In my last post, I argued that BYU’s Campus Unification Project isn’t a big improvement over what the school currently has. That doesn’t mean it’s without merit. I also realize that the project is designed to unify campus — not improve transit access or foster smart growth — but it’s still discouraging to see the school come so close to doing something great but still not quite get there.
In any case, here are a few things BYU could do if it really wanted to foster a “pedestrian” environment.
1. Stop offering free parking. When I started at BYU, on-campus parking permits cost money. A few years later, however, BYU started giving them away to any student who registered. It didn’t make sense at the time and it doesn’t make sense now.
As is widely accepted, parking — especially free parking — creates more demand for parking. In other words, if you give away parking you effectively create more drivers. Everyone in Provo is eventually going to have to accept that to cut the number of cars we’ll have to reduce parking first. Hoping the cars will go away while we continue to provide free parking is just insanity.
And as I hinted earlier today, leaving all the parking lots around campus like an asphalt mote basically renders the redesign meaningless.
2. Subsidize transit passes. Also while I was a student BYU briefly experimented with giving students free transit passes. The school cancelled the program in order to give away free parking (yes, you read that correctly), but it’s not too late to fix the mistakes of the past.
Moreover, many other schools offer heavily subsidized transit passes. The University of Utah, for example, requires students to purchase a relatively cheap pass as part of their student fees. I’ve never met an alum of that school who begrudged the fee. It also proves that it can be done and that in this regard BYU chooses to behave irresponsibly.
3. Create a more robust bike infrastructure. BYU is bikeable in the sense that it has a lot of big open paved spaces combine with some bike racks. Apparently there is also a bike share program, though I hadn’t heard of it until two days ago.
But there is little to no dedicated bike infrastructure on campus beyond racks. BYU also hasn’t historically been deeply involved with Provo’s efforts to become more bikeable (though that may be changing, I’m not sure).
4. Loosen the grip on student housing. BYU creates an artificial housing market that hurts everyone in the city by tightly controlling where students may live. In theory, the rules protect students though in reality they simply drive rents up or down — depending on location — and create an effective student quarter that is the source of great conflict in the Joaquin neighborhood.
Adopting a market-oriented approach to student housing — where BYU lets supply and demand determine rents, student distribution, etc. — would disperse students more evenly in the city, not to mention give them more choice. That would positively impact downtown Provo, create more competitive rents, and take the edge off the student-townie conflicts (i.e. “students should live in north Joaquin, families in south Joaquin” etc.) that frankly have almost exhausted my hope that Provo is moving toward greatness.
In any case, the collateral benefit of having more even student distribution is that there would be more even use of infrastructure across the city. Sprinkling a few thousand 20-somethings across south Maeser and/or Franklin, for example, would help justify more sidewalks, bike lanes, and bus routes in those areas. As it is, however, the people most likely to take transit, bike, and patronize local cultural offerings are clustered in a ghetto where those things either don’t exist or are unnecessary.
Ultimately in my ideal world BYU would have only handicapped parking (maybe a few dozen total stalls), it wouldn’t have a housing office at all (free the market!), and Provo residents would stop thinking of astonishingly well-behaved students as “them” or the enemy.
Those goals are perhaps unrealistic, but the upcoming redesign does little to nothing to actually improve transit and walkability on campus or in Provo. Indeed it seems like the people behind the redesign went to a nice place, looked at the trappings of that place, and tried to copy it without ever considering supply and demand or how one space interacts with another. BYU’s campus may be improved by it but if the school really wants to create better spaces it needs to look critically at the underlying issues that shape those spaces.