborhoods, Solutions to a Contentious Issue?

College and University parking is a hot button issue and often there is significant negative spillover effects on surrounding neighborhoods. The relationship between a University and the area in which it sits are often strained to say the least, hence the common colloquialism referring to "town/gown" relations. Although many in the surrounding neighborhoods benefit greatly from the University with events, cultural happenings, diversity, employment, and the like, so much of the relationship is defined by the day to day. For Americans, sadly, it might boil down to the ease with which one can park on the street in the neighborhood where one lives.

The University of Southern Maine (USM) in Portland is located in a quasi-urban, quasi-suburban part of town. Forest Avenue to the northwest of campus is retail oriented but the neighborhood immediately southwest is primarily residential. The density is high (for a suburb), reflecting its historical past as a streetcar suburb in the days before the automobile. USM is essentially land-locked in its current location. The southwest part of campus is primarily composed of converted housing, now filled with administrative offices. The northeast is composed of large buildings and significant space dedicated to parking. The grey polygons in the map below represent surface lots, the orangish polygon is the parking garage.
USM Campus, parking facilities, and impacted neighborhoods.
During peak class hours, parking on campus is difficult to obtain. Without going into the numbers here, it is safe to say that many cars idle while waiting for turnover in the parking garage. Surface lots are reserved for faculty and staff and tend to fill up early. Many of those waiting for spaces to open resort to parking on neighborhood streets, much to the chagrin of nearby residents. The large polygon, in the map above, that nearly encompasses campus is neighborhoods that are likely affected by this parking spillover. This area is not definitive and effects could be occurring across Forest Avenue as well. For our purposes of thinking about solutions, I just included this area.

As a potential remedy to the strained relationship, what if neighborhoods issued permits to residents as well as students, faculty and staff, that would fund neighborhood improvement projects? Neighborhood residents who wanted to park on city streets would pay for a nominally priced, reduced rate permit, meant to cover the administrative fees of issuing those permits, and students, faculty and staff would pay for permits at a market rate. How is a market rate set you ask? Many transportation demand management researchers suggest that the target goal for parking should allow for 15% of spaces to be unoccupied at any given time. Logistically this is difficult with permit parking in an uncontrolled space. Rates would need to be adjusted periodically, and due to University scheduling, perhaps every semester, rates could be adjusted based on peak hour studies to achieve an optimal peak hour vacancy rate.

Administering a program such as this would require some monies, but much of the revenue would be surplus. To bolster relations with surrounding neighborhoods and foster good will, the revenue from those permits would be spent in ways that directly benefit neighborhood residents through infrastructure improvements such as improved signage, speed tables, and community events. A neighborhood association could be responsible for identifying improvements and work with the city to accomplish neighborhood goals.

I am not sure how something like this would play out, but as universities seek to grow from land-locked locations such as USM, surface parking lots seem like good choice for cheap real estate. A scenario such as this would have to be a small part of a complete suite of transportation changes on urban campuses. These would involve: land-use changes, enhanced transit offerings, financial incentives, financial disincentives, car/van pooling, and promoting walking and biking. A solution is out there, it just requires some planning!