January 17, 2012
I’m probably an atypical American citizen—in all of my working life I have never had a job that required me to get in a car in the morning to drive to work. For years, our family lived in New York City where public transportation is convenient. On many days my commute was a walk to work. At Bowdoin, as I walk across the Bowdoin quad from my house on Federal Street, I often think about how fantastic it is not to have to drive and park my car. I’m sure I miss out on the benefits of “drive time” radio like “Morning Edition” or all-sports stations, but I make up for it by getting up really early and reading many newspapers on my iPad.
Last week in The New York Times, there was a very interesting article on the architecture and impact of parking lots. Another good article on the subject of parking—this one in Los Angeles Magazine—is also worth reading. It’s pretty amazing to think that parking lots in the United States cover the equivalent of a few New England States and that drivers in Westwood, CA, use 47,000 gallons of gas annually just searching for a parking space. We all understand the importance of preserving our environment and the value of conservation, but the reality is that people have to get to work and back home—even here at Bowdoin. And in states like Maine where people are spread out, public transportation is not a viable option for most. In many ways, the economic impact of driving is regressive because the lowest paid in our community have to live the farthest away from campus because of a shortage of affordable housing in Brunswick.
But, back to parking. For years, we’ve had a serious parking problem at Bowdoin. Conventional wisdom says the problem exists because our students all have cars and never walk. Well, like a lot of conventional wisdom, the assumptions don’t exactly match up with reality. We no longer allow first-year students to bring cars to campus, and only about half our students have cars. So, while it is true that students contribute to our parking problems, it’s also true that staff, faculty, and visitors contribute mightily to the challenge too. (As an aside, it isn’t easy to park in downtown Brunswick on many days either, an issue that will be exacerbated by the arrival of Amtrak later this year. The good news is that parking isn’t just my problem to solve!)
Over the years I think it is fair to say that we’ve tried to “will the problem away” and haven’t sought solutions aggressively. For some time, I was enamored of the idea of building a parking garage or underground parking near or on campus that would solve the problem. I am less enthusiastic about these solutions because they are very, very expensive, and even “designer garages” are not all that attractive or consistent with our sense of our campus. In fact, I’m actually very enthusiastic about the concept of closing North Campus Drive and South Campus Drive at some point, a move that would eliminate parked cars in the middle of campus and only make the existing problem worse.
We are in the process of working with a parking consultant (yes, there are consultants for every conceivable problem), and the advice we get is that we actually aren’t short of parking spots. We’re just not managing our inventory of spots effectively during busy parts of the day. We will, of course, create committees and seek input from vast numbers of people on campus about these issues. As every college president knows, there are few issues at the heart of an academic institution that are more serious than parking!
We have many parking spaces at Bowdoin, but most aren’t utilized during the day. One would have to walk (or be shuttled) to campus to utilize some of these spots. We could also think about being more vigilant and aggressive (beyond ticketing and towing) in managing how and where people park. We could even think about “valet” parking for special events—something that would create jobs and be much more convenient. There have to be creative solutions to our problem.
I do think we have to put our money where our values are on this issue. In tough economic times, it just isn’t sensible to spend many millions of dollars on parking lots and garages. At a time where we are all concerned about our environment and sustainability, it also isn’t sensible to encourage even more cars by making parking easier and more convenient. What does make sense to me is a creative effort to rationalize our parking situation so that when people arrive at work, visit my office, or view an exhibit at the Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum, they don’t need a half-hour to decompress from the anxiety of finding a place to put their car.
I don’t underestimate the emotion this issue will generate at the College as we work creatively, thoughtfully, and—hopefully—cooperatively to solve our parking problem. But now is as good a time as any to push for a new solution.