Perhaps the pandemic made us forget what it meant to be on campus with nearly 30,000 other students. Perhaps too many people who could have walked to their first day of class decided to drive instead. Or perhaps, with one of the largest student populations in UT history, we have simply arrived at a breaking point.
But whatever the explanation, most students who have a car on campus agree: parking during the first three days of the 2021-2022 school year was a mess. With central garages full as early as 7:30 a.m., various students have reported driving in circles for over an hour, missing their first class or even parking downtown and walking to campus.
On the r/UTK subreddit, complaints about parking became so commonplace this week that a student dryly titled their post “Another Another Parking (and Bus) Post.”
Another student, a sophomore named Nadia Tippett, went so far as to write a petition on Change.org titled, “Help STOP the University of Tennessee Parking Crisis.” Since it was posted last week, the petition has gained around 1,600 signatures and support for the petition only continues to rise.
“Complaints from students across campus is actually what prompted me to write the petition,” Tippett said. “Many of the Ag Campus students in particular voiced their concerns. Walking can take them up to 40 minutes and many people can’t afford to use the LINK services in town.”
In her petition, Tippett called for the campus to get rid of the designation between non-commuter and commuter parking passes and to no longer charge non-commuting students over $100 more than commuting students for their passes. She also called on the university to provide “readily available, accessible to all, student parking at a fair, universal rate,” which she believes would entail the construction of a new parking garages.
The staff at UT Parking and Transit Services are accustomed to such petitions and to the complaints that roll in every year at this time, when more students drive to campus and attend class than at any other point in the year.
Moira Bindner, communications and customer service manager for Parking and Transit, said that her office has been working to expand parking opportunities for students, including new daytime commuter parking at Fraternity Park lots and perimeter parking at Church Street United Methodist on Henley Street.
When asked if there was a parking crisis, Bindner reframed the issue.
“There is a get-to-know-where-the-parking-areas-are crisis,” Bindner said. “There is a crisis of education.”
Even though this year’s issues seem to be more acute, Parking and Transit has a few unmovable facts in their arsenal, facts that they believe more students need to know. For one thing, they are an auxiliary unit which operates mainly off of permit and special events revenue and is not funded by the university. For another, campus is landlocked and there are few places to put more parking. Most striking, however, is the price tag for a new garage, which hovers around $25,000 per parking space.
Some of the issues Tippett brought up are being addressed by parking services. The large Neyland commuter garage now has live availability counters to let students know how many spaces are left. While they are given to occasional inaccuracies, these counters, which are also featured at the Terrace Avenue Garage and the Volunteer Boulevard Garage, give live updates on the parking and transit website and on the Tennessee app.
Parking and Transit also added a new T Bus route this year called the “Ag Express,” which runs to the infamously far Ag campus every six to eight minutes from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
But students have taken issue with more fundamental aspects of parking at UT, such as the ratio of permits to spaces, which caps at 1.85 permits per commuter space and 1.2 permits per non-commuter and staff space. These ratios are the result of calculations about how many students and staff are typically on campus at one time. Bindner said her office has not had to reach the maximum number of permits this year.
Students see an overselling of permits and a clogged parking system, but Bindner says this view discredits the addition of alternate parking spots across campus.
“When I used to do orientation, I used to say, ‘we have enough parking places,’ and people would laugh at me,” Bindner said. “We don’t have enough convenient parking places, and that’s where people get really frustrated and that’s what the petitions are talking about. This is where the challenge is.”
Bindner said that resources like the T bus system and the parking maps on the Tennessee app are underutilized by a student body that is largely unaware of them.
“If you just take 10 minutes later on today, just to kind of go through my webpage, even just look at the navigation, I got a lot of questions, I got a lot of answers, I got maps there, but nobody looks. Nobody looks,” Bindner said. “They just send the questions saying, ‘why isn’t there parking next to Hess Hall?’”
Ben Pham, a junior who served as chair of the Student Senate’s infrastructure committee last year, believes that the solution resides not in more parking, but in fewer cars.
“Is parking a mess? Yes of course, but the demands that some students are asking for aren’t the solution,” Pham said. “Making more parking is incredibly expensive, to the tune of $20,000+ a parking spot. Instead we should be focusing on ways to get students away from cars. Carpooling incentives and public transit are the easiest way to alleviate our parking woes. As for non-commuter students, the transport on campus, with T-bus and T-link, solves a lot of their problems of parking on campus in most situations, but not all.”
Frustrations with university parking go beyond not being able to find a spot. As an undergraduate senator, Pham authored a bill that would introduce a program in which the university would provide a free bike to on-campus students who pledge not to bring a car to campus. The bill was almost unanimously passed by the undergraduate senate, but no moves have been made by administration to push the program forward.
“This program would fix a lot of those parking problems for those living in dorms,” Pham said. “The university has gone absolutely nowhere with this bill, though, and it’s absolutely frustrating that even when our student leaders try to find ways to solve problems, UT still doesn’t act.”
Grace Ewell, a law student at UT, said that some of the parking issues are particular to the law students she advocates for as president of the Student Bar Association. For these students, who often must leave campus at a moment’s notice to meet with clients or attend various externships and clerkships, not having a convenient parking spot might as well mean not having a parking space at all.
“These students comprise a large portion of our student population,” Ewell said. “They are often unable to afford the extra minutes in walking to a garage on the other side of campus. As a result, they will pay to park on the street or even park in restricted areas because they are understandably unwilling to sacrifice either their academic studies or client needs.”
“Many other law schools have dedicated parking garages for this reason, which also serves as a positive factor in recruiting for those schools. Although a solution may not be in the cards at UT, this is the source of many students’ frustrations with parking this year.”
Ewell reached out to Parking and Transit to see about helping to fix the issue and was told that law students should research parking areas on campus and bring an extra pair of comfortable shoes for the walk to the law school.
Whether or not this advice is helpful may depend on whether the current parking issues on campus can be fixed by adding more parking spots or if students must take initiative to familiarize themselves with the T bus and the Parking and Transit webpage.
For her part, Bindner believes that the solution to the parking problems lies largely with students. Her advice includes coming to campus an hour earlier to find a space, researching new perimeter lots to find a sensible (though perhaps inconvenient) place to park and taking full advantage of the T bus system.
It may not be the advice students want to hear and it may not encompass every solution, but to Bindner and to Parking and Transit, it’s what we currently have to work with.
“We are landlocked … we can’t expand,” Bindner said. “Otherwise, I would have built a garage on the river, you know, and just barged kids out there.”