Driven to alternatives: Campus parking is a puzzle
Given her druthers, Mary Greer would ride a bike to her work in University Health Care Information Systems. Or, if the weather were bad, she'd catch the Westwinds bus near her home as her husband, Andy Shaw, does to get to his work in the Business Office.
But family needs are more important than her transportation preferences, so she drives her car each day.
That started with Andy's elderly parents in 1998. Since she needed to be available in case of emergency, Greer tried a commuter lot pass shared with a neighbor, which didn't work because the commuter lot was too far away, and Andy's parents were in adult day care which meant she needed to drive to drop them off.
When Shaw's father died and his mother moved out of town, the couple had a brief period of riding those bikes to work.
Then they became foster parents and Andrew, now 2 1/2, came to live with them. He was soon followed by Michael, 6, and Jacob, 3 1/2-and Greer, now the holder of a parking permit, parks in the nearby Dental Science Building parking lot to be available for the times when the voice on the other end of the phone says something like "fast-moving strep throat."
"Maybe when the boys are grown, we'll bicycle to work again," she says. "Meanwhile, Andy loves the bus."
Greer and Shaw typify the process employees go through in order to decide about transportation, says David Ricketts, director of the Department of Parking and Transportation. Ricketts and Michelle Ribble, manager of commuter programs, and their staff handle requests from employees every day.
"Sixty to seventy percent of our University employees live in the Iowa City-Coralville communities, which means they drive from one to six miles per day to work," Ricketts says. "Demand for on-campus parking has risen much quicker than the growth of the workforce. That's especially true on the west side of campus, which has many more problems with parking than the east side does."
East campus and west campus are different kinds of places, he notes.
"So many people are employed in a small space on the west (side)," Ricketts says. "In addition, you have patients and their visitors, who need parking spaces. The concentration of people is much greater."
In addition, the east side is a campus, with more space between buildings and people coming and going all day for classes. On the west side, by contrast, employees arrive and leave at the same time in a more corporate way and there are shifts. Patients also arrive in waves, starting just after the employees get settled in. Since the system depends on patient fees, patients take precedence in parking over employees, he says.
But on either side of campus, the decision about how to get to work is one of the earliest problems an employee faces after being hired.
"The first choice people make is whether to buy a car and then, when they have one, whether to use it to get to work," Ribble says. "The other big choice for couples who both work at the University is whether to buy a second car. It's the same decision. Much of the growth in vanpools is because couples decide not to buy a second car."
Vanpools let groups of riders drive to work and back in a University van, driven by one of the employees. The vans tend to keep a strict schedule, so they work best for people whose work hours are always the same, Ribble says. The minimum cost is about the same as a monthly bus pass. Vans coming from more distant communities pay a little more.
Cambus and the Iowa City and Coralville transit systems bring thousands of employees to work on both sides of campus. Cambus is free. In November 2000, parking and transportation began subsidizing employees using the city-owned transit systems.
"We pay $23 for a monthly bus pass and sell it to our employees at $10," Ricketts says, "as long as they don't have a parking permit."
So far, 936 employees use the $10 subsidized bus pass, while 16 others have bought a $23 discounted pass since they also have a parking permit. Of the 936, 721 live in Iowa City and 215 in Coralville.
How good a deal is the $10 pass? Compare it with driving. If you live five miles from campus for a 10-mile round-trip and your car gets 26 miles to the gallon, you'd spend more than $10 for gasoline each month just to commute. Add that to the monthly cost of the parking permit and you'd be paying from $40 to $55 per month to drive-and that figure doesn't count maintenance and repairs or insurance for your car.
So more people are opting for the bus, Ricketts says.
"We provided 195,000 rides for employees last year through these
passes and it's running higher this year, with 96,000 rides for the first
five months alone," Ricketts says. "When you include students
who ride on bus passes, we're estimating we'll have 430,000 rides this
Why offer the passes?
"It's transportation demand management: the point at which it costs less to provide alternatives to parking than it does to provide parking," Ricketts says. "Parking is very expensive to create. The cost of constructing parking ramps runs about $15,000 per space and surface lots cost about $3,000 to $4,000 a space, not counting finance charges. That's what it costs on average to clear a site, modify the landscape, drain it, and provide engineering, construction, paving, lighting, and roads.
"There's no easy solution to parking problems, because supply cannot equal demand at our current prices," he says. "We're just trying to give employees choices. We have to listen to our employees and try to provide what they need."