Professors, Staff Say the Road to a Greener Swarthmore Doesn’t Run to a Parking Lot

The most recent draft of Swarthmore’s Campus Master Plan, presented to the College community at a meeting in March, works off of assumptions that faculty, students, and staff will grow, perhaps by the hundreds, over the next couple of decades. If the past is any proof, additional people will be accompanied by additional cars, as well as additional parking spaces. However, some faculty and staff are working to show that there are alternative means of managing transportation needs that can minimize the environmental impacts of the anticipated community growth.

The Parking and Transportation Master Plan Advisory Committee, which is tasked with developing policy recommendations by the beginning of the fall, will meet for their first policy discussion today. The Committee, whose work will be incorporated into the Master Planning process, will continue to meet through the summer so that the Master Plan can be finalized in September.

That committee, whose members include Executive Assistant for Facilities and Services Paula Dale, Senior Director of Corporate, Foundation, and Government Relations Nadine Kolowrat, Provost Tom Stephenson, Public Safety Director Mike Hill, Vice President for Facilities and Services Stu Hain, Engineering Professor Erik Cheever, Jennifer Walsh ‘15, and eleven others, will work to find ways to accommodate future growth, and, some members say, encourage faculty, students, and staff to ditch their cars entirely in favor of walking or riding public transit to campus.

The Master Planning process, which began in earnest last fall, looks ahead over the next couple of decades to the potential construction projects–such as the Inn, a new Science Center II, and additions to Willets and McCabe–that may eventually change the face of campus. At a meeting in January, a number of faculty raised concerns that the building boom might be accompanied by what they believe is a reckless expansion of surface parking on campus.

Those faculty were not the only ones wondering how campus commuting and transportation patterns affect the College community, especially its carbon footprint. Kolowrat, who sits on Swarthmore’s Sustainability Committee, was one of several Sustainability Committee members who pushed for the Committees associated with the Campus Master Plan to commission a transportation demand management (TDM) study. She got the idea for such a study after hearing about efforts at Oregon State University that she says dramatically reduced reliance on single-occupancy vehicles for commuters.

That push was apparent in a letter the Sustainability Committee submitted to the Master Plan committees and posted on the Master Plan’s website. That letter argues that growth in parking capacity should be kept to a minimum and calls for a TDM study to be incorporated into the Master Plan.

Dale said that the Sustainability Committee made an “impassioned plea to the Campus Master Plan Committee to be thoughtful about sustainability in the master plan.” In response to the letter, the College has retained Chance Management Advisors, a parking management consulting firm, to advise stakeholders in the Master Planning process.

The role of Chance Advisors, said Dale, “is to help us with the whole master plan, which includes studying parking and transportation existing conditions, making predictions for the future, and a piece of that is considering how [we] could shape and hopefully reduce the number of spaces that we need.” She said the group with “also look at some policy questions like do we want to discourage people from driving to campus or not.”

In the fall, when the TDM study is completed, Dale said, the Committee “will recommend to senior staff a series of policies that we feel are in the best interests of the College for parking and transportation and a series of procedures to support those policies. […] We’ve made a conscious decision that nothing is firm [in Master Planning] until we’ve heard back” from those involved with the Parking and Transportation committee and the TDM study.

According to Kolowrat, those policy recommendations might include “incentivizing ride-sharing, carpooling, ZipCars, mass transit, biking, walking, and more–all of which would have the added benefit of helping the College meet its Climate Action Plan commitments for carbon reduction.” As of now, the Climate Action Plan calls to deal with the carbon impact of transportation solely through carbon offsets.

Central to these concerns is the fear that Swarthmore will add one new parking space for each new employee–or even more, to accommodate infrequent but high attendance at events–paving over what they some see as Swarthmore’s walkable paradise.

At a Master Plan meeting in January, several faculty, including engineering Professor Carr Everbach and German Professor Hans-Jakob Werlen, told the group assembled in the Scheuer room they hoped to see minimal growth of parking lots.

In an interview, Werlen said that parking expansion reflects outdated thinking. “One way we’re shifting is not thinking of using green spaces for flat surface parking. Towns, cities, businesses, everybody’s getting away from that, not just because it’s ugly and [un]aesthetic, but because it’s a huge footprint, it’s an incredible heat-generator in the summer, it’s an icefield in the winter.”

Russian Professor Sibelan Forrester added that parking lots present salt as a significant environmental problem in winter.

At the January Master Plan meeting, Werlen’s concerns were particularly heightened by a since-dropped proposal to tear down some homes along Whittier Place (past the Lang Center) for a new lot. “I was shocked, frankly, by some of the parking proposals which have such a vast footprint in terms of surface parking area,” he said. Even without the Whittier proposal, the latest draft of the Master Plan, which was updated in March, still indicates a number of places on campus where parking could be added.

