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Can University

Handle Traffic Differently?

By Donald L. Michelsen, Blacksburg

Spectrum Volume 21 Issue 15 - December 10, 1998

If Blacksburg and Virginia Tech continue to grow as in the recent past, we will soon live in a metropolitan area. The town and campus are losing their small-town community feel with congestion and traffic strongly impacting on the tone and appeal of the area. Clearly, part of this is a natural result of so called "progress and growth." But, much more disappointing to me is that directly or indirectly both the university with its abundant campus parking and on-campus traffic patterns, and the town with its efficient, fast, vehicle-delivery system are creating an environment where the automobile is king and the pedestrian and the bicycle will be tolerated as long as they just stay out of the way. Like most drivers in Blacksburg, I am so infrequently restrained from zipping around the town and campus, that I find yielding any priority to bicyclists and walkers annoying.
I probably would not be motivated to write this open letter, except for visits to several of our peer universities. At Penn State with an enrollment of 40,000 students in a city of 50,000 (100,000 total including suburbs), the departments are allocated a limited number of on campus permits at $312 per year with perimeter parking (an eight-to-10-minute walk) costing $204 per year. Students living in residential housing pay $65 per semester for parking at the edge of campus, and 5,000 spaces are available for commuters--a mile away with free bus transportation. As a result, essentially all students walk, ride a bike or take a bus.
At the University of Wisconsin with a student body of 40,000 and a population of 200,000 in Madison (400,000 in the county) 10,000 spaces on and around campus are available for faculty members to park, costing $185 to $690 per year. A small commuter lot is available for 700 students costing $185 on a first-come, first-served basis. While several expensive private garages are available, the fact is that essentially all students walk, bike or ride the bus (part of activities fee). As a result, particularly at Penn State, and less so at the U. of Wisconsin, the campus seems less congested and safer to walk about than here at Virginia Tech with an enrollment of 25,000-plus and Blacksburg population of roughly 30,000.
Virginia Tech charges faculty and staff members $50 and students $40 per year to park (about 21,000 permits sold per year). Besides being cheaper to park at Tech, most of our parking encroaches the campus more than either Penn State or Wisconsin. Have we not created a short-distance commuter university with asphalt and campus traffic to support the habit? True, some time and convenience are gained for both faculty and staff members and students. However, I believe we have congested and de-humanized both the campus and town and made the environs much less appealing and safe. The total environmental costs are not trivial here at the "can-do" university. Other much larger peer universities seem to have handled their traffic problem more responsibly than we do.