A decade ago, as Austin Peay State University’s enrollment steadily increased, so did complaints about parking. The concerns were valid, particularly when parking lots disappeared to make way for new buildings on the Clarksville, Tenn., campus—which is nearly surrounded by the Cumberland River and the Red River. It soon became clear that the university needed to take a fresh look at its parking situation.
While underground parking provides a straightforward solution for many institutions, the Clarksville region’s karst topography, made up of porous limestone containing deep fissures and sinkholes, made that option an impossibility. University stakeholders also considered building aboveground parking garages, but this option proved problematic as well. As a public institution, Austin Peay can’t receive state funding for a parking structure, and borrowing money for such a project would have substantially increased parking fees on campus.
In 2015, the university hired a consultant to produce a parking and transportation master plan for the 200-acre campus. We wanted to know, for example, if a parking garage would adequately meet the demands of our growing campus. Austin Peay’s 10-year strategic plan calls for the institution to grow to 13,000 students by 2025. In addition, we wanted to eradicate the misperception that the university lacked adequate parking, as regular audits have revealed several empty spaces on the periphery of campus.
To properly evaluate our situation, the consultant distributed a parking survey to all students, faculty, and staff, and the firm continued to gather information and community input through focus groups and on-campus forums. These interactions led to buy-in throughout the Austin Peay community, and the results of these conversations, along with the consultant’s recommendations, were shared with the campus parking committee. Composed of faculty, staff, and students, the committee was instrumental in developing Austin Peay’s final parking plan. During this process, the committee expanded its meeting schedule to thoroughly review the issue and the input from across campus. The members then forwarded their recommendations to Austin Peay’s administration.
An expert in this field, the consultant analyzed our parking situation and then helped university officials develop a list of recommended changes. These changes included:
Revamp the campus shuttle system. For years, Austin Peay has offered the Peay Pickup—a free shuttle service around campus—but it was rare to see students or faculty actually using these buses. The consultant’s study revealed that the shuttle’s operating schedule, which coincided with the university’s normal business hours, didn’t align with our students’ schedules. Additionally, respondents felt they had to wait a long time for a shuttle that didn’t take them where they wanted to go, making it actually faster to walk to class.
In response, the university expanded its shuttle service hours, split one bus route into two, and changed the campus drop-off points. Now, rather than dropping riders on the perimeter of campus, the shuttle brings them to the center. Wait time for the Peay Pickup decreased from roughly 15 minutes to about six minutes, and ridership nearly doubled between the 2016–17 and 2017–18 academic years.
Purchase new software. Austin Peay also retired its nearly 15-year-old parking management system and invested in new software with numerous modules. One of the university’s next steps is to implement a license plate recognition module that will allow campus police to quickly identify which vehicles have the correct permits to park in particular lots or zones. License plate recognition will remove the need for the university to produce and issue physical parking permits. In addition, by using an online portal to purchase permits and register their license plates, vehicle owners won’t have to stand in long lines at the start of each semester.
Reconfigure existing lots. We reconfigured two lots by decreasing space widths from nine feet to 8 1/2 feet. This seemingly minor reduction actually allowed us to add an additional parking spot for every 17 existing spaces. To date, there’s been no backlash from commuters or reported accidents in these lots, so we are planning to continue developing smaller parking spaces as lots require resurfacing.
Install access gates. In the university’s smaller lots, located near downtown restaurants, we installed gates that block access in the evenings and on weekends. This change has reduced the number of safety and security issues requiring attention from campus or city police departments, and Austin Peay permit holders can still exit these lots once the gates have closed.
Thinking Outside the Lot
Efforts to remedy Austin Peay’s parking woes also extended to off-campus solutions:
Acquire additional property. In 2016, the university purchased a neighboring car dealership, which automatically added 650 parking spaces to the campus inventory. The university also bought a smaller lot that can accommodate 70 cars, but we’re holding that property in reserve until the demand for parking warrants its use.
Relocate some student services. With the purchase of the 10-acre car dealership, Austin Peay bridged an invisible yet long-standing gap on Clarksville’s College Street. For years, one side of the street was bordered by the university’s manicured grounds while the other side abutted an unattractive asphalt jungle. Now we’re working with the city to create safe pedestrian crosswalks across the four-lane street to better merge the two worlds.
The university has repurposed two of the former dealership buildings to house its advancement office and an educational leadership center. Austin Peay is the state’s largest provider of higher education to military-affiliated students; at least 2,659 students enrolled in fall 2018 had a military connection. This distinction prompted the university to begin converting a third building on that property into a military family resource center. Another building at this location will house Austin Peay’s bookstore, which has historically been in the center of campus. The new location—which will also feature a coffee shop—will have greater visibility, offer easier parking, and provide better access to individuals from both the campus and the Clarksville community.
Help people think differently. Not surprisingly, the university’s parking survey found that most respondents wanted to park close to their building destination and find a space whenever they needed one. Few realized that every Austin Peay parking lot is within about a half-mile walk of the student center. To reduce this misconceived, parking-related frustration, we now frequently use social media posts, flyers, and print ads to tout the number of open spaces at outer lots and encourage use of the parking shuttle. In addition, we plan to post “Get Fit” signs at each outer lot, informing drivers the number of steps they can register daily simply by walking to campus.
Austin Peay’s parking committee is continuing to consider additional recommendations, including tiered parking rates (charging less to park in the outer lots) and the removal or downsizing of on-campus reserved lots. The committee is also considering a suggestion made by the university’s sustainability committee to install bike rental stations at the larger perimeter parking lots.
As enrollment continues to grow, Austin Peay will continue to be proactive in its efforts to address the parking needs of the campus community.