The Parking Puzzle

It's a multimillion dollar headache for the University and a nightmare for visitors. Why on a campus the size of Texas is it so hard to park? In his search for answers, our intrepid reporter left no ticket unpaid.

November/December 1996

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The Parking Puzzle

Marc Rosenthal

No one knows the heartache of parking on campus better than Marv Herrington. Make no mistake, Herrington can park anywhere he likes. But as Stanford's chief of police and the person ultimately responsible for enforcing University parking rules, Herrington has seen the tears, heard the anguish and felt the pain caused by parking trauma. "It's a universal truth," he says, "no one is ever happy about parking. I'm always amazed that people get so exercised about it." (Me, too. I park in a free 40-minute green zone outside Marv's office for two hours. No ticket, no sweat.)

"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."
--Clark Kerr, MA '33, former president of the University of California

Herrington has heard every imaginable story about the injustice of parking tickets. He knows of parking squabbles that ended in shouted obscenities and threatening gestures, and has been asked, by the famous and the not-yet-famous, to fix citations. "The way you take care of it is to mail in $25," he says. "I don't fix tickets." The modern American university has been defined as warring departmental fiefdoms held together by a common concern about parking.

Dartmouth's former president, David McLaughlin, once said that the thing that kept him awake at night was "the fear that everyone with a parking permit will show up at the same time." Three years ago, a business professor at Florida State asked a student to move his car out of a faculty parking space. When the student refused, the professor rammed his Pontiac Grand Am into the student's Nissan. Twice.

Universities have problems with parking, in part, for the same reason they have problems finding presidents. They have diffuse and demanding constituencies--faculty, students, staff, alumni and surrounding communities--that all need and expect different things.

Students want plenty of parking near dorms. Faculty members want the budget to go toward books and buildings rather than $10 million parking structures. Staff members want parking to be safer and less expensive. Alumni often simply want to find it. Residents of Palo Alto and Menlo Park want Stanford to make the cars--and the resulting traffic and congestion--disappear. And all would appreciate it if parking spaces weren't moved every week to accommodate campus construction.

There is no way to make everyone happy. "The parking problem is, in a very real sense, a zero-sum game; i.e., any individual's or group's gain must be at the expense of someone else," said a 1975 report on Stanford's parking and transportation policies.

"The Board of Trustees kindly requests that no automobiles or gasoline bicycles trespass on these premises."
--Signs posted at the entrance gates to Stanford in 1898.

When Frederick Law Olmsted was planning a university campus for Jane and Leland in the early 1880s, parking was not a problem he could have anticipated. The Duryea brothers hadn't yet built America's first gasoline-powered automobile. But a few years after the University opened, automobiles started sputtering onto the Farm. They were not welcomed with acclamation.

"After a few terrifying encounters between horses and pedestrians and the new gasoline-powered machines, Mrs. Stanford requested that all campus roads be closed to automobiles," said a 1974 Stanford Magazine article titled "From Wheels to Toonerville, and Back."

Years before he became Stanford's third president, Ray Lyman Wilbur was the first person allowed to have a car on campus on a regular basis. Wilbur received this blessing because he was the school's medical officer. He presumably had no trouble parking. (And neither do I when I go to the University archives to dig up this history. I leave my car in the metered lot near Tresidder. I turn the knob to get my free 20 minutes--a hospitable little touch that has since been eliminated--and add four quarters to max the meter out at another hour. I'm gone for three hours but, voila! no ticket.)

 In 1905, two years after Jane Stanford's death, the trustees allowed cars onto campus for the Big Game. They wisely understood that no cars meant no tailgaters. In the fall of 1908, all University roads, except for Palm Drive, were opened to cars "as an experiment."

In the Roaring Twenties, cars rolled onto campus at an accelerated pace. Most of the new arrivals were nearly identical Model-T Fords. Henry Ford's cookie-cutter cars were incredibly inexpensive. A new one could be had for as little as $290 in 1927, and they were easy to maintain. According to lore, the most notable parking spot on campus became the roof of Encina Hall, the men's freshman dorm, where disassembled Model T's were reassembled in a favored prank of the time.

The encroachment continued unabated during the 1930s and 1940s and by mid-century, there were 3,085 parking spaces on campus, most of them curbside spots. Little more than a decade later, in 1962-63, there were 6,664 parking spaces available. By 1973-74, there were nearly 12,000 zoned parking places at the center of campus. Today, there are about 17,200 parking spots. There are also about 23,000 drivers with campus parking permits and hundreds of car-borne visitors to the Farm each day. Which makes the Dartmouth president's bouts of insomnia all the more understandable.

