Parking Meets Sustainability

Administrators at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), a private university with 11,396 full-time students, are committed to campus sustainability. At the same time, they struggle with an issue that plagues many administrators across the country: a shortage of parking spaces.

Sure, a parking deck might solve part, if not all, of the problem. But parking decks are incredibly expensive to build. They also require ongoing operation, maintenance, lighting, and security — offering little return on the investment. Then there’s the fact that they take up space that might be better used for advancing a school’s mission, such as a classroom building. Finally, parking decks simply do not create the lasting, sustainable change WUSTL administrators desire.

To help advance their commitment to sustainability, WUSTL administrators have aligned their sustainability strategic plan with the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS), a performance measurement program of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). AASHE released the first version of STARS in January 2009, for colleges and universities to gauge relative progress toward sustainability. WUSTL was involved in the development of STARS and expects to use it to track its sustainability performance.

As noted in the Olin Sustainability Case Competition (OSCC) — more on this document later — “The University and STARS have targeted transportation as one of their spearhead initiatives, because transportation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants that have been linked to health problems….”

STARS rates achievements in making campus transportation systems more sustainable. According to the OSCC, “This credit recognizes institutions that use cleaner fuels, fuel-efficient vehicles, and/or multi-passenger vehicles. In addition, institutions can realize efficiencies by increasing the number of passengers per vehicle. The credit measures fleet greenhouse gas emissions in terms of passenger miles traveled to prevent, penalizing institutions that operate shuttles.”

Additional credits are available according to the percentage of students, faculty, and staff who get to and from campus via a method other than single-occupancy vehicles.

Tackling WUSTL’S Parking Challenge
Clearly, STARS is designed to advance campus sustainability efforts. Unfortunately, by itself, it doesn’t solve WUSTL’s parking challenge.

To more directly ensure enough parking spaces and reduce the number of cars coming onto campus, WUSTL administrators have a plethora of initiatives in place. Public transportation options, including the MetroBus and MetroLink, have multiple stops near the campuses. Plus, with a University-subsidized Universal Pass (U-Pass), all eligible students, faculty, and staff may ride MetroBus or MetroLink for free. The University also was the first organization to partner with Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s WeCar car-sharing program, which offers seven vehicles parked in four reserved areas located strategically throughout the Danforth and Medical campuses. Registered members receive a key fob in the mail. Then they can reserve cars electronically and access them with the key fob. WUSTL also runs its own carpool program, BearlyDrivers, which offers financial incentives to commuters to share their ride to campus, thus reducing the number of cars in the parking lots. There are also two vanpool initiatives that have incentive plans, such as geography-based pick up and drop off, prime parking spaces, and reduced parking pass rates. Much of the campus is connected to pedestrian and bike pathways. Finally, there are financial incentives to faculty, staff, and graduate students to buy homes near campus.

“As you can see, we have a whole suite of incentives asking people to come to campus other than alone in a car,” said Matt Malten, MEM, LEED-AP BD&C, assistant vice chancellor for Sustainability at WUSTL. “And yet, we’re still short on parking space. Additionally, the people who regulate parking are still asking us to set aside parking.”

Involving the Student Community

With solving the parking challenge in a sustainable manner on his to-do list, Malten was also discussing, with his colleagues in WUSTL’s Olin School of Business, ways to expose the business school students more to sustainability. “We wanted to develop a project that could help with three things,” he says. First, give students the ability to work on an issue that was real — an issue that the administration currently was trying to find solutions for and clearly related to one of the key sustainability-related goals that was forthcoming in the sustainability strategic plan. Second, it had to be something that would really challenge the business school students to use all of their analytical training and stretch their thought processes to consider some difficult-to-quantify sustainability factors. And third, it needed to be an issue that they could analyze and assess in a fairly short period of time.

“We considered a number of options,” Malten continued. “And the parking challenge fit perfectly on all three of those fronts.”

Enter Everett Hullverson, a 2009 WUSTL Olin Business School MBA graduate. With direction from Malten and Olin administrators, he researched and wrote the first OSCC, titled "Where Have All the Parking Spots Gone?"

Open to all WUSTL students, requiring that they work in teams and that each team include one Olin Business School student, the OSCC asks, “What would be the optimal investment in all our alternative parking strategies that would result in us minimizing, to the greatest extent possible, the number of people in our campus community who are coming to campus alone in an auto?” said Malten. “And also do it in a most cost-effective way.”

Participation Exceeded Expectations
More than 100 Olin students, representing every program from undergraduate to MBA, PMBA, and EMBA, entered the competition, which was released just before winter break 2009, with solutions due at the end of January 2010. “The teams we had in number far exceeded our expectations,” said Malten. “We also had representation from almost every school at the university. That was really exciting for us.”

“I think students were energized to participate because we designed the project to be practical,” Malten continued. “We didn’t want the solutions to be theoretical. So, when you talk about parking solutions, the winning team is not guaranteed that what they propose is what the University is going to do. However, it will be presented to executive leadership, which has the decision-making authority to act on what is proposed.”

Competition judges included Malten; Hullverson; Steve Hoffner, associate vice chancellor for Operations; Gail Choate, deputy director of Planning for St. Louis County; Nick Stoff, director of Parking and Transportation Services; and Dan Elfenbein, assistant professor of Strategy at Olin.

And the Winner Is…
On February 12, the winning proposal was announced. Submitted by a team that included four MBA students, the proposal recommends, “a three-pronged approach that will allow Washington University to promote sustainable practices, as well as to reduce the amount it needs to spend on parking. Offer a $1,000 yearly subsidy to reduce the rent of students, faculty, or staff who live in designated areas, forego buying parking pass, and use alternate means to commute to campus; renovate and improve security in the areas where Quadrangle housing is clustered just north of the Loop and in Skinker-Debaliviere; and build a bike path that goes from campus to north of the Loop via Melville Avenue and Westgate Avenue.”

“I think the overwhelming factor that impressed the judges’ panel,” said Malten, “was the holistic thought that went into the approach. It really focused on emphasizing all the right financial incentives in trying to take away the financial disincentives we have that make it too easy to drive to campus alone. They also emphasized trying to get more real pricing for what parking costs the campus, such as time of use and location. It was a really well-done proposal.”

For their efforts, the winners receive a $5,000 grand prize provided by the OSCC corporate sponsors and knowledge that University administrators will now evaluate the feasibility of implementing their solution.

“The first OSCC was so successful that they’re planning on making it an annual event,” said Melody Walker, director of News & Information for the Olin Business School. “They will tackle a different problem every year.”

Definitely a clever and unique way to solve parking and other sustainability issues.