Around 20,000 people work or attend school on the University of Hawaii’s flagship Manoa campus. There are only 5,000 parking spots on that campus, setting up a classic scarcity problem.
Getting to school every day was a major hassle for UH Manoa third-year Kanoena Sing last year. That’s because Sing doesn’t have a coveted semester-long parking permit, leaving her to battle for daily and street parking.
She commutes to campus every day from Mililani and says a car is her best option. She’s tried the bus, but had issues with her schedule and reliability.
Long-term parking passes are available for students to purchase based on seniority – but they sell out before many students get the chance. Sing has started a carpool with several of her neighbors, making her eligible for a special parking pass. But that option also comes with drawbacks.
“It kind of takes a toll on all of us since we have to wake up for each other’s schedules and leaving at different times.”
The reason for the parking woes is that there simply aren’t enough parking spots to go around. According to the University’s Commuter Services Office, there are approximately 5,000 stalls on campus. For perspective, undergraduate enrollment for this semester is 17,000.
That isn’t counting employees, who under their union contract must have the option to purchase parking. UH Manoa has around 1,400 instructive staff. Numbers on administrators and support staff were not available in public university data.
The university administration say they have no plans to increase the supply of parking, they are instead trying to encourage campus goers to use alternative forms of transportation.
Economists have a highly technical term for this type of situation where quantity supplied is less than quantity demanded: a shortage.
John Lynham, an economics professor at UH Manoa, says there’s usually a simple solution to a shortage: raise the price.
“Parking, especially on upper campus, is too cheap, so more people want to buy it than there are spots available.”
The University Board of Regents did recently approve an increase in parking rates, the first one in ten years. They now cost about 48 dollars a month for employees and 35 dollars monthly for students. That will increase over the next six years - with students paying 58 dollars a month in 2025. Employees will pay almost 110 (a hundred and ten) for the best spots.
Those rate hikes are meant to fund maintenance, but they may help reduce the shortage.
Using price increases to solve a shortage does raise issues of social equity, which John Lynham says can cause the market based approach to backfire – as it did in Ireland during the Great Recession.
“Previously all water had been free, people didn’t pay for the water coming to their homes. The government tried to introduce prices for water and the majority of people just refused to pay that charge.”
Lynham offered a lottery or prices set at a specific proportion of income as other potential options for addressing fairness issues. Alternatively, he says the university could try to reduce the demand for parking by creating additional financial or social incentives to drive less.
The University of Hawaii already offers subsidized city bus passes, a free shuttle service to neighborhoods near campus, and special parking passes for carpooling and mopeds.
But for many commuters, the car still appears to be king.
Find the new rate increase schedule for UH Manoa parking here.