Growing Pains: MSU Must Shift Focus to Cultural Change

Written by Gerrit Egnew with contributions from guest columnist Emma Bode

MSU is growing rapidly. With over 20 percent growth in the last 10 years, some strains must emerge. But it seems the administration is floundering in this influx of students. While certain elements stand out – the Honors College, much of the chemical, engineering and agricultural research, – larger infrastructure and growth projects are slapdash. (The Norm Asbjornson Innovation Center (NAIC) is exceptional, but it is due to a fortuitous gift rather than the foresight of the administration). In parallel with an inability to hire enough faculty, or build a climbing gym that meets demand, the issue of transportation rears its head.

According to MSU News, the parking lots are near capacity with 5,121 spaces. Those displaced by the NAIC will be largely replaced by an adjacent parking garage, but a new dining hall near Culbertson displaces 100 parking spots. To make up for this, a new lot has been proposed near Family & Grad Housing between 13th Ave and 15th Ave. This seems an obvious solution. But it is fallacious to think that diminished parking mandates construction of equivalent or more elsewhere.

According to David Kack, the Mobility and Public Transportation Program Manager for the Western Transportation Institute, there are, during peak usage hours, 800 unused spaces in the outer parking lots. MSU doesn’t have a parking problem (though it will), it has a last-mile problem. The underused lots are the Stadium lot (0.55 miles from the Mall, 2,000 feet from Gaines) and the Lincoln lot (0.75 miles to the Mall, 0.5 miles to Gaines). The proposed new parking lot is 0.56 miles from the Mall and 2000 feet from Linfield; there is no reason to think the new lot would be any more heavily utilized than these.

There are many options better than heedlessly laying pavement. An elegant solution is to develop a bike share program with stations at the outlying lots. Coupled with this that would be bike paths along where there now are none and a revitalized campus biking plan. Creating covered bike storage – enough of it – would incentivize biking both for people parking cars farther away, and for pure-bike commuters. Other biking incentives could be Outdoor Rec Center workshops to help students, staff, and faculty winterize their bikes. The university could help create a richer walking and biking culture by incentivizing these modes of transport.

While bikes are terrific, the university should also consider shuttle systems. The Streamline service is effective at getting people to campus from a distance, but it has no coordination with class schedules and doesn’t help for intra-campus transport. An on-campus shuttle service – like that at the University of Utah – may not be necessary at the moment but, as campus expands, it could be invaluable. Developing the infrastructure now could save money and headaches.

Rethinking the current parking plan is also worthwhile. The current pass system merits reevaluation, as it was developed for a smaller university. It makes very little sense for freshmen to enjoy parking so near to campus when they do not commute to class. A more distant parking lot for those living on campus would free considerable space for those who do commute. Failing that, more expensive dorm parking passes would help disincentivize parking so close. Similarly, the gym lot should be closed to users who are commuting to campus and reserved for those only using the gym.

Not all of these ideas need be implemented, nor would they all work. But the discussion within the MSU administration now is “How many new spaces do we need and how much will it cost?” It ought to be “How can we make campus transportation simpler, cheaper, more environmental, and adaptable to growth?”

With student growth in the hundreds each year, a 150-space parking lot is little more than a $500,000 joke. It is a stopgap measure that provides nothing but asphalt to rip up in a few more years when we need another building. New parking lots are not a long-term solution; cultural infrastructure is.

It appears that MSU is adept at physical growth. It seems unable, though, to direct cultural development. While the NAIC and its concurrent parking garage will be a boon, ultimately what we need is development that nurtures a unique MSU lifestyle.

As a research university, MSU needs to be a cultural leader, not a building contractor. New parking lots help the minimum amount of people in the least innovative way. Let’s put money into projects that affect students’ lives and that will generate a strong culture. It is, after all, what T.S. Eliot called “that which makes life worth living.” MSU would do well to consider the more distant future and create a campus that can grow without bloating.