proposal for UT student policy competition

[Note: I just found out about a program called "The Improve UT Challenge." Sponsored by Student Government, it is currently in its second year and is virtually identical to the program that I suggested here. So basically the whole proposal is irrelevant. I keep it up mainly in the interest of preserving the historical record.—MO'C]

I submitted this as an op-ed to the blog at the LBJ School, where I am a student. They turned it down on the grounds that they are interested in policy analysis rather than policy proposals, So I put it up here. It will likely be of very little interest to anyone who is not affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin or, more specifically, the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

I graduated from the University of Texas for the first time in 2006. I moved away from Austin shortly thereafter, and did not return until 2016, when I matriculated at the LBJ School. My decade-long absence allowed me to see changes on campus that might not have been as apparent had I never left. A significant such example relates to bicycle parking.

Ten years ago, far fewer people rode bikes to, or on, campus. The biggest problem for cyclists looking to lock their bikes was that few racks were available, and those that could be found were often in poor repair. Today, the situation is much different. There are many bike racks around campus, including several banks of them so large that they can fairly be described as “bike corrals.” (There are, for example, at least four such colonies on the corner of 21st and Speedway: two near PCL, and one each in front of Jester and Gregory.) Today, the biggest problem for those looking to securely store their bicycles is not that racks are missing or poorly maintained. It is just the opposite: they are so filled with bikes that finding a space is always difficult, and occasionally impossible.

 Source: Mike O'Connor

Source: Mike O'Connor

Given the concerns raised by our society’s dependence on cars, I hesitate to identify a problem based on the presence of too many bike riders. But it is a problem, one I consider nearly every time I lock up my bike on campus. (Perhaps because of its isolated location relative to the rest of campus, LBJ generally has plentiful amounts of bike parking.) If the current situation is not yet untenable, the day is rapidly approaching when it will be so. I do not see any obvious solution. The amount of space on campus is not infinite, and continually tucking bike racks into various little nooks and crannies is probably not a viable long-term solution. If the university were to build a large, covered, bike-parking facility, it would cost money and such a structure might necessitate fees for bikers. Moreover, simply because of the size of the campus there is nowhere it could be located that would be convenient for the majority of riders. Yet the university presumably desires to encourage commuting by bike and so would not want to do anything to make doing so more difficult. On the other hand, drivers on campus typically park far from their destination and have to pay a decent sum for the privilege; perhaps the time has come for cyclists to bear a few burdens of their own.

To spare the reader any suspense, I have not actually studied this issue and do not have a proposal regarding it. But the point that I do want to make is that thinking about this problem as often as I do, while simultaneously going through a public policy program, has led me to realize that bike parking on campus is a quintessential example of a policy problem. The issue could form the basis of a question on a policy development take-home final exam. And that insight has led me to my actual proposal.

In addition to serving as an almost paradigmatic policy issue, the bike-parking problem has two other qualities: it is fairly small, as such problems go, and it is local to the University of Texas at Austin. The limited scope and campus nature of the problem got me to thinking that if I could get my LBJ classmates to study this issue, they would probably come up with some interesting and viable solutions. Thus my commuting-related musings have led to a different idea: problems like this one could be addressed through a university-wide policy contest.

Such a competition, put on annually and focusing specifically on issues related to UT, could be a great way for students to gain real-world experience and for the university to continually improve itself. As I imagine it, the contest would be run out of LBJ, as the university’s policy school. The problems being submitted, however, could be from anywhere on campus. (It might only seem fair, then, to open the competition to students outside of LBJ.) Individual students or teams would submit proposals to faculty judges. These proposals would include both the policy problem and the proposed solution. Judges would choose the winner on the bases of not only the innovation, effectiveness and efficiency of the solution, but also on the presentation and diagnosis of the problem itself. (Judges might be able to penalize or reject proposals that are too ambitious for this particular contest, or perhaps the rules could stipulate an upper amount of time and/or expense in the proposal itself.) Winners would receive a small cash prize and, more important, the ability to work with university officials to implement their proposal.

Were this contest to be put in place, it could provide widespread benefits: all participants would enjoy the experience and learn something about writing policy initiatives; winners would get a nice résumé item and the opportunity to institute a program at a major university; the LBJ School could gain an annual tradition of interest to students, faculty and the larger university community; and the university itself will see continued improvements in its workings as well as increased student participation. Of course, getting such a contest off the ground would require buy-in from around the university. The LBJ Dean’s Office would need to contribute a bit of money and the school’s faculty would have to be willing to judge the contest. A larger hurdle might be the university administration, which would have to agree in advance to work with the contest winner to implement the proposed policy solution. Contest officials would have to ensure the administration that proposals would not contradict other university initiatives or commit inappropriate amounts of university resources. The potential advantages, however, make this a proposal worth considering.