 Stanford is lucky. Even at the worst of times--typically a rainy day in the middle of winter quarter--there is enough parking for everyone. "It may not be where you want it," Herrington says, "but we offer it somewhere."

Somewhere has become harder to find. Over the last 25 years, the University has built more than 60 new buildings and major structures on campus. All of these buildings have been erected on the school's core 1,816 acres (of Stanford's 8,180 contiguous acres), and frequently they have been plopped right on top of existing parking.

In the 1970s, the University recognized that the costs of a new building do not end with the final nail or the last tile and began imposing a construction tax. Currently, it has three components: a tax that goes to general campus improvements (now 5 percent of the building's construction cost); a tax for transportation improvements (4 percent); and a displaced-parking charge ($6,500 for each parking space that is lost).

For example, the Ralph Landau Center for Economics and Policy Research was built three years ago on a parking lot just east of MemAud. The three-story building cost $11.7 million to construct. But the final price tag added another $1.63 million for the Stanford Infrastructure Program (including $578,500 for the 89 parking spots that were razed and not replaced).

The tax helps Stanford fund the free Marguerite shuttle, improve its roads and build new parking lots at the periphery of the campus. But it doesn't make parking any easier to find. As the thicket of buildings near the center of campus has grown thicker and thicker, parking has moved farther and farther away from where people work, study and play.

The distribution of the limited parking resource is a political, economic and emotional issue. at best, we may be able to achieve a relatively uniform distribution of unhappiness. --Peter Carpenter, assistant vice president of medical affairs, in a 1975 report "Recommnded Parking and Transportation Policies for Stanford University."

Why does parking so discompose one's equanimity? "It's so emotional because parking is so petty," surmises current ASSU president Bill Shen. "People have bigger concerns."

There is something to Shen's pea-under-the-mattress theory. When you're tackling something of enormous import--Was there life on Mars? Can HIV be neutralized? Where are my tickets to the Big Game?--the last thing you want to do is cruise campus waiting for a parking space to open.

"Anything that interferes with the progress of a person's day or routine becomes an emotional issue," says Julia Fremon, manager of transportation programs. She says that this is just as true for cyclists, who may find roadwork impeding their trip to campus, as it is for drivers, who may discover that "nearby parking" has become an overnight oxymoron.

Parking touches on issues of safety, convenience, fairness, the environment and finances. It also touches on the odd, inextricable relationship between California drivers and their automobiles.

"It's ironic that we have great weather out here and could walk anywhere, yet we have to park as close to our destination as possible," says Sally Pinkner, a community relations officer at Stanford. (When I talk to Sally and her boss, Andy Coe, in his office on the Quad, "as close as possible" is the Tresidder lot. I take the free 20 minutes and don't even bother with the quarters. It's summertime and the living is easy. My hubris is rewarded with one of those $25 beauties that Marv won't fix.)

Finally, at Stanford, there is also the problem caused by the collision of perception and reality. The perception is that Stanford, with its sprawling, seemingly boundless campus, can easily provide accessible parking. "In urban environments, there is an expectation that it will be difficult and expensive to park," Pinkner says. "Here, they see all the open space and think, 'Why can't I park?' " The reality is that Stanford is, in its own words, "the only private employer in Santa Clara County that supports its parking system through user fees." Translation: It's the only one that charges for parking.

Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got/'Til it's gone/They paved paradis/And put up a parking lot.
--Songwriter Joni Mitchell in "Big Yellow Taxi."

Rather than pave paradise, planners at Stanford have chosen a two-pronged attack on their burgeoning parking problems. Between 1987 and 1991, the University built three multilevel parking structures on the west campus that can accommodate more than 2,500 cars at prime-drive time--and then host dozens of thrill-seeking rollerbladers during more idle hours.

But parking structures are unsightly and expensive. University officials say it costs between $10,000 and $15,000 to build each parking space in a multilevel car park and $1.8 million a year just to service the debt on Stanford's trio of structures. Even if planners at the University wanted simply to build more and more Bladiums, they couldn't. Regulatory agencies require that Stanford be mindful of its neighbors and try to stabilize and reduce the amount of traffic on campus.

