Western Kentucky University's journey to Parksmart certification

Trevyr Meade
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In December 2018, Parking Structure 3 at Western Kentucky University (WKU) became the world’s 26th Parksmart-certified garage. We met up with WKU’s Director of Parking and Transportation Services, Jennifer Tougas, in January 2019 to learn about her journey to certification.

You have a B.S. in Zoology and a Ph.D. in Ecology. How did you end up in parking and transportation?

I started in the parking industry working for a temp agency, helping the University of Georgia with their fall mass permit sales. From there, they hired me to do data entry for their handwritten tickets. At the time, they were in the process of implementing their first parking management database system, and that initial temporary job led to a full-time job as a computer specialist, which led to an office manager position, and so on. Before long, I was earning more as a parking administrator than I could as a post-doc, so that’s the path I chose. Plus, for someone who enjoys problem-solving, the work is very rewarding.

But I value my training and education in ecology. A basic tenet of ecology is competition for limited resources. Sound familiar? In the parking industry, we’re managing competition through programs and policies. There’s also a fascinating behavior component, too.

Another benefit of having a background in ecology is understanding how “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” As we develop services for our customers to help them reach their destinations, each piece is a part of a larger comprehensive program. It’s why mobility is now being recognized as a part of our profession, and I’m proud to be a part of the International Parking and Mobility Institute (IPMI) Board of Directors at this pivotal time for our industry. Our jobs as parking professionals reach far beyond the parking space.  Everything is connected.  Achieving Parksmart certification brings all of this full circle for me, personally and professionally.

Tell us the story behind the 2015 workshop on Parksmart certification that you hosted.

There was an alignment of needs that led to hosting the Parksmart certification workshop at WKU in 2015. First, a goal for the Mid South Transportation and Parking Association at the time was to offer more training opportunities for its membership, and Parksmart was a new topic that people were interested in learning about.

Second, the WKU campus community was beginning to have conversations about building a new garage, and the project management team had already completed LEED certification training. Hosting the workshop at WKU allowed these project managers to participate in the training. Finally, the workshop allowed us to spotlight sustainability projects we had deployed across campus through a tour, which provided a value add for workshop attendees. For a regional organization event, we felt the workshop was very successful.

Why did you pursue Parksmart certification for Parking Structure 3?

Parksmart certification demonstrates a commitment to sustainable practices. Historically, our university has made a commitment to LEED certification for campus construction. Since Parksmart certification is the parking industry equivalent to LEED, we were able to gain administrative support for the effort. Plus, my educational background is in ecology, so it was a natural fit.

One of the most unique aspects of your garage is that it is used for spectator viewing during soccer and softball games. How did that come about?

I would love to say we planned for this on the front end; however, the reality is, it grew organically. As with any project, we learned new things once the facility opened. One thing we learned very quickly is that people love to use the facility to gain a bird’s-eye view of the adjacent softball and soccer facilities. In response to heavy use during a regional high school softball tournament we hosted, we worked collaboratively with our athletics department to determine the best way to move forward. Both our departments shared safety and security concerns, which we’ve developed plans to address.

What has the reception been to WKU’s “Carless” Program?

The WKU “Carless” Program is a collection of incentives to encourage first-year campus residents to leave their cars at home. It includes reduced or free access to various transportation services offered through our department, such as airport shuttle service, public transit passes, bicycle tune-up credits and a raffle for a $250 scholarship for use at our campus bookstore. We’ve found that there is strong interest among parents, but less interest among students. The program has moved the needle a little bit, but mostly helps those students who weren’t bringing a car to campus anyway. 

At WKU, freshmen and sophomores are required to live on campus, and a substantial amount of parking is designated for residential use. Historically, starting with the Great Recession in 2008, we saw a steady decline in the percentage of residents bringing cars to campus. Simultaneously, campus development led to declines in parking availability across campus.

In 2015, we determined we needed to limit main campus permit sales for commuting students because our demand exceeded supply. We also had a new residence hall open on campus. While we expected to see an increase in residential permit sales associated with that, we sold about 250 more residential permits than we expected. Our assumption that the percentage of residents bringing a car to campus would stay low turned out to be very wrong.

Needless to say, this led to a very rough start of the school year, as we made accommodations for residents and displaced commuters. This led to developing the Carless Program to try to reduce parking demand for campus residents.

Did pursuing Parksmart increase the cost of building the parking structure?

We engaged a parking consultant, THP Limited, to guide us through the Parksmart certification process. THP was also the garage designer, and with their assistance, we were very close to reaching the number of points required for certification, based on how the project was originally designed and constructed. We did add a few programs to reach those final points. However, those costs, including the Parksmart certification process, only added about 0.5 percent to the total project cost.

What was the greatest challenge you encountered during the certification process, and how did you overcome it?

Personally, I think the biggest challenge was keeping up with the paperwork to document what we were doing. That’s why it was so helpful to have THP lead us through the process. We made the decision on the front end of the project to pursue Parksmart certification, so we tracked appropriate paperwork throughout the construction process.

What aspect of the garage are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of the site design and the tie-in with our transit program. We built the garage on an existing parking lot, which included a bus stop that was across the main driving lane from where the new garage is located. As an add-on to the project, we reconfigured the parking lot and driving lanes to physically place the bus stop next to the garage. Buses now have the choice of two exits from the parking lot, which gives flexibility in route designs for daily and event service. Commuters or event patrons parking in the garage have direct access to the shuttle service, which has worked very well by promoting pedestrian safety and improving traffic flow.

Learn more about Parksmart certification