Saturday, June 21, 2014

Virtual Parking Passes: Opportunities for a Sustainable Future

The U is getting rid of the old-fashioned hangtag permit
system, but will it seize opportunities to reduce car commuting?
The University of Utah will be moving to a virtual parking pass system for the Fall semester.  This is great news because it opens up a world of opportunities for reducing car trips to campus, including during poor air quality periods.

With the new system, your license plate serves as your permit.  Such an approach will certainly be more convenient, although commuter services also claims that amongst the benefits of doing this is a savings of 650 pounds of paper and 450 pounds of plastic.

That's nice, but there are more significant opportunities.  As we have discussed previously (see Setback for Sustainability at the U), the U essentially has "all or nothing" parking permits.  You pay $348/year (~$1.50/day assuming 230 work days) for an A "permit" if you are faculty or staff.  Students can get similar permits to park in E or U spaces.  Although U faculty, staff, and students get a free pass to ride transit, once someone has purchased a parking pass, there is no financial incentive other than the cost of gas to encourage people to take transit.

With a virtual system, however, commuter services could do the following:
  • Create a system where instead of purchasing an annual permit, you pay by the day (say $2/day).  Every time they scan your plate, your credit card is charged.  You just sign up at the beginning of the semester.  This incentivizes multimode commuting to campus.  Such a system has worked at other universities.  
  • Add a surcharge for parking on campus on yellow or red burn days.  On these days, if you park on campus, it costs an extra $2.  Exceptions could be made for low or no tail-pipe emission vehicles and individuals who need to drive for medical reasons.  Perhaps something could be done for carpoolers, but that might be more difficult to enforce, although carpooling would be partly incentivized since it would be cheaper to park one car on campus than two or three.
The U talks a good game about sustainability, but we need to move away from minor improvements such as saving 650 pounds of paper a year.  In terms of our local environment and quality of life, pollution is probably everyone's biggest concern and vehicles are a major source of that pollution.  Let's pursue opportunities and policies that can make a more significant difference.


  1. How is a no-tailpipe emissions vehicle work pollution-wise when it needs to be plugged into a largely coal- and gas-based electrical grid here in Salt Lake City? If all SLC residents went out and got Nissan Leafs, would our pollution situation improve relative to similar gasoline or hybrid vehicles? Obviously, its a complicated problem, but I'm wondering if you can provide some clarity.

    1. This is a good question.

      In Utah, about 80% of our electricity is produced by coal. Thus, electric vehicles that obtain their energy from "the grid" are not zero emission. The are only zero emission at the tailpipe (see

      However, the location of the emissions is different, and that is potentially important for wintertime PM2.5 events. During inversions, tailpipe emissions are essentially trapped in the Salt Lake Valley and contribute to our high PM concentrations. In the case of electric vehicles, however, the emissions are at the power plants, which are usually outside the Salt Lake Valley. Basically, you are moving the emissions to a location where they have a much smaller (often negligible in the case of wintertime inversions) impact on pollution *in the Salt Lake Valley.*

      In such a scenario, you would help reduce the frequency and severity of poor air quality events in the Salt Lake Valley, but you still have a regional and global emissions source. For instance, you are still emitting CO2, NOX, mercury, etc., if the energy source is a coal plant. Efforts would need to be made to capture those emissions at the coal plant and/or move to cleaner energy sources (e.g., natural gas, nuclear, renewables) to have an overall decrease in pollution.