"Stanford recognizes that it is smarter to provide alternatives to driving than to provide an ever-increasing supply of parking," says The Stanford Transportation Book, put out by the Transportation Programs office. (When I go to the Transportation Programs office, there are so many quarters clanging in my pockets, I could easily be mistaken for the cashier at Harrah's. And the meters outside are as insatiable as slot machines: They'll take up to 20, good for 10 hours. No more tickets for this guy.)

Planning officials were heartened by a survey three years ago that found that 40 percent of University employees live within seven minutes of Stanford. And to wean them from their car habit, they have created a smorgasbord of commuter alternatives:

  • For those staff and faculty who don't buy a parking permit, the Clean Air Credit program offers transit passes, discount coupons from cycling stores, carpool discounts and clothes lockers, or . . . $90 in cash.
  • Last year, the University doubled the service of the free Marguerite shuttle, which carries employees, students and visitors from businesses and train stations in Palo Alto to points all around campus. Ridership is up 78 percent, to 2,400 rides a day.
  • Eleven new bicycle "garages," designed to hold from 25 to 100 bikes, were opened on campus this year. Enclosed and covered, they provide a greater level of protection against theft as well as shelter during inclement weather.
  • The planning office also helps University employees form carpools, buspools and vanpools.

But it is possible to get carried away with the potential of public transit and alternative forms of transportation. Make no mistake, the car, like rock 'n' roll, is here to stay. California's motto, after all, is "Eureka," which is Greek for "I've found a parking spot!" This is Autopia, the state with more cars, more drivers and more parking problems than any other.

Incredibly, there have been people who failed to grasp the car's relentless ascendancy. A wishful foreword to a planning office report in 1965 said: "Creation of a 'drive-in' campus is open to question. Few universities are shaping themselves irrevocably in an image that assumes the eternalism of the automobile. This may be due to the knowledge that acceptance of the motorcar for individual transit has been a one-generation phenomenon. And its decline, if technology and Madison Avenue cooperate, may be as rapid."

The report further rhapsodized about how the world would change when BART reached Palo Alto. We managed to land on the moon in 1969, but we're still waiting for BART.

"A Stanford parking permit is a hunting license; it is not a guarantee that you will be able to find a parking space in your favorite lot."
--The Stanford Transportation Book.

There is another way, besides bicycles and carpools and CalTrain, to keep cars off campus: parking tickets. When Police Chief Herrington first came to the Farm 25 years ago, tickets were two bucks. "Nobody paid them," Herrington says. "Everybody was a scofflaw."

As he says this, I think back with a twinge of guilt to the parking tickets that collected under my windshield wiper when I worked at the Daily, early in Marv's Farm career. I had Texas plates on my VW bug and, occasionally, I wouldn't get around to paying those pestiferous citations.

But with the advent of computers, things have changed. You can't reregister your car in California if you have outstanding parking citations, Herrington notes. With five outstanding tickets, your car can be towed. To those who still think their out-of-state plates serve as a shield, Herrington says, "Don't come back to California. We have a warrant for your arrest." I wonder if Marv accepts personal checks.

My guilt subsides a little when Herrington tells me that someone at Stanford once accumulated $7,000 in unpaid tickets. It's the kind of collection that inspires a certain slack-jawed respect and that keeps Marv's meter mollies busy. Eight members of the police force--known officially as community service officers (CSOs)--write about 30,000 tickets a year. Most tickets are the garden variety $25 type, but park illegally in a disabled space and the fine balloons to $336. All the money from the fines goes to Santa Clara County.

Herrington sometimes wishes that Stanford, like San Francisco, had a department to deal with parking that was independent of the police force. The police, he explains, frequently need the help of folks on campus, and many people consider the police responsible for their parking miseries. But Herrington also knows that economically it makes the most sense for his staff to monitor parking, and he knows that means more run-ins with people whose emotional baggage would fill more parking spaces than a tractor-trailer.

For most, tickets range somewhere between a minor headache and major heartache. But not everyone objects to the parking regulations and their strict enforcement.

Herrington recalls one Stanford employee who not only didn't mind tickets but actually reveled in them. Every day this woman parked illegally in the same lot. And every day she received a ticket. "The CSO finally saw her one day and told her she was going to have to pay all these tickets or she wouldn't be able to reregister her car," Herrington recalls. "She replied, 'I'm going through a divorce. This car is registered in his name, and I'm sticking it to him on purpose.'"

Bruce Anderson, '79, is the former editor of Stanford magazine.

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