On November 19th, I learned that Washtenaw Community College (WCC) is intending to build a parking structure. I've been researching the situation and becoming increasingly discouraged. Why?
Making room for more cars is a poor solution to a real problem. But equally important, it's a very popular solution. As you may know, I was a full-time faculty member at WCC for 24 years (1983-2007) and I'm teaching a couple of courses now, so I'm pretty familiar with what's been going on there.
The Ebb and Flow of Cars at WCC
WCC has a surge of cars coming to campus the first two weeks of class. Some of their drivers are doing errands such as registering for classes or buying books; others are attending classes; still others are simply using WCC as a park-and-ride where they can leave their car and take the bus to Ann Arbor. I admit it - I've done that myself from time to time, and talked to several others who do it regularly.
Because of the nature of community colleges, a lot of people enroll in classes but find they can't continue due to family or job responsibilities. Others are unprepared for college-level classes, but because of low tuition and high hopes, they enroll and try, only to discover that it's more than they can handle. The cumulative result is that the parking lot gets more and more empty as each term proceeds.
Another factor is the "recession rush". There have been several recessions since I came to WCC, and in all but one (the 2001 "dot com bubble bust") job layoffs have sent people back to the community college to upgrade their skills. The current recession is no exception - in fact, because of its severity, WCC has experienced a record boom in enrollment. That's why you may have seen photos of cars parked on the grass.
But after each recession, what happens? People go back to work and enrollment drops back down. Not as far down as pre-recession levels - apart from the boom-and-bust cyclces, there has been a slow but steady gain in enrollment over the decades. By midterm in every year since 1983, there has always been ample parking.
Why the Parking Structure is a Popular Solution
In The Voice, WCC's student-run newspaper, letters to the editor have applauded the parking structure decision by a large margin, compared to those who expressed opposition or even hesitation.
There are many reasons for this. One is the feeling that free, convenient parking is an American right. Donald Shoup's now-classic article, "The High Cost of Free Parking" (1997) explains in detail how free parking is mandated in new buildings across the US, which goes a long way to explain why the US has the highest per capita use of automobiles in the world.
But let's face it: for many WCC students, there is no way to get to the college without driving. We don't have a county-wide transit system, and for the many evening students, existing transit doesn't run late enough to get them home. I've often had evening students ask to leave class early so they can catch the last bus. Occasionally, I've given car-deprived students a ride home after class (against college policy!) so they could finish a test or group exercise.
After the first couple of weeks of a term, there has always been ample parking available, including the record-breaking Fall 2009 term. But it's only reliably available in the parking lot furthest from the classroom buildings, and people apparently hate to walk more than about two minutes from their cars to their classes. They seem to prefer circling the parking lot for 10 minutes rather than walk for 5. This term, I've have never had trouble finding parking 6-7 minutes from the building where I teach. During the first two weeks, I parked in EMU's stadium parking lot and took WCC's free shuttle bus back and forth every day. (WCC ran the shuttle for employees only during the first two weeks.) Yes, it added about 10 minutes to the commute, but it brought me to within a 2-minute walk of my building.
The proposed parking structure is to be built within a 1-minute walk of three buildings, and no more than 5 minutes from the furthest, so this is perceived as a great advantage over parking that's 6-8 minutes away.
Why the Parking Structure is a Poor Solution
There are several reasons why the parking structure is a poor solution to the problem.
First and foremost, the problem is mis-identified. The problem is not insufficient parking, it's lack of transportation options. If buses ran more frequently, to more parts of the county, and ran later in the evening, students would have choices besides owning and driving a car.
Even if we continue to focus on lack of parking as "the problem", the college doesn't have a permanent parking problem. As I outlined above, the college's main problem is the surge at the start of the term. The EMU stadium parking lot can easily handle the surge, and shuttle buses are a good deal less costly than a parking structure. They only need to be chartered for a couple of weeks each term, but a structure has to be funded and operated whether it's needed or not.
The college recently conducted a carbon-footprint survey. According to Dale Petty, the Electronics faculty member working on the survey, about 40% of the college's carbon footprint is attributable to people driving to campus. No matter what else the college does to reduce its carbon emissions, failure to address this aspect will leave WCC responsible a great, stomping footprint. Not only does a parking structure fail to address the issue, it encourages more people to drive.
How the structure is to be paid for is perhaps the worst aspect of the plan. According to material in the Board of Trustees packet for October 2009, the $11 million cost is to be paid for with a bond issue. But no millage is to be raised to pay off the bonds (it's pretty obvious the county wouldn't vote for such a millage!); instead, the repayment is to be made from the General Fund with the help of a surcharge to each credit hour. Initially, the surcharge would be $3, but that would go up to $4 as the debt load increases, before going back to $3 toward the end of the bond issue's life.
There are two problems with this funding model. One is that General Fund dollars should go to educating people, but the parking structure would suck funds away from education and put them into supporting our over-use of automobiles. The other is that everybody would have to pay the surcharge whether they use cars or not. Those who can't afford to buy and use a car would be compelled to subsidize those who are better off and can afford to drive. Such a regressive model should never be allowed at a community college.
In the final analysis, vehicle miles traveled have been declining nation-wide. The parking structure is a 20th century solution to a 21st century problem. The time to invest in parking structures was back in the 1970s. The parking problem will improve over time, not get worse; the cost of the parking structure will remain with us for many years, whether or not it's needed.
So What would be a Better Solution?
The first and best solution is simply not to build a parking structure. Continue use the EMU stadium parking for the surge.
It would be far less costly to pay people not to park in WCC's parking lot. A good start was made offering employees a free snack at the college coffee shop when they parked at EMU, and that type of incentive is just a start.
Now it's time to invest in transportation alternatives, which means the college should be working with AATA, send a representative to AATA Board meetings, support a county-wide transit system finanaically, as well as with lip service. There are consultants who can help identify less costly, more responsible alternatives. (I don't know who they are, but I know they're out there.)
Ultimately, no parking is free: it's very costly. Why should parking be free, when a bus pass costs $10 per term? A good start would be to require people parking at WCC to have a parking permit. At a minimum, that would keep people from using WCC as a park-and-ride lot. The permit could even be "free" - at least, at first. Offer registered students a choice: free parking permit, or free bus pass. That would level the playing field. Then, if a parking structure is built, a fee can be levied for parking permits. That would be a much fairer plan that putting a fee on every credit hour, regardless of a student's ability to drive.
WCC should be teaching the community about how to thrive in the "new, green economy". Let's teach by example.