Improving parking and transportation at Dalhousie

An in-depth look at the challenges and opportunities.

- August 22, 2011

This area of Studley campus around the Dunn and Chemistry Buildings contains three types of parking: general, reserved and metered. (Bruce Bottomley photo)
This area of Studley campus around the Dunn and Chemistry Buildings contains three types of parking: general, reserved and metered. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

With the news that one of Dalhousie’s largest parking lots will be moving to a reserved lot this fall, the university is not only acknowledging that is has a parking problem, but is working on solutions to address it.

Read more: Parking changes announced

Earlier this year, Dalhousie commissioned a transportation demand management (TDM) study. The campus master plan, completed last fall, identified a need for Dalhousie to develop a comprehensive understanding of its transportation needs: how the university can best support its community going to and from campus, whether by car, mass transit, bike or foot.

Consulting firm IBI Group spent the winter and spring collecting data, monitoring parking lots and traffic patterns, and conducting interviews, and is currently finishing its report with an expected delivery date this fall.

In light of these developments, Dal News sat down recently with some of the major university decision-makers around parking and transportation to talk through the issues and learn more about how Dalhousie’s transportation infrastructure may evolve in the near future.

A cause for concern

To start: they know that parking represents a source of real angst and anxiety for many in the Dalhousie community.

“For those who are coming to campus on a regular basis, such as staff and faculty, we really see the stress from getting here and getting parked, and of not being able to move the vehicle during the day to run errands,” says Mike Burns, director of security, whose unit is responsible for managing university parking on a day-to-day basis.  

Mr. Burns, having only been at Dal for a year or so, is in a position to cast fresh eyes on the parking issue.

“It’s high demand,” he says. “There’s certainly not a spot for everyone, but then I’ve worked in downtown Halifax for 20 years, so that part isn’t that big a shock.”


"Every organization on the peninsula that provides parking, from universities to hospitals, feels that pinch...we’d still be facing parking challenges if we had the same number of students as five years ago.” - Ken Burt, VP Finance and Administration

Ken Burt, vice-president finance and administration, explains that demand for parking is due largely to increased housing prices on the peninsula, which has more of the Dalhousie community living further away from the university and having to commute to campus.

“It’s not just a Dalhousie issue, in that regard,” he says. “Every organization on the peninsula that provides parking, from universities to hospitals, feels that pinch. And while our enrolment is rising, we’d still be facing parking challenges if we had the same number of students as five years ago. Those larger ‘macro’ trends would still be having an impact.”

Rochelle Owen, the university’s director of sustainability, notes that not only does a stressed parking system on campus have environmental impacts—cars emitting greenhouse gases while drivers look for spots—but there are economic and emotional impacts to take into account as well.

“There was a report recently from the Canadian Transportation Agency that equates work productivity and work-related economic indicators with commute times and cars,” she says. “The salient point there is that if you have people frustrated getting to work, then that’s really affecting your workplace directly, not to mention people’s personal lives.”

Hunting for space

Dalhousie has some metered parking to supplement the HRM meters that are on city streets. The university will be adding more meters near the Henry Hicks building this year to provide short-term parking for those that need to access key university offices, from the Registrar and Student Accounts, to Student Services and Payroll.

But the majority of Dalhousie’s parking spaces are made available to students, faculty and staff by purchasing a parking pass from Dal Security. About 600 or so of Dalhousie’s parking spots are assigned, reserved spaces, with the majority of them in one of five parkades. Passes for these parkade spots cost between $1,200 and $1,450 per year, and there’s generally a wait list.

There have been a small amount of external reserved spots available, but the bulk of outdoor parking spaces—1,200 or so—have traditionally been for those who purchase a general parking pass, referred to by many in the Dal community as a “hunting pass.” The passes currently cost $258 for staff and faculty and $232 for students.


