This term “death spiral” conjures up images of nothing good in my mind. As a kid, I had a frequent nightmare about jumping off the bridge of a huge ship and spiraling downward without being able to stop my free-fall. Luckily, I’d always wake before hitting the water, where I’d certainly perish.
In a real death spiral, the thing spiraling (organization, state, business, or person) continues a downward progression that only accelerates as conditions worsen. Mounting inertia grows, making revival nearly impossible.
I recently returned from the Association for Commuter Transportation (ACT) annual University Summit, which brought together 60 transportation demand management (TDM) and parking professionals to talk about university parking and transportation. Some of the schools most successful in advancing the use of alternatives to driving were there, including Stanford, the University of Washington, Arizona State, and the University of Colorado. The topic of the death spiral was prominent at this conference and worthy of further consideration.
Most higher education parking departments are self-supporting auxiliaries. This means that no outside resources are provided, and programs and services are funded through parking fees and fines. Alternative transportation programs have become increasingly important to universities in reducing driving, furthering sustainability goals, and enhancing the pedestrian environment.
There is, from our perspective, a downside. As more people find alternative ways to reach campus, (bike, bus, carpool, walk) revenue streams and expenses are affected. The more successful an institution is in shifting people away from single-occupancy cars, the fewer parkers there are to fund the entire parking and transportation program. This creates a spiraling effect that can result in financial instability.
Some might argue that the obvious response is to abandon alternative transportation altogether. While I’d disagree wholeheartedly with that approach, I do believe that the traditional funding model for higher education parking and transportation may be incompatible with alternative transportation goals. A new model is needed. The strategic partnership between IPI and ACT offers the best chance of coming up with a new model to help us all avoid a TDM and parking nightmare.