With new mobility, how much parking do we need? An analysis of one university campus

The answer is simple: We don’t need more parking…or we won’t, eventually. Or at least, we won’t after a certain point…but we aren’t sure when. And…we don’t know what to do until then. So…it’s simple!

There is a vision of urban mobility emerging in today’s discourse, compelling in its sweep and vague in the details and timing. We will (at some point) have ubiquitous autonomous vehicles, probably managed with an efficient Lyft-and-Uber-like ride-hailing platform. It’s increasingly asserted that bikeshare bikes and e-scooters will (at an uncertain future date) fill in most of our small first/last-mile trips, complementing other modes. Transit investments always promise everyday convenience (just a few years away, or so). One suspects that (at just the right moment) all of these modes will be well integrated via collegial collaboration, congruent business models, and easy-to-use mobile phone apps.

So what does that mean for parking? Are we about to have too much of it? Or will current pressures continue to make parking valuable and scarce?

My former student Rachael Caravone and I set out to answer this question for one particular swath of the built environment: the campus of the University of Oregon. Download the full report here, or read this summary.


The University of Oregon is, compared to most of the United States, a multi-modal transportation paradise. Its development footprint is deliberately tight, aiming for a 10-minute walking radius for nearly all trips. It is well integrated with the local transit system, Lane Transit District, including a substantial bus station on the west side of campus and integration with the bus rapid transit system on the north side of campus. The University is one of three partners, along with LTD and the City of Eugene, in PeaceHealth Rides, the 300-bike, 36-station bikeshare system that launched this year. And bicycle parking is abundant throughout campus.

And yet, like virtually every higher education institution, parking is an issue. People complain. Lots are often full. Adjacent neighborhoods get huffy about spillover. At typical peak demand (typically during classes, Monday through Thursday during the academic year), parking is tight. On top of that, the University’s development plans are slated to add to campus population while eliminating parking (unsurprisingly, most development occurs on lots currently used as parking lots).

At the same time, we are – nationally, at least – at the cusp of a transportation revolution, involving new modes, new integration, and a decided shift away from the privately-owned automobile.

Our analysis set out to assess how this balance will tip over the coming years. In a nutshell:

  • We built a simple model of transportation, incorporating how people get to campus now and in the future.
  • We built a simple model of land use, incorporating paths of development and therefore how many people are and will be coming to campus.
  • We combined the models to ask one question: In a given year, is there parking deficit or a parking surplus?

The detailed results – the nine intersections of the three transportation futures and the three land use trajectories – look like the fine print of a pharmaceutical ad, with the same punchline: Individual results may vary. But we took away a few conclusions that can inform the policy discussion at the University, and they might even make you want to read the full report.

Conclusion #1: New and emerging transportation modes represent considerable uncertainty.

The question about how we’ll be getting around five or ten years from now has an easy answer: We really don’t know. It isn’t that we don’t know which modes are likely to exist – you can bet that cars, two-wheelers (bikes and scooters), feet, ride-hailing, and transit will all play a role. The challenge is in assigning market shares.

Consider the following recent shifts in the landscape:

  • Transit trips in the U.S. have been roughly stable (only bus rides are down), but many communities are making large investments in bus rapid transit and light rail.
  • There are now roughly 1,000 cities globally with bikeshare systems, almost all of which have started in the past 15 years.
  • Lyft and Uber were founded in 2012 and 2009, respectively. Last year, they combined for roughly five billion trips worldwide.

In short, the sands are shifting. We drew on a variety of reports, predictions, and policy goals to assemble a few distinct scenarios for the next three decades, and while they drift in roughly the same direction, they do so at markedly difference paces.

Conclusion #2: There is a short-term risk of overbuilding new parking.

It is plausible that we might respond to a short-term need that then disappears quickly within a few years – potentially leaving us with too much parking infrastructure 10+ years out. Many of our combined transportation/land-use scenarios generated a disconcerting result: a likely short-term scarcity, followed by massive parking surpluses. Figure 7 shows this to be the case for two of three combined scenarios, which shows the three transportation futures under the most modest campus land use change.

Caravone-Figure7

In the two most ambitious scenarios, the University ends up with large parking surpluses by the late 2020s, and forever after. (Don’t worry about the funny labels of the scenarios – but if you’re interested, see the full report.)

But why do we characterize this as a risk exactly? Two reasons. First, there’s tremendous uncertainty here; in no scenario do we have year-by-year precision. Each scenario is built on top of web of assumptions – all plausible, but none certain. It’s worth noting that the No Change scenario shows modest but persistent parking deficits throughout the two-decade study period.

Second, this all feels risky because of the short-term pressures. It’s easy to look at the figure above and see the large surpluses in the out years, but consider Figure 10 from the document, the subset of the graph that goes only through 2023, showing the three transportation futures under the most aggressive campus build-out:

Caravone-Figure10

The short-term story in all cases is one of increasing parking pressures. The underlying rationale for the result (again, details in the full paper) is clear: for the immediate future, the loss of parking through campus construction and development could easily happen more quickly than the adoption of alternative modes.

The risk here is that we might respond to these parking pressures with new construction of long-lived parking structures. The challenge is therefore to find strategies to ease us through the bottleneck of the decade ahead of us. We must not succumb to the temptation of building parking that would, in relatively few years, potentially be viewed as a financial albatross around the neck of the University.

This all leads inexorably to the immediate take-away for the institution…

Conclusion #3: We need to revisit our transportation plans, and our future planning really needs to incorporate new and emerging transportation modes – and interim adaptations.

The huge range of potential outcomes suggests that planning will have its hands full. We should address the possibilities before us by explicitly incorporating emerging modes, and by taking many small actions to dodge the worst short-term consequences.

There’s no silver bullet here, but we identified the following general measures.

  • Update the relevant plans for parking and transportation.
  • Ensure that we’re thinking about new modes that decrease the need for parking.
  • Figure out the many small strategies – silver buckshot, rather than a silver bullet – that will, in aggregate, get us through the bottleneck of the next decade or so.

Ultimately, we believe the University will end up in a multimodal future with dramatically decreased reliance on the car, with all of the economic, environmental, and social benefits that come with that scenario. The analysis point to one particular challenge: getting to that future without having made expensive investments in long-lived parking infrastructure aimed at short-lived needs.

Well, that’s the quick version! For more, please see the full report.

 

 

 

 

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