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Stanford’s Cost Saving Lesson: Parking Doesn’t PayPrint

Thriving Communities | June 12, 2013 | By James Bruckbauer

Northwestern Michigan College's new master plan calls for an additional 244 parking spaces.

In the late 1990s, Stanford University found a way to trim the mounting costs of providing a high quality education: Pay university staff to leave their cars parked at home.

“Stanford realized it would be much cheaper for them to pay their employees not to drive to campus than it would be to build a new parking structure,” transportation consultant Jeffery Tumlin told a group in Traverse City last week. “They decided to put more money into the classroom, and less money into storing automobiles.”

Faced with building costly parking structures, Stanford University officials—like seasoned investors—looked at all the options, measured costs with risks, and then carefully chose investment strategies that would reap high returns over the long haul.

Some of those strategies included offering university staff cash to carpool, bus, bike or walk to campus; adding bike lanes; giving carpoolers prime parking spaces; and adjusting parking rates to reflect demand. The move allowed officials to expand services and the campus footprint by 2.5 million square feet without adding additional traffic.

This system-wide approach allowed university officials to avoid the huge cost of building new, expensive parking structures and reduce the amount of neighborhood traffic.

But not only did it save dollars and make them great neighbors, Tumlin said the incentives produced other benefits as well.

“Over time,” he said, “university officials found that by encouraging staff to use other ways to get around, they attracted and retained talented employees, they were healthier and more productive, and, they found that those who shared rides got more promotions due, in part, to the increased social capital that’s created by spending time together outside of the office.”

Tumlin’s message last week is timely for the Traverse City area. Northwestern Michigan College, recently unveiled a new master plan, which calls for an additional 244 parking spaces to accommodate an expanding technical education program and double the amount of student housing.

According to university officials, it will cost the university anywhere from $3,000 to $18,000 for each additional parking space.

The college, though, says it’s interested in encouraging more transportation choices among staff. Last year, college president Tim Nelson told us that NMC is committed to working with the Bay Area Transportation Authority to provide more choices to staff and students.

“Long-term, we have to do something in this region to help facilitate moving people around other than just automobiles,” he said. “You can’t just keep building roads and you can’t just keep building parking lots.”

Our survey of more than 1,500 Grand Traverse area employees—including some NMC staff—revealed that many employees are interested in more transportation options, but right now many say driving is more convenient.

Roughly half of the respondents said a financial incentive would increase the likelihood that they consider carpooling or riding a bus to work.

The college also participates in Traverse City’s annual Smart Commute Week and is working with other local employers to develop long-term strategies for promoting more transportation choices.

Right now, college staff can park on campus or the near-by Grand Traverse County Civic Center for free.

James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at james@mlui.org.