Tearing down homes on Whittier “would be the nuclear option,” said Everbach. That aside, he said, “the other parts of the plan actually are a tricky conundrum because they balance desirable and undesirable outcomes across a population.”

The biggest problem in Everbach’s view is that if given the right alternative or incentivized in the right way, fewer students, faculty, and staff would need a car on campus in the first place “There’s this mentality that everyday you drive to work and you park in front of your place and you don’t get charged for it.”

“This is the big issue: can we change the free parking culture of Swarthmore College?” said Religion Professor Mark Wallace. “As far as I’m concerned, the last parking lot built at Swarthmore College was the one that was on the former rugby field, that’s it, no more. No more parking lots.”

Dale, who is serving on the Parking and Transportation Committee, suggested that such a seismic shift might be in the best interests of the College. “One of the things that the parking and transportation master plan advisory committee will be looking at a lot is the ways to change the culture,” Dale said. “We will want to encourage people as much as possible to limit their use of single-occupancy vehicles as a way of getting to campus.”

Hill, also a Committee member, indicated a similar attitude toward excessive driving.  “I know folks now that drive from north campus to south campus as if it’s really that big a campus, and it isn’t,” he said.

A commenter named Michael Jones wrote on the Master Plan website that “parking and transportation will be ways in which the College can demonstrate a real commitment to sustainability with real incentives for walking, biking and taking public transportation to campus.”

Kolowrat wrote in an email that the benefits of less parking align with a number of College goals. “Fewer parking lots replacing green space means a more beautiful campus for all of us to enjoy, fewer stormwater management problems, and a smaller carbon footprint for the College — which is what we promised when President Chopp signed the President’s Climate Commitment.

She continued, “As for human health, some Colleges offer incentives to people who bike or walk to work, because they know it benefits wellness. And human health relates back to environment: I don’t know anyone who’d rather look out of a window at a parking lot than at plants and trees.”

One way to discourage faculty and staff and from driving to work is to encourage them to walk or bike instead. In fact, at least half of the faculty already live within a mile of campus, according to Wallace. A mortgage subsidy program exists for faculty who choose to live within this radius.

But a large number of faculty and staff will never have walking as an option. “We couldn’t eliminate parking entirely because we have many staff members who don’t live within parking distance and don’t live anywhere near public transportation,” Dale said. As a result, parking policies should ensure that those who need to drive still can. “Obviously we don’t want people to decide not to work here because it’s too difficult to get here.”

However, the College does not have a clear picture of how faculty, staff, and students commute to campus, so figuring that out will be a large first step in the process of creating sustainable transportation policies. Nor does it know who needs to park where once they arrive. “One of the things we hope will come out of the parking and transportation master plan committees is an understanding of where people need parking, [so that] if the culture of being able to park next to your building is no longer sustainable, then where do we put parking spaces and how do we encourage people to use them?”

Hill, who said about his job that “anything related to parking sort of falls under my umbrella,” said he understood the current parking lots to be adequate for the time being. That will likely change as new buildings and more people are added in coming years.

“I think there’s going to be some growth in our student body over a number of years, I’m sure, and that growth may also include faculty and staff to support the additional students,” said Hill. “It’s unlikely that we would not grow in one capacity or another.”

Indeed, wrote Kolowrat, “unless we take a deep breath and incentivize something other than one employee/one car/one space, we’ll wind up with a paved-over North Campus. And eventually that will be the case for other parts of campus too.”

If parking capacity needs to grow, parking lots could be avoided by constructing parking garages. And even if capacity doesn’t grow, new buildings like Science Center II, which will be built over existing lots, will require the creation of replacement spaces somewhere on campus.

“The main argument against any kind of a non-surface type of parking,” according to Everbach, “is that it’s expensive per parking space. It’s $20,000 per space for just the simple parking garage and $40,000 if it’s sunk in the ground. I say, good. Make it as expensive as possible. $40,000 is the right price if not more to park, and that cost has got to be borne by somebody.”

Everbach continued, “what I’m arguing is fewer and more expensive parking spaces is actually good. […] It’s more expensive to build a hole in the ground and put a parking garage in it than it is when you’re going to be building a whole new biology building anyway and build parking into the first two floors of it.”

If the Committee chooses not to recommend burying a parking structure, said Wallace, it should consider placing above-ground structures in non-central locations like Cunningham Lot or the water tower lot behind the Science Center. “None of this is desirable, none of it’s gonna look nice,” he said, “but it’s sort of like putting wind turbines in the Chesapeake or off Hyannis Port. I mean nobody wants that, but we can’t keep doing what we’re doing.”

Werlen noted that a shuttle route could be created to pick up and drop off commuters at various existing but underused parking lots in the Ville, including those at local churches.

