There are two open secrets about Austin that no one likes to talk about. The first is that it’s becoming an increasingly more expensive place to live. The second is that no one knows what to do about it. This rise in Austin’s cost of living has a direct impact on myself and my fellow students here at the University of Texas at Austin. While many of the affordability issues that affect students are mostly on the municipal and state levels, out of the jurisdiction of the university, there is one thing that UT can do to help students with the cost of living. It is also something they’re currently dropping the ball on: parking.
Student activists have already been working to bring attention to the affordability problem. In September, the city passed a new development code that allowed multiple low-cost student apartments on Riverside Drive to be torn down and replaced by more upscale and mixed-use apartments. The measure was immediately met with student protests. They were joined by lawyers and other individuals from the Austin community who lobbied on their behalf and tried to block the measure, but they failed to address larger city interests involved that prevented the measure from being revoked.
Riverside is the last affordable neighborhood in Austin for students. Rents there are around $600 a month for a decent apartment. Even though it is on the other side of the river, the neighborhood is a concentrated enough community that public transportation between the apartments and the university is fairly quick and effective. It serves as an area for students who were priced out of UT’s main neighborhood, West Campus. Now that most of Riverside’s apartments are being torn down and the remaining apartments’ rents will increase, it can no longer be expected to be a place for affordable housing.
The West Campus neighborhood has been transformed in the last few years with more high-rise apartments and the promise of lower prices that would follow. Students instead found themselves having to sign leases earlier and earlier in the year with almost no options below $1,000 a month. Some have tried to combat this increasing cost by sharing rooms, but with already small apartments, I found myself sharing a bunk bed for $700 a month. There are efforts to allow for taller buildings in exchange for more affordable rooms, but this program seems to be the same empty promise we’ve been given before.
Now that many students are getting priced out of West Campus and with the loss of the only affordable neighborhood in the city, students are left wondering what can be done to help this problem. As stated earlier, many of these issues are city issues that students have often found little success lobbying to change. Because of all this, students look to driving as an option for getting to campus.
As of right now, general parking options that UT offers are either a parking garage permit or a C parking permit. There are currently 12 parking garages, and all but one are $717 for the school year. While this price is lower than the parking fees at most apartments in West Campus, which are usually around $100 a month, UT’s prices are still too high for many students. Additionally, the parking garage permits are issued in a lottery system, which means that just because you apply to have one does not mean you will get the garage you need. The system does not take into account financial aid, residence, or even class when choosing who gets a permit. A student who lives in an apartment across the street from campus is just as likely to get a permit as a person who lives in Round Rock and relies on a car to commute.
The second option for a parking permit is the C permit. The C permit allows students to park in a number of different parking lots for the more affordable price of $150 a year. However, the only ones on the same side of I-35 and MLK as campus are lots 70, 80, and 37. These small lots already do not meet demand. In order to get a parking spot in any of the on-campus lots students have to arrive by 8 a.m. at the latest. I constantly find myself arriving most mornings at around 7 a.m. just to find a spot before my class at 11 a.m.
Early in the fall semester, lot 80 was closed for construction. Signs have been put up in lot 70 and 37 saying that they will close starting this December for construction of a new basketball arena. The lots closest to campus are next to the medical school, but are quickly filled up by nursing and medical school students. The remaining C permit lots are on the other side of I-35 and not practical for students to walk to campus.
The parking lots on campus have always been considered a low priority for development. One parking lot was destroyed to make space for the Belo Media Center building in Moody College, and The Student Activity Center on Speedway was once a parking lot too. Personally, I think development is good and is a healthy part of a growing campus. However, the administration should have a plan for how to address the loss of parking spots for students living off campus that so many students rely on.
The Road Ahead
In my conversations with students and members of student government, two concerns have been brought up. The first is that we should focus on carpooling instead of increasing the number of available spots. This solution, while well intentioned, fails to address two logistical problems. With no more student neighborhoods, students will be more spread out and be living at further distances to find affordable housing. The lack of neighborhoods with students living in close proximity means that there will not be much opportunity for students to meet up and drive to campus together. Even if there was a central location for student living that could not be addressed by public transportation, there is also the fact that students’ schedules are hardly ever similar. This is not like coworkers at a 9 to 5 job or neighborhood parents taking kids to the same school at fixed times. Carpooling should always be recommended and rewarded, but it is not a solution in and of itself.
The concern that has been brought up the most is that increasing the number of parking spots will only incentivize the environmentally damaging activity of driving. The idea is that if students are so burdened by parking, they will take the bus or other public transportation instead. This is not a solution, nor a plan. Public transportation will not reach those far from campus, and even if buses could reach them, it can take a ridiculous amount of time. The time between the Union building and the Domain on the high frequency route takes 37 minutes despite being only 11 miles away. Taking this long on the high frequency route means even longer for the majority of bus routes that operate less frequently. We should work towards solving environmental issues, but putting that burden on students with affordable housing is not it.
Despite these concerns, I think that there are a few things that can help solve this issue. One thing would be to eliminate the lottery system that decides who can get access to the garage permits. Preference should go to off campus students who do not live in West Campus and parts of North Campus. There is no reason why a student in West Campus should have the same chance at getting a permit as a student living in Cedar Park. Class preference can be given, although I think that since most first-year students live on campus, this issue solves itself.
A final thing that can be done is to increase the number of parking spots by either buying more land for parking lots, constructing new garages or renovating existing parking garages to create more spaces. This is harder to do in the short term, but is a solution for the long-term. The university has to have a plan for how they are going to increase the number of parking spots and to communicate that plan to students.
It will always be easier to talk about how these proposals cannot work than to come up with better solutions. Admittedly, I am not wedded to any one idea. If a better option can be proposed, then we should embrace it. In order to have any progress on solving this issue, there has to be more discussion and awareness of it. I hope these conversations become more frequent so that students and administrators with more influence and knowledge can come up with solutions to this growing problem or work to implement the ones I have proposed. The cost of living might not be going down anytime soon, but let’s make sure we aren’t putting affordability in the backseat.