Campus commuters struggle in search for parking

March 15, 2018

“A complete disaster.”

These are the words that Shelby Lahlum, a junior creative writing student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire used to sum up parking for campus commuters.

Lahlum isn’t alone.

According to an Inside Eau Claire survey, student participants have paid an average of $90 dollars in parking tickets throughout their time at UW-Eau Claire. © 2018 Nicole Bellford

Data collected from an Inside Eau Claire online survey suggest student commuters struggle with finding parking space availability. Student senators and officials from the university parking department admit it’s a hard issue to solve.

Quantifying the Problem

Student drivers have a few options when parking on campus. They can purchase a student parking permit, or an S permit, for the academic year that grants access to any campus parking space labeled “S.” Students can also pay for a spot on campus by the hour via parking meters, or they can park on neighborhood streets near campus.

Four hundred students participated in a parking-related survey Inside Eau Claire posted to a Facebook group for UW-Eau Claire students graduating in 2018 and 2019. The survey was open from March 6 to March 9. Results show that 52 percent of participants consider driving their primary method of getting to campus. Of these participants, 48 percent reported having purchased an “S” permit for their parking needs, while 52 percent reported parking on streets nearby campus.

According to UW-Eau Claire Parking and Transportation Services, 1,100 students currently have issued S permits, while there are approximately 740 student spots on campus. The S permit allows students to park within the lot behind Davies Student Center and Phillips Science Hall, the lot on Water Street, the lot next to the Human Sciences and Services building as well as a small lot outside the McPhee Physical Education Center.

The results show that 78 percent of participants who have an S permit selected “strongly agree” to the statement “I have trouble finding student (S) parking spots on campus,” while 18 percent selected “agree.”

In addition, 58 percent of survey participants selected “disagree” to the statement “I think the price of an S pass ($197) is appropriate for what the permit provides,” while 21 percent selected “somewhat disagree.”

In terms of parking availability for student commuters without S permits, 90 percent of survey participants selected “agree” to the statement “I have trouble finding off-campus parking when I drive to campus,” while 9 percent selected “somewhat agree.” To remedy this problem, 79 percent of participants admitted to parking in an “inappropriate” parking spot to get to class (e.g. parking in a faculty spot on campus or parking in a no parking zone on the street).

Aside from availability and permit price, survey participants had the option to leave additional comments on parking on and around campus. Common additional concerns mentioned a lack of reliability for other methods of transportation, such as overcrowding on the university bus system, broken parking meters and unplowed parking spots in the winter.

Lastly, 75 percent of participants reported having received a campus-related parking ticket in the last academic year, spending between $10 and $400 on tickets, with an average of $90.

Student Permit Parking

Lahlum is one of the 1,100 students with an S permit and has had a parking permit for the past two years since she moved off campus. While she doesn’t think the price of the pass is necessarily unreasonable, she said she’s unhappy with her experiences parking on campus.

Despite purchasing a parking pass, Lahlum said she has paid at least $300 in campus-related parking tickets. No matter how early she arrives to campus, she said she typically has difficulty finding a spot, leaving her to decide

Currently, 1,100 students have student parking permits. An Inside Eau Claire survey shows these students still struggle with finding parking on campus. © 2018 Nicole Bellford

between continuing to search for a student parking spot or park in an illegal spot to make it to class on time.

Lahlum said this process makes her question the point of the pass in the first place.

“It’s just pointless,” she said. “I have to pay for a pass, but I never get to use it because I just never find a parking spot. It’s terrible.”

She has found success in the Water Street parking lot, where student parking spots are usually available. However, Lahlum said parking in this lot is more of an inconvenience because all her classes are located across the footbridge in Phillips Science Hall or Centennial Hall.

The majority of survey participants also favor parking on the closer to the main buildings on campus. Seventy percent agreed to the statement that the Davies Student Center and Phillips Science Hall parking lot is their parking lot of choice, with 143 student parking spots, according to campus Parking and Transportation Services. On average, less than 10 S spots are available at a given time between 8:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m.

“It’s definitely a pain if I go through the Davies lot, hoping someone is going to leave so I can park there, and no one leaves,” Lahlum said. “Because then I have to rush across to the Water Street lot and rush to class. I’ve definitely been late to class in that situation before.”

