In my freshman year, I was very critical of cars and advocated for their marginalization in campus infrastructure. While I stand by these arguments and have since repeated them, in the past I was missing an important perspective: that of the students who commute by car to campus every day. It was only by becoming one that I’d be able to fully understand their struggles.
Two years ago, I lived on campus with all other freshmen. My dorm was Eddy Hall in the Alumni quad. This is a pretty nice dorm in a really nice location on campus, particularly for humanities and social sciences students. In retrospect, I took for granted the experience of waking up only minutes before class, walking everywhere around campus and never having to rely on public transportation or cars. The irony of becoming a car-commuter in Storrs is that although I can now drive much faster than them, the transition to car-commuting actually made me much more dependent on busses because of the distance of the affordable commuter parking lots from campus.
In spite of now owning a car, in a place where cars and roads seem obtrusive, getting to class takes me the longest it ever has. Living on campus, my commute was never more than 10 or 15 minutes to reach my furthest classes. Now, even living only a few minutes’ drive away from campus, commuting from my front door to my classes is often 30 or 40 minutes due to the drive to Lot W and then the ride on the Yellow Line to whichever bus stop is nearest to my class. Another irony is that campus bus lines are somewhat slow because they compete with car traffic.
Long commutes are annoying, but transportation in Storrs is a site of much greater concerns. The finances of attending UConn quickly show how the choice of where to live and which form of transportation to use is a question of wealth.
When housing and meal plans are as expensive as they are, students with financial concerns are going to search for less expensive off-campus housing. Comparatively few off-campus students will bike or walk to campus because of a lack of infrastructure for these modes of transportation, and therefore most will purchase a car, a parking pass and gas, contributing to the dominance of automobile traffic and infrastructure at UConn by no fault of their own.
On one hand, there are some improvements to be made in the transportation infrastructure of Storrs and Mansfield to make cars less dominant, and to create a safer, more friendly environment for pedestrians and cyclists. But on the other hand, because of the cost of living on campus, whatever good infrastructure does exist is going to prioritize the benefit of students with enough money to afford to live as close to campus as possible. The only commuters who could possibly benefit from our current transportation infrastructure are those with nearly $1000 per year to spare on a parking spot within a parking garage near the center of campus, or perhaps those unconcerned with parking tickets. This is a very small number of people, and besides, access to quality transportation shouldn’t be restricted according to students’ wealth.
To be clear, automobile infrastructure takes up far more than enough of campus already, and the experience of driving a car should not be made more convenient. This would require reserving more space for parking lots closer to campus, making an uglier, less safe and more traffic-congested environment for everyone. The best solution to our problems, on-campus or off-campus, is to increase the supply of affordable housing in Mansfield, connected to campus by bicycle infrastructure and public transportation. This means nobody has to sacrifice time, money or purchase a car just to have a comfortable commute.
Pursuing this requires understanding any perverse incentives the UConn administration may have to depress the supply of housing, to maintain revenue from parking passes and parking tickets by restricting access of bicycle and pedestrian commuters and generally to make living off-campus undesirable. This perverse incentive to maintain housing supply and prices is what guided the administration’s conflict with the town of Mansfield over a new affordable housing development this past summer.
Supporting the concerns of commuter students is not going to increase the amount of automobile traffic or automobile commuters on campus. On the contrary: investigating the concerns of car-commuter-students on campus reveals underlying inequalities in the built environment and transportation infrastructure. Considering our shared interests will lead to the just solution: affordable, walkable and bike-friendly housing for all.