Why Do College Students Need Cars?

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It’s fun to challenge college students on their use of cars, as I do each semester in a writing course I teach at the University of Maine. I make them ride the Community Connector bus and bring back a report. I also assign an essay on the topic of cars in daily life; one of the options is to spend a week without driving and reflect on the lessons therein.

One semester, I had a student who was perpetually late. The class began at 11 am, so it wasn’t a case of collegiate sleeping habits. He claimed that he allowed plenty of time to get to campus, but was stymied by the lack of readily available parking. The student lived, as I do, in Bangor, some ten miles from the campus.

I asked him if he had ever considered alternatives to driving. The conversation went something like this:

Student: “Mr. Garfield, I’m sorry I’m late, but I couldn’t find a parking space.”

Me: “Well, perhaps you should leave earlier.”

Student: “I have been leaving earlier. A lot of times I’ll get to campus half an hour before class, but I’ll spend that whole time driving around looking for a parking place. Then I’m either late for class, or I have to park illegally. I’ve got a hundred and twenty dollars in parking tickets just this semester.”

Me: “You live in Bangor, right? There’s a bus. It’s free with your Maine Card. So why do you drive?”

Student: “It’s more convenient.”

He had just given me a list of reasons why driving to campus isn’t convenient. But like too many of his peers, he had been raised to regard driving as the first, best option.

The University of Maine has been nationally recognized for its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. One of its more successful strategies has been to promote use of public transportation. A parking permit is fifty bucks a year, but every student, teacher and employee can ride the Community Connector free, anywhere within the system. During the week, a bus leaves Bangor at quarter past the hour from 6:15 in the morning to 5:15 in the afternoon. A second bus leaves the University at half past the hour until 6:30. The buses stop at the Memorial Union, smack dab in the center of campus. You can walk to any classroom building in less than five minutes.

Yet every semester I confront a classroom full of car owners. Many have never ridden the bus. Some of them keep a car on campus so that they can drive home, often several hours away, every weekend. Others complain about the costs of textbooks, housing and food, while blithely buying gas for unnecessary trips to and from campus. Most have little idea of what their cars really cost, because their parents cover insurance and other expenses, and in some cases, the entire vehicle.

However good their intentions, parents who buy their kids cars are doing them a great disservice, by grooming them for a lifetime of car dependency. One young woman, who had owned a car since her sixteenth birthday, told me that her week without driving was the longest week of her life.

But another student told me of a conversation with her mother, who had attended the University of Maine 25 years ago. Back then, few students kept cars on campus, and the Memorial Union had a “ride board” on which people could post notices soliciting or offering rides home for vacations. Students did not flee their newly independent lives each weekend to return to their families.

The future does not belong to the automobile. A growing awareness of the waste in our car culture, and its detrimental effects on our health and the environment, is driving a movement toward better public transportation, bicycling infrastructure, and walking communities. This does not mean that cars will go away, but that they will be less central to our daily lives. This is good, and universities need to prepare their graduates for it.

The University of Maine is doing the right thing by charging for parking and giving away bus rides. Doubling the cost of an annual parking permit, from $50 to $100, would provide additional incentive for people to seek alternatives. In the short term, it would raise money for the University. In the longer term, it would spur a push for later bus service. And it might convince a few cash-strapped students that they don’t need that car after all.

 

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