Overall, Lahlum said the parking situation is not only frustrating, but has negatively impacted her experience as a student at UW-Eau Claire.

“I just wish I knew parking was going to be such as serious issue,” Lahlum said. “If you are going to keep enrolling more and more students here, you have to make more lots.”

Student-Athlete Parking

The McPhee Physical Education Center parking lot on upper campus offers 15 of the 740 student parking spots located across campus.  

Although students typically park on lower campus for class, students may find the need to park on upper campus as McPhee contains classrooms for kinesiology students, training and competition facilities for student-athletes, workout facilities for students, as well as athletic treatment facilities for athletes with sport-related injury.

Callie Fischer, a senior biochemistry and Spanish student, is one of over 600 student athletes at UW-Eau Claire using McPhee’s facilities. Fischer, a cross country and track athlete, said parking in McPhee has been a problem throughout her four years on athletic teams at the university.

Fischer said she has never even purchased an S permit, partly because of the cost and partly because she would only use it to drive to McPhee, since she lives in walking distance of lower campus. As a result, Fischer often carpools with other members of the cross country or track teams to get to practice and competition.

In her experiences carpooling, Fischer said she still faces parking challenges. Teammates struggle to find available S spots leaving them with no other option but to park in the adjacent Chippewa Valley Technical College parking lot and risk getting a ticket. Fisher said she chips in to pay the cost of these parking tickets and fees

“It’s just not convenient,” Fischer said. “And looking back, it can really add up.”

Off-campus Student Parking

Gregory Yohn, a sophomore elementary education student, said driving is his primary method of transportation to campus because he lives over two miles away.

A walk through neighborhood streets during school hours can show filled streetside parking from Garfield Avenue to Farwell Street.

Student commuters without student parking permits typically park on nearby streets surrounding campus. © 2018 Nicole Bellford

Yohn said he had a parking pass in his first year on campus, but struggled to find available spots and paid about $60 in parking tickets. As a result, Yohn decided to go without the pass and “take a chance” with street parking for the 2017-18 academic year.

“I would lap the parking lot at least twice and just never find a spot,” Yohn said. “If I didn’t find a spot, I would usually end up paying tickets. At that point, I decided the pass just wasn’t worth it.”

Reflecting on this past year without a pass, Yohn said he continues to face struggles. He said although he leaves nearly an hour before class sometimes to find a spot, he still ends up walking several blocks to campus by the time he finds an opening.

In addition, Yohn said parking off campus during severe weather, such as a snowstorm, can be nerve-wracking because cars left unattended for a couple hours run the risk of getting plowed in and stuck on the street.

Yohn said more than anything, his experiences with campus parking have contributed to his already high stress levels as a student.

“I am more stressed and worried about parking than I am about classwork sometimes,” Yohn said. “Because if I can’t find a parking spot then I can’t even show up to class. And that thought is in the back of my head, non-stop.”

Searching for the Solution

Survey participants had the option of suggesting solutions to the parking problems. Most commonly, participants said students simply need more spots.

But the parking problem is about campus geography, said Allyson Wisniewski, the UW-Eau Claire parking supervisor.

“Despite what some people think, we do have sufficient parking on campus and given the geography of our campus, this limits the locations of our parking lots,” Wisniewski said. “As for students parking on the streets around campus, they have the choice to purchase a campus parking permit or not.”

On the other hand Student Senator Maddie Forrest, a junior public relations student, said Senate members have identified commuter parking as a problem and have discussed solutions in the past, including the possibility of a parking garage.

The vast majority of survey respondents agree, as 95 percent selected “agree” to the statement “I think the university would benefit from a campus parking garage.”

Making this happen is more difficult than it seems, Forrest said. The estimated cost of the parking garage would equate to nearly $1,000 a stall and both the Eau Claire City Council and nearby non-university residents have to get on board with the idea, due to the high cost and potential disturbances of another city construction project.

Parking-related changes will not happen until more community stakeholders support the idea, Forrest said.

“I agree with all the students’ frustration,” Forrest said. “There are just a lot of complications in place. With everything happening right now, we have a long ways to go.”

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