What if Lexington Got Serious About Student Drunk Driving?

Regular contributor Nolan Gray is originally from Lexington, Kentucky, home to the University of Kentucky. A recent tragedy in Lexington highlights aspects of college culture that are worth some tough scrutiny. But, says Gray, we should also examine how car-centric design make such tragic events statistically inevitable, given enough time and enough people making choices—not all of them good ones.

Gray highlights the ways in which the City has failed to allow alternatives to driving to develop, even as the University itself takes steps to encourage students to leave their cars in their hometowns.

Last month, a University of Kentucky freshman allegedly struck and killed a four-year old child while driving under the influence along Cooper Drive. Thus far, the university has already suspended the accused student and the fraternity that organized the tailgating party he was attending. More conversations about how to manage tailgating culture, responsible drinking habits, and the role of fraternities on campus are sure to be on the way. But we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about an unfortunate fact about student life at UK: it’s almost completely car-dependent.

Each year, thousands of students show up in the fall with their cars, and continue to depend on them for virtually every trip outside their homes. Coming as most of them do from suburbs and small towns, they don’t know how to live without a car, they aren’t taught, and they don’t exactly get a lot of encouragement from the way Lexington has been built out. All of this driving leads to unbearable downtown traffic congestion, a constant struggle for parking, and dangerous conditions for those students and residents who do walk or bicycle. That some students occasionally do it drunk is sad but inevitable.

The university, to its credit, does a fair amount to try and mitigate this. Right now, it’s a mix of carrots and sticks. On the carrot side, the university offers holiday shuttles to and from small towns across Kentucky, students have access to a first-class bicycle library, and anyone with a Wildcat Student ID can ride city buses for free.

On the stick side, they also price parking for students and employees, properly passing the high cost of parking maintenance along to those who use it. For most students living in the dorms, they put parking far away on surface lots out near Kroger Stadium, and those student cars need to be moved on game days. All of this should send a clear message to students. To this day, I can remember a facilitator at my orientation responding to a student indignant over the university’s parking policy: “You should leave your car at home. You don’t need it here. If there’s ever a time in your life to go car-free, this is it.”

Unfortunately, the university isn’t getting enough help from the city in dealing with the scourge of student auto-dependence. Let’s take parking. The city doesn’t price most of the on-street parking in the student-dominated neighborhoods around campus—North Elizabeth Street, Columbia Heights, and the blocks between Euclid Avenue and E Maxwell Streets.

Unpriced parking along Columbia Avenue

At first blush, this might seem great. It’s free parking. But in practice, it isn’t free. In practice, we all end up wasting our time: the spots fill up and virtually always remain full, forcing students who commute by car to cruise up and down streets until something opens up.

In this way, the city’s failure to appropriately price on-street parking just creates more traffic, miserable commutes, and minor turf wars over spots. Crucially for our purposes, it also leads students to believe that commuting by car is a viable option, because they are not paying the real costs associated with doing so. The city should begin appropriately pricing all on-street parking around campus to dispel this fiction and nudge students to find a more sustainable way to get around campus.

Of course, students don’t just drive because they mistakenly think there will be “free” parking at the end of the trip. They also drive because Lexington’s land-use regulations don’t allow allow them to live both near campus and near necessary goods and services. To get a lot of people walking, you need to allow a lot of people to live near the UK campus and you need the uses they depend on—groceries, restaurants, shopping—to be within walking distance. For all the the well-meaning rhetoric from city leaders, Lexington’s current land-use regulations militate against both of these.

For our purposes, let’s limit the discussion to two areas within walking distance of campus that have undeniably been taken over by students (see the map above). One is the eastern student neighborhoods are where I lived the entire time I went to UK, the area broadly between E High Street and Columbia Avenue: Grosvenor Park, Transylvania Park, Oldham Avenue, Columbia Heights, etc. The western student neighborhoods, where I never lived but did quite a lot of partying (don’t worry, I bicycled), are broadly framed by South Broadway, South Limestone, and Waller Avenue: South Broadway Park and the North Elizabeth Street Area, for example.

The student neighborhoods to the east of campus are almost exclusively single-family homes. Some of them still actually function as single-family homes, but most have been quietly converted into de facto tiny apartment buildings packed with students. If you live in this area, you have walking access to a Kroger—which neighbors fought, of course—and arguably Lexington’s most delightful urban retail corridor at the intersection of Euclid and High.

