The key problem at the heart of every university

In his book The Uses of the University the former Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Clark Kerr, suggested that a university President has three key tasks which his or her main stakeholders will expect to see achieved: ‘sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.’ Only the last of these, he suggested, presented a problem.

Another related bon mot also attributed to him is that a university consists of ‘a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over car parking.’

All of this is wholly true. In my time as President of Dublin City University, some of the most intractable problems concerned car parking. DCU has a small campus in a residential area, and so we had to make whatever use we could of parking space, which involved two surface car parks and one multi-story car park. It was made clear to us that the local authority, Dublin City Council, would not give permission for the construction of any more parking spaces, as it was pursuing a policy of persuading people to use public transport. In any case, times being what they are, I am not sure we could have raised the money for any further construction of car parks.

My current university, RGU, will also soon find car parking a difficult issue, as the population using the new Garthdee campus grows.

Car parking problems in universities are now often compounded by the fact that many students own cars and drive them to their classes, so that staff are no longer able to be sure that they will have a parking space. And while it may seem amazing to many of us that so many students now drive their own cars – not something that would have been common when I was a student – it is hard to argue that academics should have priority.

I do not know how this problem will be resolved, except that it won’t be soon. I suspect that the pressures will continue to be applied to universities to add to the available parking spaces; or else we shall need to organise transport to locations where people live or where they could park their cars. I suspect some universities have managed to deal with the issue in imaginative ways – I would love to hear about them.

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17 Comments on “The key problem at the heart of every university”

  1. Vince Says:

    One cannot help but wonder if establishing a source of cheap wind power and recharging stations mightn’t be the future on that. Not so much that it would help all that much on the space question. But you could use it as a fine motivator to get people in of a morning. Of course you could always take the tack by saying they are adults and as such should quit moaning and fix it themselves. Since your function is to get the best out of them, sometimes a boot in the backside and told to get on with it might achieve that. I think that would work just grand if all parking was emptied each night and filled by a FCFS each morning.
    There is the route where you spreadsheet and timeline each and all. Then colour code and allocate each bay. But frankly you’d be better of releasing the savage and tell them to get on with things. You might need to clatter a wise ass every so often. But in general a laissez faire attitude will give you better results. And really, there gets a time when being driven to ballet boxing and Guides has to change to a degree of self management.

  2. no-name Says:

    In a university in which there are more lecturers and students vying for parking spots than parking spots available, then it seems likely if that one student fails to get a parking spot, then that student inconveniences a friend or lecturer in trying to learn what was missed — fewer people than if a lecturer fails to get a parking spot, and the whole class loses out on a lecture. The case for lecturer priority in a university that provides parking does not seem hard to argue at all.

    Harder is to argue that there should be parking places available in the first place. If universities are centers of enlightenment, then should they not be where one would expect to see evidence of this in a lack of automobiles?

    The economic angle on private automobiles is curious — take Ireland as an example of a nation that does not host car manufacture: the purchase of cars (According to the SIMI Statistical Service* 74,158 new passenger cars registered in Ireland between August 2011 and August 2012 — 1683 of those were manufactured by Mercedes Benz) must transfer approximately 1.1 billion euro annually (if a new car costs 15K on average) out of the Ireland (except for the small percentage that represents profit to dealers — one might wonder why car dealers are “dealers”, in the same way that heroin dealers are, and not, say “car purveyors”.) This is a very curious decision about the use of wealth. It is worth reflecting on the use of home equity loans, taken out during the property boom in Ireland which were used to fund not home improvements, but automobile purchases. The effect is that this money has been transferred out of the country twice — in the first instance to pay for the cars, and in the second instance to pay the people who hold bonds in the banks that wrote the whole mass of suspect loans.

    Would it not be better to have access to proper (ie. reliable, frequent, clean and safe) public transport and to spend university car park money on ensuring that the university library does not lack access to a single academic journal that is available in electronic format?

    If a university president wishes to solve the parking problem, should not that person consider turning the university campus into a pedestrianized residential community, with designated staff and student housing, well-connected to public transport systems? That is, in addition to organizing transport to where people live, one might consider making the walking-distance environs of the university a place where most people who depend on it do live.

    *According to the SIMI Statistical Service:
    last verified, September 25, 2012

  3. When I worked at the University of Washington in Seattle, which has a city campus, 40,000 students, lots of faculty etc, one way in which this was dealt with was to provide subsidised public transport for staff and student. For about $60 a quarter you got a pass that allowed you to travel on the public transport system 7 days a week. This was brilliant, and meant I got the bus to work everyday along with large numbers of students and faculty. I’ve always wondered if such a system could work in the UK – but the reality was that the University is State owned and the transport system was city owned, so deals and subsidies could more straightforwardly be done I guess. Now, working in Dundee, but living in Fife, I’d love to get the train to work, but the economics mean my car is far more practical. Maybe deals could be done between individual transport companies and large employers to look at fairer season ticket prices, but the logistics and costs involved seem prohibitive. I shall keep dreaming, and keep driving.

  4. brian t Says:

    In the example with which I’m familiar, UCD, they’ve tackled the issue with the distinctly unimaginative strategy of building more car parks. The new Student Centre (the one with the cinema and the big pool) has a big one behind it, there’s an overflow car park up near Richview (which most students don’t know about), and there are plans to build a multi-storey park where there are currently tennis courts.

