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On the College Campus of the Future, Parking May Be a Relic

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A mixed-used garage at the north end of Northwestern University’s campus combines 1,125 parking spaces with a business incubator and a community speech and hearing clinic.CreditLyndon French for The New York Times

With just one parking space for every five people, on a campus of roughly 65,000, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has one of the lowest parking ratios of any major university in the country.

To reduce the number of cars on campus, parking permits are off limits to students, who are instead encouraged to walk, bike or take the bus.

Because visitors to the 936-acre campus often have a hard time finding parking, the university’s latest master plan, nearing completion, recommends an additional 2,200 spaces over the next 20 to 40 years. But Gary A. Brown, the director of campus planning, is reluctant to add any spaces right away. When Mr. Brown looks into the future, he sees a campus even more reliant on ride-hailing services like Uber and car-sharing services like Zipcar, as well as the likely emergence of autonomous vehicles, trends that could substantially decrease parking demand.

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One level of the 435-space parking garage that is part of the Segal Visitors Center at Northwestern.CreditLyndon French for The New York Times
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The Garage is the incubator inside Northwestern’s north parking facility. CreditLyndon French for The New York Times

“The autonomous vehicle thing came up in the middle of our discussion on the master plan — at some point, that’s going to impact how much parking we need,” he said. “So we might not be building parking as fast, or if so, maybe we’re going to design it differently so you can repurpose it for other uses.”

More universities are beginning to consider where transportation is headed as they wrestle with parking woes, often one of the thorniest issues on campus. Over the last 20 years, many campuses have shifted their emphasis to manage the demand, rather than build more garages, out of a desire to reduce their carbon footprint, put valuable land to higher uses and avoid construction costs that can run $20,000 to $30,000 a space.

The transportation technology “revolution” should only accentuate that trend, said Andy Cohen, a co-chief executive at Gensler, an architecture, design and planning firm with offices around the world.

“It’s a major issue for universities, especially where there are a lot of commuters,” Mr. Cohen said. “Think about how massively the infrastructure’s going to change, say, for a community college,” which will probably need to provide sizable pickup and drop-off areas, instead of parking garages.

The timeline for this shift is uncertain. Widespread adoption of autonomous vehicle technology is not expected for at least another decade. One recent study, by the RethinkX research firm, concludes that the switch will be so extensive, however, that by 2030, 95 percent of passenger-miles in the United States will be traveled by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles owned by fleets. The report predicts that the number of passenger vehicles in the United States will drop precipitously to 44 million from 247 million.

In trying to meet current parking needs, without overbuilding for the near future, universities are faced with a tricky calculus. They typically use bonds to finance new garages, and pay for the bonds over 20 or 30 years with parking revenue, Mr. Brown said. “You want to make sure that that revenue will be generated,” he said.

Increasingly, campuses are focusing on managing demand instead, charging more for the most convenient spaces, running shuttles, subsidizing public transit passes, and adding bike and car-sharing services. Typically, universities have more parking availability than they think — they just are not using it efficiently, said David Lieb, a consultant with Walker Parking Consultants. His firm recently undertook a project for a large Midwestern university concerned about a parking shortage, and found that of 26,000 spaces on campus, about 7,000 farthest from the campus center were empty at peak hours.

Tom Yardley, a principal with Nelson-Nygaard, a transportation planning firm, also tries to sell campuses on effective parking management, because it “can make a greener campus and create more open space,” he said. “Those are the campuses that are attracting the most talent and the most interest from students.”

His firm is working with a community college in Ohio with roughly 30,000 students, as it weighs whether to share investment in a new garage with neighboring institutions and businesses.

“They’re nervous about building a garage on their own because the autonomous-vehicle future could make garages into a bit of a liability by making them redundant,” Mr. Yardley said. “How it looks could be quite different, maybe space that could be flexed to different uses.”

Mr. Cohen advocates garage designs that use level rather than sloped floors and higher floor-to-ceiling heights so that the structures can be more easily converted to other uses, such as offices. The designs might increase the cost of a garage by 10 to 15 percent, he said, but the investment would pay off down the road with an easier retrofitting project.

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The reception area inside the Segal Visitors Center at Northwestern. CreditLyndon French for The New York Times
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The side of the Segal Center facing Lake Michigan was designed to complement Northwestern’s sailing center.CreditLyndon French for The New York Times

Some universities are building mixed-use garages, which can be a more efficient use of land and help ensure maximal use of spaces. Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., has built two mixed-use garages in recent years, as part of a plan to move parking to the periphery of campus and free up more interior land for green space.

A 1,125-space garage at the north end of campus houses an entrepreneurship incubator known as the Garage, as well as a speech and hearing clinic open to the community. At the south end, a 435-space garage designed by Perkins & Will is home to the Segal Visitors Center. The building uses limestone and glass facades on the sides facing campus, and a facade with canvas, sail-like elements facing Lake Michigan and the university’s sailing center.

“We believe that it doesn’t really make sense to have space that is just for cars,” said Alan K. Cubbage, the vice president for university relations. “You want to use the space in a thoughtful way.”

At the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, the private-sector construction of thousands of apartments just off campus, with nearly as many parking spaces, has created an opportunity to rethink the need for aging garages on prime land in the center of campus, said Derrick Huggins, the vice president of facilities and transportation. A parking study underway will help officials determine how much parking space they really need, as more students are now able to walk, bike or take public transit to campus, he said.

“This is something I’ve been working on for five years — the phenomenon of how this close proximity of private housing is impacting our campus,” Mr. Huggins said.

Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school in California with about 8,000 students, closed down some roads and parking lots in the center of its campus to create pedestrian malls. The university built a new parking structure farther out to replace those spaces, but it is working on reducing the number of cars on campus with incentives to use bikes, car shares and rail, said Tim O’Keefe, the manager of business technology in university operations.

“I think it’s a little premature to think about a reduction in parking spaces,” he said. “We haven’t yet seen a huge paradigm shift in the number of people coming to campus in alternative modes of transportation.”

However, last year, the university became among the first to begin testing a self-driving campus shuttle. Run by a start-up called Auro Robotics, the electric shuttle carried three passengers at a time, along with a safety engineer, in case of glitches.

People with mobility impairments used the shuttle regularly, but it otherwise lacked consistent ridership, partly because it moved fairly slowly and covered a loop of just one mile, Mr. O’Keefe said. The service stopped for the summer, but the university is talking with Auro about continuing with the shuttle, possibly with an expanded range.

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