Not half bad! But actual mixed uses are rare: no corner bodegas, no cafes within the neighborhood, no chain retail, no professional offices. That is to say, none of the uses that a student might like to have around. Rents are relatively high for the city (especially given the low quality), meaning that many students can’t afford this area.

The western student neighborhoods are even worse. Like the eastern neighborhoods, these neighborhoods have a lot of old single-family homes that have essentially turned into student slums, especially along the infamous State Street. But unlike the eastern neighborhoods, the western neighborhoods are bounded by two wide major roads extremely inhospitable to walkers and bicyclists, and divided up by train tracks.

The western neighborhoods are also interspersed with more valuable commercial uses, as well as the apartments that are urgently needed to keep rents low and walkability to campus high. But in both of these cases, these commercial uses are designed around cars: retail sits in strip malls behind an ocean of parking, and apartments sit in inaptly named "garden” complexes better suited to the outer suburbs. In all cases, a car is required, or at the least strongly encouraged. Recent uninspired development hasn’t exactly been working against this.

Thus, we find ourselves in a situation where very few people can live near campus and those who do cannot easily walk or bicycle to daily necessities. These development patterns effectively require a car.

You might be asking: “Yeah, so what? The market produces that because that’s clearly what students want!” But that’s simply not the case; the current zoning around campus flat out won’t allow anything other than this car-oriented development. Many students might like to live in—and many developers would almost certainly like to build—new apartments right next to campus with ground-floor retail and office space mixed in. But it’s simply not allowed as-of-right (that is to say, without a long, arduous approvals process) in any of the existing student neighborhoods.

Non-single-family homes along Ayelsford Place (Source: Google)

Most of the eastern student neighborhoods are zoned for duplexes and, I kid you not, single-family homes. Sure, some of the neighborhoods are mapped with a district called “High Density Apartments,” but this is misleading. In practice, the rules in this zone force the development of low-density, car-oriented apartments. It has a minimum parking requirement of nearly one space per unit—meaning that any new apartment would have to have a prohibitively expensive parking structure or a large surface lot—as well as a maximum floor area ratio of 0.7 and a maximum lot coverage of 30 percent—meaning that any apartment built must take the form of a space-wasting garden complex. This simply won’t work on the small lots and blocks of neighborhoods like Columbia Hill. What we need are small apartment buildings that cover most of the lot and don’t necessarily provide off-street parking—a development pattern that already  exists in Lexington and works just fine.

Existing commercial zoning allows the auto-oriented development on the left as-of-right, while forcing the development pattern on the right through a lengthy review process. (Source: Google Earth)

As with existing urban form, the zoning in the western student neighborhood is somehow even worse. In addition to the low-density residential districts seen to the east, the area between Broadway and South Limestone is sprinkled with suburban commercial zones, where the only things that can legally be built are strip malls and auto-oriented fast-food joints. Large chunks are zoned B-3, or “Highway Service Business,” with all the anti-urban design standards you would expect. This is essentially wasted land, forced to take a form that is uneconomical and makes no real sense in what should be an urban area of Lexington. Much of it sits vacant, and with things not looking good for retail, the indefensibility of this commercial zoning will only grow. Why not keep the commercial zoning and allow developers to add apartments on top, in a form that encourages walking, bicycling, and transit use?

The tragedy in all of this is that students quite clearly want more dense living options with access to shopping and services near campus. Whenever the city can be moved to custom tailor a zoning district, developers want to build it. And college towns and cities all across the country are throwing up hundreds of mixed-use apartment buildings around their campuses. Mixed-use apartments for students are a massive boom market.

The city’s apparent reluctance to allow this kind of development as-of-right not only forces more students to live further away, where they must drive to campus—it also means that more students are forced into other low- and middle-income neighborhoods where they will gradually lower the quality of life and displace residents. And when they have to get home after a night on South Limestone, a nonzero number of them may drive drunk. It’s worth repeating: Lexington urgently needs to rezone these student neighborhoods for flexible, as-of-right, mixed-use multifamily buildings, without minimum parking requirements.

Drunk driving is a function of two things: drinking too much and feeling compelled to drive. The university is going to pick up the slack on the former, with more education and tighter controls on sources of unsafe drinking. But the city needs to pick up the slack on the latter. Parking reform and land-use liberalization aren’t sufficient to making car-free living easy and desirable—to do that, we need better street design and transit—but they are necessary first steps. And if we can make car-free living work for students, some of them might even choose to continue living a walkable, active lifestyle in downtown Lexington after graduation, rather than departing for a bigger city that offers that or resettling to the suburbs.

(Cover photo: James Palinsad via Flickr)