When Parking Lots Disappear

parking lotFocus Groups Prompt Better Solutions for Shared Driving

Parking.

If you work on the Medical Center campus, you know the mere utterance of the word can be explosive. Say it, and you’ll elicit rolled eyes, sighs, and undoubtedly a story or two of lots carved up or built over.

The ironic part is that, in the broadest sense, the Medical Center’s parking space crunch is actually a testament to the institution’s vitality. In lean times, the Medical Center has managed to take on capital projects and hire incremental staff at a pace that many local companies could only dream of.

But this sword is, of course, double-edged. The Medical Center is landlocked by a river, an imminent College Town development, residential neighborhoods and a historic cemetery. As more and more faculty and staff fill vacancies in the Saunders Building and the Cancer Center’s future new floors, real estate only will become more valuable.

carpooling“Of course, an undeniable part of our long-term parking capacity strategy will be procuring more asphalt lots and parking garages,” said Mary Ockenden, URMC’s associate vice president of Space Planning. “We’re currently exploring possible additional parking locations. But at the same time, we’re actively exploring ways to decrease demand by encouraging faculty, staff and students to avoid driving a personal vehicle to work and to instead try options like carpooling or direct park n’ ride shuttles.”

These types of “green” programs not only make us wiser stewards of our planet – they also ease traffic congestion both around our growing University and within our parking lots. What’s more, they can even help us save ourselves a fair share of money on daily commuting costs. (Visit http://bit.ly/CarpoolURMC to watch URMC employee Grace Fuller talk about how carpooling helps her save cash.)

Unfortunately, to date, such shared-driving programs have been unattractive and poorly utilized: more than 10,000 faculty and staff own parking permits and consistently drive a personal vehicle to work.

To better understand how staff make their decisions about commuting – and what programmatic changes might make shared-driving options more enticing – Medical Center planners conducted a series of six focus groups, tapping the perspectives of 50 participants with a combined 600 years of Medical Center employment experience. (This comes on the heels of a spring 2008 University-wide survey – drawing 4,300 responses – to better understand employees’ commuting habits and level of satisfaction with current parking arrangements.)

Spring Focus Groups: A Summary of Findings

Spring focus groups consisted of men and women; almost all were full-time employees (92 percent) who owned a personal parking pass (90 percent). While the majority of employees were administrative professionals, seven physicians/nurses also participated, as did six researchers and one environmental services professional; 12 percent were parents of a young child.

Several themes surfaced:

Convenience and time trump cost.

While cost certainly factors into employees’ decisions to drive alone and park on campus, 58 percent of focus group participants said that commute convenience was far more important to them than merely saving money on permit fees/driving costs (in fact, one-third of group members weren’t even aware of precisely how much they were paying to park each year). Repeatedly, participants emphasized that they’ll chose independence and flexibility over the chance to save a dollar.

  • What we plan to do: We’ll keep convenience front of mind as we explore potential new direct-route shuttles and more. Also, as a start, we’ve increased the number of free passes included in our Occasional Parker permit (a free permit for carpoolers, bus/park n’ ride passengers, and/or bicyclists who only need to drive a personal vehicle to campus on rare occasions). With the addition of these two extra passes (bringing the total to 26 per year for new enrollees; existing Occasional Parkers will receive the additional passes when they renew), individuals in two-person carpools now can drive separately as often as once per week. (Learn more about carpooling at http://www.rochester.edu/parking/green.html.)

There’s a real fear of trying – and committing to – a new transit option.

Humans are creatures of habit, and participants admitted to being uneasy about trying a new way of getting to and from work. Some suggested that the Parking Office find ways to better familiarize employees with shared-transit options (e.g., offering periodic educational forums for employees to learn more/ask questions about carpooling and local park n’ rides); they also suggested that they be offered chance to “test ride” a new option before making a firm commitment to change.

What we plan to do: The Parking Office has indeed promised to indeed reinstate previous parking permits for employees who disband their carpools or decide a park n’ ride/shuttle isn’t a good fit. (Also, to showcase how real URMC employees make carpooling and park n’ rides work for them, check out these videos: http://bit.ly/CarpoolURMC and http://bit.ly/GreeceShuttle).

Transparency has been lacking.

When communication falls short, rumors take root, breeding distrust and frustration. Again and again, focus group participants asked the same questions, including “Why don’t we just build a garage?” and “Why are permit costs so high?”

riding the busWhat we plan to do: As a first step toward addressing these important inquiries, be sure to watch Medical Center Chief Operating Officer Peter Robinson’s mini-interview on the subject, linked here.

When it comes to understanding alternate options, confusion abounds.

Once an employee is ready and willing to consider another commuting method, technical questions inevitably follow. For instance, “How can I pair a carpooling permit with the free Occasional Parker permit to create the kind of flexible, affordable option I need?” and, “If I do take a park n’ ride in, will the Parking Office really offer me an emergency ride home should I need it?” 

What we plan to do: To better explain the ins and outs of such frequently asked questions, Parking leaders, like Medical Center Operations Manager Patricia Hudson, plan to host town-by-town presentations to explain Occasional Parker permits, how carpooling plays out in real life, and which bus or park n’ ride routes are most convenient to various neighborhoods (our friends at RTS are pitching in, creating simpler, easier-to-read bus schedules showing how you can get to URMC from various neighborhoods). The forums will serve as an informal mixers, hopefully even helping employees meet and greet potential carpool mates.

Parking leaders have also rewritten a portion of the website dedicated better explaining these “green” shared-driving options. For a closer tour of these options, be sure to visit the new “Come and GO GREEN” section of the URMC Parking website (http://www.rochester.edu/parking/green.html).

Naturally, these solutions are just the start of a more concerted effort to improve shared-driving options at URMC. For more information about parking at the Medical Center, call 275-4524.

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