URI's slogan may be "Think Big. We Do", but Eco RI wrote a great piece showing that the university doesn't take that slogan seriously as it relates to land use. The university adds more and more surface parking each year.
I had an email conversation back in January with Vice President Robert Weygand of URI, following up with him about parking concerns after the last piece I read from Eco RI on this subject. Overall I found the VP to be admirably responsive, and he seemed to understand some of the issues that affect parking, but there were also some key misunderstandings revealed in our conversation. I wanted to pull the email correspondence out to offer as a follow up on Eco RI's recent piece. It may show why URI's having so much trouble fixing this problem.
Weygand understood that parking prices were low at URI, although not as low as at some places like RIC:
The cost of parking are URI is lower than most of our peer institutions throughout New England although our Rhode Island public colleges (CCRI and RIC) are similar or less in their pricing structure. Pricing parking spaces at a higher level does drive the demand for alternative sources of travel (public transportation).. It also reduces the demand for parking spaces and thereby reducing the capital and operational costs. Fees at URI over the last eight years have been increased by 75% on average. URI does provide an incentive to use public transportation by providing a 50% reduction on RIPTA pass prices.
The Vice President also pointed out that URI's student body is 45% on campus, 45% in South County, and 10% elsewhere in the state. Even many of the 10% segment live within access of the campus by RIPTA.
But there are a few things that he missed. First, the VP tried to put the idea of a fee increase for parking the context of "tuition cost", which shows he has the economics exactly backwards:
All fee increases for parking must be approved by the Board of Education (new). There is much effort to keep level the current costs to students as was evidence by the previous Board of Governors for Higher Education requirement to keep level tuition and fees for the forthcoming year (my emphasis).
Students are not, in fact, being spared any cost when the campus undercharges for parking. The remainder comes from tuition. If the campus chooses to rest on its laurels, being happy that it's not as bad at RIC, students who do not drive to campus will pay for parking through higher tuition costs. Even if, as the VP says, the Board of Governors tries to keep the cost of tuition the same, the cost will appear somewhere else. Perhaps adjunct faculty will be squeezed into an even smaller stipend. Maybe the university will charge more for food in the cafeteria, or offer fewer food options. Maybe book prices will go up in the bookstore. Or the budget will take a hit. Somewhere, the money will be squeezed from some one (The cost per parking spot offered by VP Weygand $334/space/day. The cost charged per permit is $175 per day for students and faculty. Resident costs are somewhat higher. Weygand offers the fact that parking turns over an average of twice a day as a way of explaining the cost difference between the permits and the upkeep of the spots).
I think the VP also very earnestly believes that the campus is trying to encourage transit use, because he offered this as an olive branch of understanding:
When the cost of gasoline rose to $4.15 a gallon we saw an increase in the use of public transportation by students particularly in south county [sic]. But that use diminished quickly once the price of gasoline diminished. Costs of transportation and parking do drive the demand for public transportation. We have examined the cost of subsidizing more public transportation to meet the needs of the majority but have not determined the best way to finance such alternatives in the current budget (my emphasis).
The problem with this is that it's lipstick on a pig to give a small subsidy to RIPTA. The seminal study on parking policy, Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking, notes that the addition of one extra parking spot through zoning requirements was enough to wipe out rail subsidies almost five times over in San Francisco. That's significant, because San Francisco had the highest rail subsidy in the country at the time of the study. By contrast, the very small subsidy to transit that Rhode Island has cannot compete with any underpricing of parking. Students are a great guinea pig model, because they're among the most transit-oriented segment of the population you can start with. Yet many URI students drive to campus. It's because URI gives to transit (less) with one hand, and takes away from transit (more) with the other.
The other thing that I see missing from this discussion of cost is supply. It's just not desirable for us to live in a world that is totally paved. So while it's clear that the university is undercharging for parking, even in a scenario that assumes an unlimited ability to pave things, it's underpricing parking even further when you think about the loss that is represented in each new lot it paves. At some point, the university has to decide that the amount of parking it has is the amount it can have, total, and just start managing demand through price rather than supply increases.
What's also lost is the ability to put buildings on those parking spots. If 45% of the students live on campus, why not increase that on-campus segment by adding more apartments? They don't even have to be crappy dorms. Build nice places for people to live, that they'd actually want to pay money for. Put nice landscaping in. If the university already can charge people for their parking spots to get to campus, why not charge them rent to live there instead?
And there are small changes at key bottlenecks that Kingston needs to address, to make getting to campus without a car easier. Kingston has a great bike path, which I used to use everyday to get to work. But crossing Route 138 near the campus remains dangerous. The intersection of North and South Roads with 138, which could be an easy crossing for cyclists living in South County and coming from the path, is merely a painted crosswalk with 40 mph traffic. Drivers in South County are a great deal nicer than in Providence, but they still have difficulty stopping, and often don't. Even less so at night--and nighttime safety should be an important goal for a college campus. The section of 138 that abuts the campus needs to be made narrower, reduced to 20 mph, and made to feel like a traditional road that has entered a town center. It's gotta' lose the highway feel.