Colleges Should Focus On Teaching Students, Not Giving Them Subsidized Parking Spaces

By Matthew Cameron

Although today’s New York Times was correct to point out that compared to Europe the United States is an automobile oasis, there is at least one American institution that is getting tough on car owners:

What with virtually every college’s stated commitment to sustainability and (perhaps not unrelated) parking crisis, reducing the number of students who bring cars to campus is desirable to many. So colleges encourage carpooling, offer Zip Car short-term rentals, and promote bicycle use. But a small yet growing number of colleges are becoming particularly active in not only providing options beyond cars, but encouraging a car-free college experience — creating all kinds of new issues for campus officials. […]

Predictably, there has been some resistance. “There is definitely a strong voice against having to pay to park; there’s a pushback there that I think we haven’t experienced in other sustainability efforts,” Case said, adding that there’s also a strong contingent of students who say it’s about time.

The primary focus here is sustainability, and that is obviously an issue that should be of great concern for college students and other young people who are going to grow up to experience the miserable effects of global warming. But it also seems that college students and the administrators involved in crafting transportation policy finally are realizing the huge opportunity costs of car-friendly campuses.

Simply put, land is a valuable commodity and universities possess a limited amount of it. If large tracts of university-owned land must be devoted to parking lots and roads to facilitate students’ automobile use, then that means less space is available for dorms and classroom buildings. This, in turn, means that as universities enroll more students in the coming years they will need to spend substantial amounts of money acquiring additional land upon which they can locate buildings. If car-owning students get their wish and are able to use parking lots and roads for free, then the costs of land acquisition most likely will be passed on through tuition and fee increases that all students will have to pay regardless of whether they own a car.

Universities are valuable institutions, so people are willing to pay a high price to attend them. The social benefits they provide also justify various forms of state subsidization, from direct institutional aid to tax deductions for private donations. To get the best return on this investment, however, it is crucial that universities’ resources be channeled toward supporting their core mission — educating students.