    One problem with UCD is its location: just far enough from DART (train) and LUAS (tram) stops to be inconvenient, if you live along either of those lines. A bus works if you live along the N11 corridor, otherwise using them quickly gets expensive and unreliable. If you live in one of those new suburbs, built during the boom years without regard for public transport, then I guess the car looks attractive. (Me, I moved to a house share near UCD so I could walk while I was there.)

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    The very first time I visited the new RGU Garthdee campus, I remember asking, naively, whether there was a shuttle bus for students to use from the city center (similar shuttle buses are in operation at universities like Nottingham, it would be interesting to find out the details of such a scheme). Not all students (staff) drive, some do and it would be a mistake to encourage the trend for an institution that cares about its environmental credentials. Some universities have addressed the parking problem by constructing parking garages ( which include charging stations for electric/battery powered cars.
    In the case of the Garthdee campus one cannot help wondering why the design of the new buildings did not reflect the parking needs of the university community (underground parking etc.) in the first place.
    In the longer term, a university parking issue should be viewed in the wider context of the city’s strategies for parking, one of the most innovative schemes is the one implemented in San Francisco Excellent example of tech innovation and social impact, something any university should be interested in..
    The following short piece sums up the strategies and, interestingly makes the case for parking to be a course of study at an academic institution, at schools for urban planners.
    As it is often the case universities might help provide the solution to their (and their community’s) problems by doing what they do best, pursuing knowledge and innovation in the hope that they change our lives for the better.

    • Steve B Says:

      Anna, Yes I no reason not to have incorporated undrground and/or ground floor car parking under that fine new RGU Garthdee building. If Tesco in Dundee can do it then why not RGU?

      I can either face a three hour bus commute to/from work or a half hour in my car. A no brainer.
      Those wishing to promote alternative transport should make sure it is actually available in the first place before banishing cars.

      If Universities would also encourage home/remote working then that would take out many cars out of the equation.

      • Hey folks, I wonder whether you realise how astronomically expensive it is to build an underground or multi-storey car park…?

        • Anna Notaro Says:

          the point is not to build an underground car park ex novo,, might have been affordable if it part of the original design of the new buildings, in any case too late for that.
          As for multi-storey car parks, they are not only expensive, but also extremely ugly constructions. If affordable they represent the easy fix to a problem that requires an integrated approach and strong collaboration with the City Council (which in itself has its challenges). The idea of a university shuttle bus would still be my favorite in the interim option, if feasible.

          • Ryan Maclean Says:

            RGU used to run a shuttle bus from the city centre to the Garthdee campus, though it was cancelled in 2003. If you look on the Garthdee campus, outside the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture, you can still see a shuttle bus stop.

            My understanding of the reason for it ceasing to operate is twofold: 1. it was prohibitively expensive to run; and 2. FirstBus were providing a large number of buses to and from the campus.

            The problem with the campus is not the distance (it is only 2-3 miles from the city centre), rather it is the fact the Aberdeen City Council refuse to create a suitable corridor down Holburn Street that will facilitate a speedy journey. If a dedicated bus lane stretched the full distance, and inconsiderate residents stopped parking in the bus lane, the journey could be completed very quickly.

            Personally, I cycle to the campus whenever I can, I got a bike through the CycleScheme and I can make the journey in less than 15 minutes.

  6. Eric van der Ploeg Says:

    From the city centre it takes 25 minutes to travel to the Garthdee campus. That is if you are lucky and a bus is not full.
    The cost for a all day return is: £ 4.80 per day which is quite expensive!
    RGU owns the fields on the other side of the river. At the moment they are not used, but they could be used for parking spaces?
    That would solve the parking problem.

    • The land on the other side of the Dee is already earmarked for a different development. In any case, it is not suitable and we wouldn’t get planning permission there for a car park. Sorry!

  7. Al Says:

    It would also be worth studying car occupancy data as it is most likely that each car parked on campus has one occupant.
    Perhaps zoned car parking where the single occupancy vehicles have the long distance car parks…

    • This is the solution used by many commuter universities: car pooling, with preferential parking as an incentive (either by being cheaper, or more conveniently located, or having a greater chance of actually finding a spot). In some contexts, this can be combined with a park-and-ride depot.

      But before penalising single-occupancy car use, do keep in mind students and staff who are parents of younger children, who often really need quick getaway access to their own transport, complete with car seats.

      The other approach, that I’m sure would be much less attractive in Scotland than it is in Australia, is support for cyclists–lockers, change rooms, showers.

      And then, you know, there’s always elearning.

  8. I’m the UCU rep on our university’s Staff Morale and Well-Being (I know…) committee. It is essentially the More Car Parks Now Committee. I make myself unpopular with members and colleagues alike by proposing to limit spaces to blue-badge holders only and grass the rest over. We are a cramped, grimy city-centre campus with amazing transport links less than two minutes away. Cycling support is non-existent.

    I’m not totally hard-line. Some colleagues and students (nurses, trainee teachers) have to be out and about, but nobody else lives far from a train station. I chose to live 500 yards from my office so I could walk to work (and get up late).

    Of course when I’m in charge, private cars won’t exist for people in urban postcodes. Each street will have shared electric golf carts or similar.

  9. fenella Says:

    Surely better quality public transport must be a priority here. A more affordable and reliable bus service would make a huge difference when travelling to RGU’s Garthdee campus.

  10. It doesn’t help that Dublin Bus isn’t directly accountable to the local authorities such that more service could be provided rather than simply accepting that cars are the way DCU people get to campus.

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