The College could also disincentivize parking by charging for it, an idea brought up by nearly everyone interviewed for this article. “You know, this is a classic case of taxing tobacco, and the tobacco in this case is the free parking spaces,” said Everbach. “I’ll tell you, our peers, even Williams–places out in the boonies–they still charge for parking. Haverford makes you park at least far away and walk in. We put people, free of charge, right up to their offices, and over time people take that as an entitlement.”

Werlen said he would go further and consider restricting some from parking on campus entirely. “I think students should only under very, very stringent circumstances have car permits for the campus,” he said. “Only people who have a very good reason. And for staff, faculty, if you are injured, if you have some sort of disability.” Temporary visitors could also be allowed to park for free, Everbach added.

The would be a number of caveats, and simply finding a system that requires payment or permits from some while allowing others to park for free might be half the battle. “There are fairness and economic justice issues at play,” wrote Kolowrat. Campuses that charge a lot for parking “preference employees of greater means and unduly burden employees who make less.”

Dale said that several members of the Parking and Transportation Committee would be able to help speak for those who, unlike faculty, aren’t parking on the nine-to-five cycle. The Committee will need to consider “second- and third-shift workers,” she said, “because it’s very easy to focus in on first-shift and forget that there are different challenges getting to campus if you’re third-shift.”

Besides reducing surface parking lots and disincentivizing parking, the College could also consider subsidizing transit, said Kolowrat.

Wallace cited the 109 bus that runs between Chester and the 69th Street Transportation Center as one route that some staff and faculty may already use.

Everbach said that the College should create a “jitney” (shuttle) program to ferry students, faculty, and staff to campus. “If you live near campus and can walk, that’s fine, but what if it’s a freezing, rainy day or what if you broke your ankle or whatever, so there need to be other alternatives.”

Under his idea, the College would “own a van or two and full-time pay, at living wage, drivers, certified, licensed, and everything, and their job is on an hour’s notice pick you up at your door and take you to campus and back again, and have it all carefully coordinated with software and you text your message to a thing and you get a text back saying ‘I’ll be there in 12 minutes or 40 minutes or whatever.’”

Students would be able to use the service for more than just commuting, said Everbach. A student “would say to the jitney driver, ‘I’d like to go to Delaware to get my booze,’ and it takes twenty minutes each way, but as long as it’s scheduled, and show ID.”

Hill, who, along with Jesse Dashefsky ‘13, worked to turn the morning campus shuttle, which runs to PPR and ML, into a staff-driven service, said he saw no reason to believe a service like the one Everbach described wouldn’t be possible. He also suggested that over time, the College’s van fleet could be replaced by vehicles running on natural gas or electric batteries.

Indeed, Dale said that parking structures, incentives, and new shuttle services would all be on the table in the Parking and Transportation Committee’s discussions. She said that in the comment section on Master Plan website, “a lot of very doable ideas have been floated.”

To get a sense of what the community as a whole thinks, the Committee will be emailing out a survey prepared by Chance Advisors by May 3. “We certainly want student opinion,” said Dale. The “survey will ask questions about how you get to campus right now. If you had to use public transportation, how difficult would that be for you?”

Like anything, expensive parking and transportation proposals will have to be balanced against the College’s spending priorities. If faculty, staff, and students speak out as faculty have done so far, however, the community may demonstrate that their priorities lean towards the creation of green transportation policies.

Some believe, as Wallace, said, the creation of endless surface parking lots “destroys community. It destroys intellectual fraternity [sic], it undercuts any sense of the kind of convivial, academic environment.” To be sure, endless surface parking lots may have few, if any, supporters.

Most other members of the campus community may not be as outspoken as Wallace. But as the Master Planning process nears its final stages, it’s clear that the reputation of parking lots has changed in a lasting way.


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3 comments

  1. 0
    Why is Swarthmore getting bigger? says:

    “The most recent draft of Swarthmore’s Campus Master Plan, presented to the College community at a meeting in March, works off of assumptions that faculty, students, and staff will grow, perhaps by the hundreds, over the next couple of decades.”

    Why is Swarthmore growing in student body? I think one of the biggest strengths of the college is its small, intimate size, and I’d hate to have future students lose that really important benefit. Even if we want to be cynical and say it’s in order to get more tuition revenue, according to the College each student’s education here actually costs around $80,000 although they only charge around $55-60,000, so financially each admitted student theoretically sets them back even more. Is it just because they want more students to benefit from a Swarthmore education? Because if so, those future students simply won’t have the same experience that we have now if the student body is significantly larger.

    1. 0
      Andrew Karas ( User Karma: 12 ) says:

      Hi Anonymous,

      I have on record Prof. Everbach saying that he rides his bike to campus whenever the weather permits it, as long as he doesn’t have errands to run. Now, I didn’t observe him biking myself, but to the extent that you can trust a quote… there you go.

      Thanks for reading The Daily Gazette!

      Andrew Karas
      News Editor

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