Expanded Parking and Commuting to Campus: Then and Now

Interim Provost Ira Katznelson announced on August 18 that Columbia will provide commuter shuttles for faculty and staff for the Fall term 2020. However, this is not the first time Columbia has offered expanded services to commuters such as buses, vans and expanded parking for carpoolers, just different circumstances.

Cars parked on South Lawn, Transit Strike, 1966. Scan #4738. Office of Public Affairs Photograph Collection, University Archives.

In January 1966, the transit workers’ labor agreement expired without a new contract in place and the subways and buses were shut down. In order for campus operations to continue to run as smoothly as possible, the University opened up College Walk for commuter parking on a first-come, first-served basis. Dormitory rooms were made available to essential workers, and the School of Journalism even recorded important lectures for replaying at a later date. The Columbia libraries were also “lenient about overdue fines, but a spokesman asked that the strike not be used as an excuse to deliberately keep books overdue.” The strike lasted for eleven days. While crippling in some parts of the City, the University was relatively unaffected since the strike went in effect during winter vacation.

In 1972, negotiations were tense and a threat of a possible strike lingered, but Columbia was part of the solution. Michael I. Sovern, then Dean of the Law School, was an experienced mediator in labor disputes and he was able to secure an agreement just two hours before the union’s strike deadline. During the following 1970s contract talks, the University made contingency plans which would allow cars filled-to-capacity to park on College Walk and would provide charter buses from the George Washington Bridge bus station and other commuting terminals such as 125th Street, Penn Station and Grand Central. With Sovern similarly involved in the 1974 and 1976 negotiations, the City managed to avoid further transit strikes and the Columbia contingency plans were happily not needed.

Carpoolers park on campus, Transit Strike, 1966. Scan #4739. Office of Public Affairs Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Unfortunately, there was no agreement in place by the strike deadline of April 1, 1980 and the transit system again shut down for another eleven days. Sovern, who had been recently announced as the next University President, felt he should not be part of the transit workers contract negotiations. Columbia was still well represented in the talks with University Professor Emeritus Walter Gellhorn as mediator. This time “[t]o handle the expected influx of automobiles, special parking areas for carpools of three or more people [were] set at Baker Field, on South Field, College Walk, and 116th St. between Morningside Drive and Amsterdam Avenue.” In addition to the expanded campus parking, the contingency plans included a citywide bus service, systematic carpooling, and even overnight cots. The Spectator praised the efficient plans, while also noting “what if South Field looks like a used car lot and the tennis court is covered with bicycles?” And the Record proudly reported that “[w]hile other New York schools either closed or reduced operations, Columbia student and staff attendance was 95 percent of normal during those 11 days.” At the University Archives, we have not been able to find photographs of the South Field parking lot (contact us if you have them!). But this improvised use of a parking lot in front of Butler Library may lend some truth to the campus legend that location fees from the filming of Ghostbusters in 1983 were used to reseed and maintain the South Lawn.