Parking in Ann Arbor has always been at
a premium, especially spots in close proximity to the University.
As long as students continue to bring their cars, it’s
unlikely the situation will improve anytime soon. The University
opened an 800-spot parking structure last week where Washtenaw
Avenue and Huron Street curve, but only students with disabilities
and graduate students with after-hours permits are eligible for
spots there. It’s just another reminder of the parking pains
troubling students.

 

Student parking debate??

Is there a student parking debate? Should there be a student
parking debate? What is the University’s strategy for student
parking anyway?

Students have a long and proud history of activism when it comes
to saving the environment and promoting programs that are socially
and environmentally responsible. “Sustainability” is
the term we now use to describe actions, plans and designs that
conserve energy and protect the environment for generations to
come. Students often are at the forefront of such socially
responsible movements, so I would expect that students would
embrace sustainability when it comes to parking and
transportation.

Walking, biking, carpooling, taking the bus — this is what
sustainability is all about when it comes to parking. We are
constantly striving to reduce the number of single-occupancy
vehicles being driven to campus — by students and
employees.

And, students, I salute you! You are making a great contribution
to this objective. The University is not a “commuter”
school; most of our students live on campus or in nearby
neighborhoods. The University and the city have great bus systems
and transportation is the key to meeting student needs when it
comes to access to University facilities. More than 4.7 million
passenger trips were taken on University buses last year and we
estimate that an additional 1.4 million trips were taken by
University students and employees on AATA buses. With the
introduction of the MRide program this year, we anticipate the AATA
numbers to increase dramatically.

Several decades ago, the University made a commitment to having
a comprehensive student transportation system. That commitment was
strengthened even more when the North Campus was purchased and
began to be developed. Our current annual operating budget for bus
service is more than $4 million. So that tradition of commitment
continues to this day.

The new MRide program offers unlimited no-fare bus rides on all
Ann Arbor Transit Authority fixed-route service for all active
University faculty, staff and students. The annual budget for this
program is about $1.8 million, much of it funded from federal funds
earned by the University bus system. So, for many students, a car
is not a necessity. AATA buses can get you to grocery stores, movie
theaters, and pharmacies, as well as bring students from local
housing to campus.

For those students who need to bring cars to campus, we have
some options. Juniors and seniors may purchase Student Orange
parking permits and take the University bus to campus, and graduate
students may purchase Student Orange permits, after-hours permits
or Student Yellow permits. Some campus residents are accommodated
by University Housing parking lots. Free parking (no permit
required) is available at several Park and Ride lots served by AATA
buses.

There are a limited number of hourly visitor spaces on North
Campus and Medical Campus that are heavily used by students and a
new visitor parking area just opened last week in the Palmer Drive
parking structure on Central Campus. In addition, many of our
parking facilities are available for use in the evenings and on
weekends, without a permit.

So, why don’t we expand parking for students anyway, since
there seems to be a pent-up demand for more parking? There are
practical reasons, beyond the environmental argument, for limiting
the number of parking spaces at the University.

Surface lots are relatively cheap, but they take up valuable
real estate that could be used for educational or research
purposes.

Bus service is efficient, but still carries a cost if more buses
are needed to serve new surface parking lots.

Parking structures are very expensive. Our next new parking
structure, to be built on Ann Street, will cost about $26,000 per
space. Whenever we build a new parking structure, even while
charging staff $523 (Blue) or $1,045 (Gold) for a permit, we
actually lose money for the first 20 years until the debt is paid
off for that structure.

If we expanded off-site surface lot parking, this would put a
strain on our transportation budget. If we chose to build enough
parking structures to meet all of the demand, our parking permit
rates would need to increase significantly.

Students are not the only ones affected by our overall strategy.
We have made concerted efforts over the years to encourage
employees to park off-site or take the AATA buses to work. We have
about 28,000 employees on the Ann Arbor campuses, yet we only sell
about 16,500 Blue, Yellow and Gold permits. That means 41 percent
of our employees are finding ways to get to work other than driving
their individual vehicles directly to their work location. We know
we have some staff parking needs that are being addressed with new
parking structures, but we always must maintain a balance of
on-site parking versus transportation solutions.

Do we need to expand student options for parking? Perhaps. But
we need to be very careful with that one, since we run the risk of
backsliding on some of the sustainability goals that we’ve
worked so hard to achieve.

Miller is the University’s director of parking and
transportation services.

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