Got a space to think but no space for your car?

February 10, 2006

Paying for parking is more likely to drive academics crazy than debates over their claims for a larger pay packet. Olga Wojtas and Alan Thomson investigate the different policies of universities across the UK

Academics tend to get more worked up over parking charges than over pay claims, according to Randy Banks, an Association of University Teachers activist.

While pay claims centre on something lecturers want but don't have, car parking charges are a direct deduction for something that used to be free.

"The thing that really, really upsets people in academia is that it is taking money away," he said. At Essex University, where he teaches, a recent lunchtime meeting on proposals to increase parking charges attracted 475 people.

Mr Banks walks or cycles to work, but he said that Essex's large catchment area and an inadequate transport network meant many staff were obliged to drive to get to work quickly and reliably. "People are being forced to pay for something they're being forced to do."

But it is difficult for unions to take a unified view, said Colin Thomson, convener of the Amicus support staff branch at Edinburgh University. "Some people feel they should be able to do what they like when they like and others think a university in the middle of a city should have no need for private cars. (The range of views) is the equivalent of the ultra-vegan through to the absolute carnivore."

But widespread concern about parking persists and the associated issues are varied and sometimes complex. These include:

* If staff are forced to rely on public transport, are they wasting valuable research time?

* Are there safety issues if staff work late, particularly female staff?

* Do car park charges penalise the lowest-paid staff who may already have been priced out of nearby accommodation?

* What about staff juggling work and childcare responsibilities?

But Christiane Bielefeldt, visiting professor at Napier University's Transport Research Institute, said there was no justification for special pleading by academics.

Other people work unsocial hours and have domestic responsibilities, she said, and discouraging private car use was firmly on the political agenda.

Institutions find themselves under pressure from local authorities keen to promote green transport policies. When Robert Gordon University developed a new campus, for example, the council stipulated the number of parking spaces it could have. And institutions often invoke green concerns, pressing councils to improve public transport services and offering incentives to leave the car at home, such as subsidising tickets.

But at Liverpool University, which is debating introducing parking charges, Gill Howie of the AUT said there was scepticism about an environmental motive. "Why is it green? It's not stopping people using cars."

She said that charges for parking were down to two trends: institutions expanding into available free space; and charges to raise income for the refurbishment of facilities, often largely for the benefit of students.

Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University, thought charges were sensible. "People forget that if something is free, you get queues that hurt everyone. The main point of charging is to prevent people wasting their lives by driving round and round looking for a parking spot.

I'd like to stick up for more expensive charges on most campuses."

He had little sympathy for special pleading, such as living miles away.

"People design their lives the way they want."

He said there was a natural case for charging according to salary levels.

But at Essex, where staff are charged 0.15 per cent of their salary, staff are unhappy. Mr Banks said: "That's a real rip-off. Every time we finally negotiate a pay rise, the university gets more money."

Kerry Hamilton, head of transport studies at the University of East London, said free parking was outrageous. She uses public transport to get to and from work.

Professor Hamilton said: "Those institutions that are charging nothing are, in effect, subsidising drivers. Why should parking be free? Space is expensive and so why shouldn't drivers pay for it?

"We must not be defeated by the argument that life is impossible without a car. If cars became unobtainable, universities would not close down."

Professor Hamilton is a fairly frequent visitor to the Open University's Milton Keynes campus, where parking is free.

The OU was quick to defend its free parking policy.

"The way Milton Keynes was designed means that it is very much a city for motorists. Added to that, we are miles from the town centre and we are not particularly near the train station," a spokesman said.

"We do pay for buses and have recently started to promote car sharing for staff, but the fact is we have quite a big campus and have almost no students. Of course we are always looking at alternative ways of encouraging people out of their cars but charging isn't an option."

OU academics may be fortunate in having such a spacious campus with plenty of room for parking. But, as more universities seek to expand their student numbers, many others will be eyeing their car parks as potential development sites.