"It used to be that having more people at Dal automatically meant more cars which meant more demand for parking...That model simply isn’t sustainable, financially or environmentally.” - Jeff Lamb, Facilities Management

Each of these systems—reserved and general parking—has its issues. The reserved garages are inefficient: if someone isn’t on campus, that available space goes unused, plus Dal Security ends up spending time and resources towing the vehicles of people that, for whatever reason, park in someone’s else’s space. With the general passes, the challenge is gauging demand: how many do you sell relative to how many spaces you have available?

“If we only sold as many passes as we had spots, effectively we’d be granting a guaranteed reserved spot for everyone, and is that really the best use of the real estate?” says Mr. Burns, explaining why there is an oversell. “ A spot may be vacant for a good portion of the day. Our goal is to try and make the service available to as many people as possible.”

And right now, that’s the problem: with limited space available, and demand for the general pass skyrocketing, the university ended up significantly overselling the number of general parking passes last year. Upon realizing this, Facilities Management reached out to IBI Group to see if they could recommend strategies that could be implemented immediately, prior to the completion of their final TDM report, to address the situation.

Those discussions inspired the changing the Dunn parking lot to a reserved lot, and making those 184 previously-general spaces available to those with a Dunn reserved pass. The goal of these changes is to provide convenient, dedicated parking to those who are most eager for it. As well, by moving those drivers into the reserved lot, the university hopes to return to a more reasonable oversell rate for the general parking pass.

The economics of parking

But even with 184 more reserved passes being sold next year, at $576 a piece, Dalhousie will still invest far more money in parking than it gets in return, let alone anything close to the market or land value of those spaces.

“The general parking pass for faculty and staff is about $260, which is only around $20 a month,” says Jeff Lamb, assistant vice-president of Facilities Management. “That’s less than a cup of coffee a day, and it doesn’t even begin to cover snow clearance, security patrol, paving, line painting and all the other maintenance we do.”

Those costs often add up to more than $1,000 each year per outdoor spot – four times the price for a general parking pass and almost double the rate for an outdoor reserved one. Those prices are also lower than both the market value for parking in Halifax—the city median is $2,000 per year—and the land value of the space, which can be more than $14,000 a spot.

Many in the Dalhousie community may well see this as a worthwhile investment: the university supporting the work of its faculty, staff and students by making it affordable to get to and from campus. But Ken Burt explains that as demand grows, and the need for space runs up against tightening budgets, that economic model for parking begins to become more challenging to deal with.

It becomes particularly difficult when there is a significant gap between the price of parking at Dalhousie, which is set in some of the university’s collective agreements, and the financing it would take to build new parking lots or structures. For a new garage, for example, the university would lose upwards of $700-1,000 each year per spot with the current parking rates. (And that presumes Dal already owns the land; purchasing new property would cost even more.)

“It used to be that having more people at Dal automatically meant more cars which meant more demand for parking,” adds Mr. Lamb. “I’m not so sure we can think that way anymore. That model simply isn’t sustainable, financially or environmentally.”

Supporting alternatives

Further to that point, Ms. Owen says that the problem with subsidizing parking to such a degree isn’t just that it enables more single occupancy vehicle travel – the least desirable form of transportation from both an environmental and a space-management perspective. It also raises questions about whether Dal is doing enough to offer similar support for those who embrace alternative, more sustainable transportation.

“If an employee wants to take the bus to work, they’re paying $800 or $900 a year, with no financial support from the university, whereas someone who drives their own car only pays $260 for a parking spot, because it’s heavily subsidized,” she says.

“Our last survey of the Dalhousie community found that 66 per cent of staff use sustainable transportation—carpooling, mass transit, walking and biking—and that number rises to 89 per cent when we’re looking at just students. So from an equity point of view, what services are we providing to them?”


