Campus & Community

Students tackle parking problems

6 min read
Brian Schoenbeck, Matthew Ocwieja, Matthew Johnson, DK Osseo-Asare, Hugo Mallinson, DJ Jacobs, Oyere Onuma, Silas Wang, Benjamin Yolken, and Doug
Juniors in the class Engineering Sciences 96 came up with more compelling suggestions for Harvard’s parking crunch than heavy lifting. Front row (left to right): Brian Schoenbeck, Matthew Ocwieja; back row (left to right): Matthew Johnson, Yaw “DK” Osseo-Asare, Hugo Mallinson, Daniel “DJ” Jacobs, Oyere Onuma, Silas Wang, Benjamin Yolken, and William “Doug” Wise. (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

Tough time parking in Harvard Square?

Let the robot do it.

That was the recommendation of a group of Harvard engineering students after a semester-long look at the difficulty of parking in and around Harvard.

The project is this year’s Engineering Design Seminar Project, assigned annually to junior engineering students taking Engineering Sciences 96. The instructors of the class, Fred Abernathy, Lawrence Professor of Engineering and McKay Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and R. Victor Jones, Wallace Professor of Applied Physics, give the students real-world problems each year and challenge them to analyze the problem, gather data, and come up with their own solutions.

“The students, once they looked at the [parking] problem, they took off,” Jones said. “I was turned from a great skeptic to a great believer [in automated parking] because of their work.”

Jones said the lessons learned by the students in solving each year’s problems aren’t just technical ones. They have to work as a team to come up with a solution, so they have to learn to deal with each other. In addition, they have to deal with other people as they gather data and put their findings together.

“This is a group that worked well together; that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the tension gets quite high,” Jones said.

This year’s group issued wide-ranging recommendations, including installing wireless access-control gates at the more than 50 lots across the University, increasing parking fees in Cambridge coupled with increased enforcement of permits, establishing satellite parking lots and shuttles to encourage people to park there, and installing robotic – instead of conventional – garages in new construction projects.

“Their work was very comprehensive and looked at the entire problem of access to the University,” said Thomas Vautin, associate vice president for facilities and environmental services, who agreed to act as the client for the project.

Vautin said he and the University Parking Working Group would be following up on the students’ recommendations and would likely implement a number of them, including a pilot project to test access control gates at lots across the University.

Another recommendation the students made – for higher parking fees – is also being looked at by the University administration, Vautin said, and the rate for University parking is likely heading up as a result of the cost of building parking facilities to replace parking being lost to new construction.

The recommendation for automated parking garages, Vautin said, will also be looked at in more depth.

“These technologies are very interesting and certainly deserve a thorough examination for possible use at Harvard. We really appreciate the students’ work and are already developing their ideas more fully,” Vautin said.

The robotic garages, though little used in the United States, are everyday technology in many other countries, with thousands in use in Asia and Europe. The garages are not cheap, but might make sense when compared with the cost of building conventional underground garages, which run about $60,000 per space.

The students estimated that the automated garages might be able to save the University thousands of dollars per space, which, if garages for hundreds or thousands of cars were built, could add up to real savings.

“It costs an incredible amount of money to dig a pit in the ground, cover it with concrete, and make a garage,” said Benjamin Yolken, one of the 10 students who presented the project to a group of about 40 faculty and administrators gathered in Maxwell Dworkin Hall on May 7.

The students found that about 4,600 people are registered to park at Harvard (3,328 staff and faculty and 1,280 students). Current construction plans will displace as many as 2,100 spaces, requiring new parking to be provided.

A cheaper alternative would be to build large aboveground garages, which are widely used in the United States. That would cost less than either the conventional underground or the robotic garages, at about $19,000 per space, depending on size and location.

But aboveground garages were rejected at Harvard because planners felt they would consume valuable land area that otherwise could be used for academic development. That will leave the University facing a stiff bill to construct traditional underground parking.

I, Robot

Use of a robotic garage is pretty simple. A driver pulls up, waves a pass card at a card reader, and pulls into what looks like a single-car garage. Sensors tell the garage when the person has left the room so the driver doesn’t get parked along with their car.

Once the room is cleared, the front wall opens to the main portion of the garage, which is lined with storage slots for the cars, stacked several rows high. A hydraulic lift slides in under the car, picks it up, and moves it from the entry bay to a storage slot, where it stays, safe and sound until the driver returns.

On their return, the driver again uses the pass card. The garage automatically retrieves the car and, in a few minutes, has it back in the entry bay, ready for the driver to hop in and drive away.

“In the afternoon, you don’t need to remember where your car is, you swipe your card and the garage remembers it for you,” said W. Douglas Wise, one of the students who presented the report.

While the robotic garages are the most prominent of the students’ recommendations, they are just part of the student proposal to ease Harvard’s parking problems.

The report also includes several steps to decrease demand for parking spaces, including increasing both parking fees in Cambridge, to discourage driving, and increasing T subsidies to encourage people riding the subway. To ease crowding in the most crowded spaces in Cambridge, they recommend implementing more reliable shuttle bus service to satellite lots.

To maximize use of the existing lots, the students recommend installing access-control gates at 53 lots on campus, which will cut down on illegal parking and reserve more spaces for paid parking.

Other recommendations include an online database to match carpool and vanpool riders and a Web-based calculator that will allow commuters to find out how much it costs them to take different modes of transportation to work.

Daniel Jacobs, the student who introduced the presentation, said the class demanded a good portion of his free time this semester, but said it kept him engaged because he was always finding out something new.

“It was definitely fun,” Jacobs said. “This was definitely a class that keeps your interest all semester.”

Videos of an automated garage in operation are available online at