Lisset Hernandez is a "stalker." The Cal State Long Beach student typically idles her car near the front of a parking lot, waiting for someone to leave campus and then offers them a lift to their car.
When they pull out, she grabs the spot for herself, saving 10 or 15 minutes of circling for an open space and ensuring she won't be late for her first class.
There are days, though, when traffic, the alarm clock and other factors don't align for the Spanish major, who commutes to Long Beach from Boyle Heights. She's missed classes because she's had to park in a distant lot.
"Even the professors sometimes struggle, coming in 15 or 20 minutes late to class, saying they couldn't find parking," Hernandez said. "We all have a mutual understanding the parking is horrible."
It is a complaint heard from coast to coast, on college campuses large and small. And it is triggering a lot of responses.
Campuses are building new lots, but also promoting bike-sharing, subsidizing bus passes, joining forces with Uber to create car pools and looking at other alternatives to reduce pressure on campus as well as conflicts with neighbors who often bear the brunt of overflow traffic and parking.
Solutions, though, are complicated by increasingly crowded campuses, steep building costs and other hurdles. For example, enrollment in the Cal State system, in which many of the 23 campuses are largely commuter schools, increased nearly 12% from 2010 to 2014.
Many college campuses lack room for new garages, especially if it means taking valuable space that could be used for classrooms or labs. And building costs are steep — about $18,000 to $30,000 per space, according to urban planners — with underground costs at the higher end.
Increasingly, public and private schools are going green — adopting sustainable practices that conflict with the push to multiply parking spaces and placate solo drivers.
It's not a new issue. While chancellor of UC Berkeley, Clark Kerr addressed a faculty meeting in 1957 saying "I find that the three major administrative problems on a campus are sex for the students, athletics for the alumni and parking for the faculty." Parking may have outpaced sex and athletics in administrative headaches.
"Parking is a perennial issue," said Sally Grans Korsh, director of facilities management and environmental policy for the National Assn. of College and University Business Officers. "But I don't think you can drive or park your way out of the problem. A campus with 50,000 people on it is unlikely to have 50,000 parking spaces, which is why it's a larger community issue of transportation planning."
Katelyn Afshar lives in campus housing at Loyola Marymount University but once spent 20 minutes looking for a spot in a campus garage that's shared with students who commute. The garage features valet service, but once closed, students have to pick up keys from the campus safety patrol, which can make that option inconvenient, she said.
"It's hard that there's not more [spaces]," said Afshar, 19, a screenwriting major.
Loyola Marymount wants more students and faculty to use public transportation and carpools — they now have to pay a steep fee for a parking permit. But neighbors have complained about students hogging spaces on residential streets. A couple of blocks adjacent to the university now have permit parking and the school is helping residents pay for those. The school also added more on-campus parking, but there are no perfect solutions, campus spokeswoman Grace Yao said.
Accommodating drivers while coaxing them to alternatives is a fine balancing act.
"People get really impassioned," said David J. Karwaski, UCLA's senior associate director of transportation planning, policy and traffic systems. "They care about where they park and anything impeding them from getting there."
With about 72,000 people on site every day and about 23,000 parking spaces, the Westwood campus embodies the challenges of a large urban campus. The 12,000 students who live in residential housing can obtain parking permits only if there's a compelling need.
The campus has considered adding more spaces, but would have to do so underground, entailing costly seismic reinforcements, Karwaski said. So, like many other institutions, UCLA is ramping up programs that encourage students and faculty to bike or ride public transportation to campus and providing carpool incentives and shuttle services to rail lines. Students and faculty who leave their own car at home can rent a campus Zipcar if they need to get to the dentist in the middle of the day.
Elsewhere, the University of Arizona increased bike use by adding locked bike stations and bike valets to park the two-wheelers, no tipping needed.
New Jersey's Rutgers University established staggered class schedules about 20 minutes apart at its three main campuses to reduce peak traffic and provide time for students to take the many university-operated buses, said Jack Molenaar, director of transportation services.
Santa Monica College is about to start construction on a new underground garage that will add about 500 spaces to the 2,000 already on campus. But that is likely to be the limit for the densely packed campus if it wants to retain athletic fields and other open space, said Donald Girard, senior director of governmental relations. Further efforts will center on satellite parking and public transportation, he said.
The college has already set trends with its program to provide students free passes on the Big Blue Bus. In addition, the school worked with transportation officials to include a 17th Street/Santa Monica College station on the new Expo line. It is also working with Uber on a carpool program and is partnering with the nonprofit organization Move LA to establish a universal mass transit pass for all college students.
The Metro board, which operates rail and bus service in L.A. County, recently passed a motion to study the feasibility of such a pass.
"This would really give more students access to education, because mass transit is much cheaper than driving a car," Move LA Executive Director Denny Zane said. "And community college students especially often work part-time, so it would make it possible for them to get to school and work and make it affordable."
At commuter schools, transportation makes up about 50% of their total carbon footprint, said Julian Dautremont-Smith, director of programs at the Assn. for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
To discourage some driving, Dautremont-Smith said, many campuses are turning to demand-priced parking, with permits for spots near the center of campus or other preferred locations costing more.
A parking advisory committee at Cal State Long Beach is considering such a plan as well as other remedies to relieve pressures that were exacerbated by increased enrollment of more than 600 students this fall, said Miriam Hernandez, who is vice president of student government and is on the committee.
Marvin Flores, 20, a junior majoring in history, said he hopes the results will help. He moved from Anaheim to a more expensive place in Long Beach to avoid the drive and the search for a parking space that left him late for his morning classes. Now, he takes a 10 minute ride on the bus.
"I had to take out loans to live in Long Beach but I'd rather deal with the stress of that," Flores said, "than knowing I might not make it to class by the time I found parking."
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