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Community Colleges

Overcoming the Community College Parking Crunch

A multipronged approach to a common issue
University Business, Jul 2010
Community colleges can follow the lead of Indiana State University and the City of Terre Haute for partnering to provide parking and public transporation.

"One of the primary challenges facing any community college is that there are many more students than parking spaces," says Eric Glohr, director of auxiliary services for Lansing Community College (Mich.) And while this has long been a fact of life for administrators, that challenge has grown significantly in recent years. Rising education costs have led many students to enroll in community colleges. In fact, a lot of these institutions are reporting double-digit increases in enrollment. For those already struggling to meet parking needs, this new influx of students has caused significant challenges.

Traditional community colleges have much different parking needs than universities because their student population is made up entirely of commuters. They must offer sufficient parking to meet the needs of students as well as faculty and staff. An analysis of commuting patterns can determine how much parking is actually needed. When possible, it is also beneficial to provide direct access to public transportation to make it more enticing for students not to commute by car.

Visibility is key to parking safety. Glass elevators and stair towers, like this one at Rollins College (Fla.), enhance visibility inside and out of structures, and promote public safety.

The best way to determine actual parking need is to conduct a parking utilization study. Such studies involve first-hand observation and measurement of usage patterns and interviews with key constituencies, and can provide a snapshot of peak and average usage, as well as an understanding of when peak usage is most likely to occur. For example, Lansing's main campus has 19,000 students, but even during peak periods only 25 to 30 percent of those students are on campus, says Glohr. "During a typical day, we have 4,500 to 5,000 students on campus, plus about 1,200 employees."

In other words, actual usage may well vary from what you might assume at a glance. In fact, parking usage patterns can change significantly over time as some students seek alternative modes of transportation while others begin to rely more heavily on personal vehicles. So utilization studies should be conducted regularly. According to Glohr, Lansing typically conducts a new study every three years.

Once the actual parking need is determined, campus planners can begin developing strategies for meeting it. Rural and suburban campuses are more likely to have parking flexibility because the land upon which lots can be developed is often more readily available and affordable in those areas.

The development of new parking lots provides some economic advantages in the right situations, since lots are generally less expensive to develop than structures. However, lots are a very inefficient use of land, so they generally aren't an option for urban campuses or suburban schools that are land-locked. For urban community colleges that require additional parking, structured parking is generally the best option. Parking structures can accommodate many more vehicles on the same footprint than parking lots. They also provide safety advantages, such as an ability to provide greater visibility in parking areas and reduce the number of potential hiding places. And they can be used to meet other campus needs, such as housing, educational, or administrative facilities.

Parking utilization studies can help determine peak usage times.

In urban settings, structured parking can also serve as a community resource. Many urban institutions partner with local organizations to make their parking available to each other. For instance, churches can share parking facilities with community colleges whose peak usage occurs on weekdays. Similarly, local restaurants and arts centers need more parking during evenings and can make their parking facilities available during the day. Partnerships allow each institution to minimize the funds needed to devote to new parking. One example is Tidewater Community College (Va.), which takes advantage of the nearby MacArthur Mall Center garage for parking needs.

Urban campuses are also more likely to have access to municipal on-street parking. Administrators in these settings should partner with community officials to develop strategic plans through which on-street parking can be made conveniently available to faculty and students.

Finally, by promoting the use of public transit among staff and students, community colleges can lower parking demand and reduce the amount of money that must be dedicated to developing parking resources. One way to promote the use of public transportation is to sponsor transportation fairs at which students can purchase discounted transit passes.

It's a strategy Lansing has successfully used for years. "We hold several transportation fairs every year in conjunction with the regional transit authority," explains Glohr. Students can buy discounted semester passes, 31-day permits, and 10-ride passes.

By providing a variety of public transportation options, Lansing administrators are better able to meet the individual transit needs of students. At the same time, parking need is reduced and the institution promotes a more socially responsible approach to commuting to campus.

Even the most strategic and balanced parking plan won't succeed if students don't know what resources are available and how to access them—so communication with students and staff is essential with any parking plan. On-campus signage, local advertising, dedicated websites, and brochures and other mailings are options.

"We have LCD signs to inform parkers which parking resources are available and where they can be found," says Glohr. "The signs are programmable and can be updated to provide the very latest information. We also advertise on local radio, television, and in the student newspaper."

Safety and security are vital concerns for any parking facility, particularly at institutions where parking resources can be spread out across campus. Students and staff should be able to feel confident that they are safe when they use campus parking facilities, yet many parking areas aren't as safe as they should be.

There's nothing inherently unsafe about parking. However, many parking lots and structures are designed by professionals who don't have the breadth and depth of experience specifically in parking design and, as a result, they inadvertently include hazardous elements in their designs. However, by including a few basic design fundamentals in parking facilities, those environments can be made significantly safer and more secure.

Communicate available parking resources to campus constituents.

Visibility is the key to parking safety. Well-illuminated facilities that limit access to legitimate users can dramatically reduce the potential for incidents or vehicle/pedestrian collision. Also, walls that are painted a light color are very effective at reflecting illumination throughout the structure. And ceilings on parking decks provide additional space for the placement of high intensity lighting.

Also, glass elevators and stair towers enhance visibility both from within and outside structures, and the creation of public safety "mini stations" can also help enhance the feeling of security within the structure. Additionally, the walls and support beams running through parking structures offer the ideal place for signs and other wayfinding tools directing vehicles away from pedestrian lanes, thus minimizing the chance of cars colliding with pedestrians.

Finally, there are a number of security technologies that can significantly enhance safety and security in parking areas. Foremost among these are closed circuit television systems offering security officers a constant view of parking areas. However, while CCTV can be extremely effective, it's vital to assure that systems are constantly monitored. Unmonitored CCTV systems can actually undermine safety by lulling parkers into a false sense of security. Emergency phones and panic buttons interspersed throughout parking areas can also promote safety.

The influx of additional students onto community college campuses has created a host of new parking challenges for campus planners and administrators. By taking a strategic approach to determining parking need and creating parking programs to meet that need, campus planners can meet these challenges and provide safe and convenient parking for staff and students alike.

Matt Jobin, AIA, is a project manager for Michigan-based Rich and Associates, the oldest firm in North America dedicated solely to parking design and planning. He can be reached at