"TDM is challenging, but if you keep going in an unplanned, uncontrolled way, all the issues keep getting worse. We need to ride the waves and get through the challenging parts.” - Rochelle Owen, Sustainability

And on that front, she’s leading a number of new initiatives at Dalhousie. The university has begun working with the local hospitals and Saint Mary’s on shared transportation opportunities. One possibility that’s being investigated is a shared shuttle service that could transport students, staff and community members to and from campus from a convenient, transit-accessible drop-off spot. The group also just concluded a bikeways planning process in partnership with Saint Mary’s and the local hospitals to start making the surrounding community streets more bike friendly. And Dalhousie is working with HRM to determine whether an employee bus program may be possible, and what form it would take.

More immediately, Dalhousie also recently adopted a guaranteed ride home program as a pilot project with HRM, providing employees who commute sustainably to work at least three times a week with free taxi rides home in case of emergency or unexpected overtime. There will be 100 new bike racks installed on campus for the fall—with 100 more to follow next year—and the campus bike centre has just hired a new part-time coordinator. And then there’s WeCar, a car-share program that Dalhousie has recently signed up for, which the administration hopes to see expanded in the future.

(For more on sustainable transportation, visit the Office of Sustainability's website.)

Addressing parking

But while these initiatives may become crucial components of Dalhousie’s transportation infrastructure in the future—alongside other sustainability recommendations that come out in the TDM study—it’s unlikely that, on their own, they’ll be enough to completely fix the parking problem. Even if Dalhousie succeeds in encouraging more students, faculty and staff to travel sustainably, there will still be some for whom the equation simply won’t work out, and for whom taking their own car to campus is their best option.

For those travelers, Ken Burt is confident that the TDM study will provide the starting points on a road map towards better, more efficient parking on campus.

“I don’t think we’re doing everything to make sure we have the most spaces available,” he says. “This gives us an opportunity to manage inventory in a different fashion to improve use with the spots we have.”


"For those who are coming to campus on a regular basis, such as staff and faculty, we really see the stress from getting here and getting parked." - Mike Burns, Security

He adds that a new campus parking facility, as envisioned in the campus master plan, is also likely to happen.

“It is on the books for planning. The campus plan identified two or three sites that would be ideal. The issue will be acquiring the funding: the cost we’d be looking at right now would require financing far above the current parking rates. A new facility, under the present pricing model, would operate at a significant loss, so we have to look carefully at how much we’re willing to spend to make a dent in our parking demand.”

And while the university expects to limit the sales of the general parking passes this year, at present there are no plans to restrict them to certain segments of the Dal community, such as to faculty and staff only, or to those who live a certain distance away from campus. Jeff Lamb explains that while these options may be considered in the future, they bring about a number of challenges and create unwelcome inequities of access.

A challenging issue

And that’s the thing: parking and transportation bring with them so many different issues—equity, economics, sustainability, productivity—that every ‘simple’ solution comes accompanied by a small legion of concerns. Which is why the forthcoming TDM study is bound to give Dalhousie leadership, and the broader Dal community, plenty to chew over.

“When I talk about making changes in how Dal uses energy,” says Ms. Owen, “we have so many opportunities to save money, reduce greenhouse gases, produce better’s win-win-win. But transportation is different. It affects everybody. There are multiple players. There are economic incentives at play and not much money to work with. It’s a much more wicked problem; it’s more variable and complex.

“But that’s not reason to shrink away from it, though. TDM is challenging, but if you keep going in an unplanned, uncontrolled way, all the issues keep getting worse. We need to ride the waves and get through the challenging parts.”

Popular parking spaces

If you have a general parking pass, here's just a few of the non-reserved lots where you can park across all three campuses.

Campus          Notable lots
  • Dalplex lot - 130
  • Alumni Crescent lot - 101
  • Hancock lot (corner of Oxford and Coburg) - 90
  • Central Services Building general lot - 43
  • Risley Hall lot - 37
  • Carleton lot (corner of University and Summer) - 70 (until future construction starts)
  • Gerard Hall lot - 78
  • Upper Morris lot (Industrial Engineering) - 72
  • Queen Street lot - 37

*Ed. note: This list is not a comprehensive count of all parking on campus. For more information on parking at Dalhousie, visit the university campus map at The map is due to be updated with the latest spot counts for September.


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