This points one way only: academics can expect to have to pay more for fewer spaces in future.

Two wheels are better in Aberdeen

Paying for parking is more likely to drive academics crazy than debates over their claims for a larger pay packet. Olga Wojtas and Alan Thomson investigate the different policies of universities across the UK

Jillian Anable, a research fellow at Robert Gordon University's Centre for Transport Policy, got rid of her car last May.

She had depended on it in previous jobs south of the border, but found herself using it less when she moved to Aberdeen, some 3km from the university.

"I cycle and it's 15 minutes door to door. Carrying papers is one of the drawbacks, but I have a rucksack that's a bit of a Tardis and I manage to fit everything in there."

She said it was not that unpleasant being exposed to the northern climate.

"It's such a quick journey that if you were walking to the bus or from your car park space, you would feel the elements just as much," she said. "The perception is that it rains and snows a lot, but because you notice the weather, you notice that's not true. I don't get wet very often. If there's a lot of snow I wouldn't cycle, but a lot of people wouldn't drive either. That's only happened once in two years."

She admitted that, given her research area, she was motivated by the knowledge that short car trips were the most polluting and the most expensive in cost per mile. But she stressed she was not anti-car, and she also cycled for the personal benefits. "I'm more awake when I get to work.

On the occasions I work at home, I feel more sluggish. And it's my exercise. I don't have to feel guilty at the end of the week because I haven't been to the gym."

But the advantages of being less dependent on a car are so great that she hoped she was setting an example.

"I've seen the use of the bike rack go up and in the summer months it can get full. I sometimes get a bit annoyed by that, but there's always somewhere you can tuck a bike."

'Licence to hunt' offers discount but no guarantee

Paying for parking is more likely to drive academics crazy than debates over their claims for a larger pay packet. Olga Wojtas and Alan Thomson investigate the different policies of universities across the UK

Bristol University's latest travel survey shows a considerable drop in the number of staff who drive to work, from 44 per cent in 1998 to 29 per cent in 2005.

Over the same period, the number of staff who cycle to work has risen from 7 to 11 per cent, and the number of staff walking has risen from 10 to 29 per cent.

But Jont Cole, who manages Bristol's travel-to-work scheme, stressed it was not anti-car.

The strategy emerged because the university buildings were expanding on to car parking areas, reducing the number of spaces available.

"This is not a green travel plan, but a pragmatic way of managing a scarce resource," he said.

Parking permits, previously determined by length of service, now guarantee allocated spaces for disabled drivers, staff who car-share and essential departmental travel.

A points system guarantees more distant parking spaces for staff with dependents who have no alternative transport, and those with lengthy journeys.

Other staff have a "licence to hunt" with no guaranteed space. "We give a 10 per cent discount on bus tickets and interest-free loans for bicycles and motorbikes," Mr Cole said.

He believes one of the reasons the scheme has been successful is that the Travel to Work implementation group has been representative of different staff groups across the university, and also includes people using different travel methods to get to work.

Charges were unfair to female staff

Paying for parking is more likely to drive academics crazy than debates over their claims for a larger pay packet. Olga Wojtas and Alan Thomson investigate the different policies of universities across the UK

Susan Lewis, who works part time as a medical statistician at Edinburgh University, said she would love to leave her car at home, but distance and personal circumstances make it impossible.

The medical school recently moved to a greenfield site and, after initially paying a pro-rata charge for the privately run car park, Dr Lewis was charged the full annual rate of £250. When she refused to pay, she was locked out of the car park. "For four months I had to park half a mile away. I had to walk across an open grassy area in the dark, carrying a briefcase containing confidential papers. I just didn't feel safe."

Supported by the Association of University Teachers, she complained to the university on the grounds of indirect sex discrimination, since 90 per cent of part-time staff at the medical campus were female.

The university agreed to subsidise the private company's charges and has now extended pro-rata charges to its own car parks.

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