The Importance Of Student Commuters To Universities

October 13, 2021
Alina Prioteasa

Students are the lifeblood of university campuses and to maintain vitality, we need a healthy flow. We won’t continue this metaphor, because well, we’re not doctors, we’re parking data experts!

The point is simple - the number of students attending campus is only forecast to grow for the majority of universities, and rarely are there enough parking spaces to suffice. While many of those students will live on campus, most will commute, and preparing for the influx of commuters is our focus here.

This post will cover:

  • Who are student commuters?
  • The difficulties of parking on university campuses
  • The stats
  • Hearing from students themselves
  • Reopening universities: the post-COVID world

Who are student commuters?

Student commuters do not live on campus and therefore, travel to and from the university by various means of transportation. They tend to vary in age, as well as modes of transportation, and their living situations.

Some live with their parents or in their own off-campus apartments. Some students are individuals ranging from 18 to 22 years of age, while others are older with families. Modes of transportation among traveling students also vary as it is common to drive to class, take the bus, train, bike, walk, or use rideshares. 

Many aspects of college experiences are divided among on-campus residents and commuters. Often, commuters are not as engaged with campus life or on-campus activities as residential students are. Commuters often spend limited time on-campus due to the time it takes to travel between home and classes. Unlike commuters, students who live on-campus are able to build relationships and attend activities more freely.

The difficulties of parking on university campuses

Although driving to campus may seem like the easiest option to some, on-campus spaces can be very difficult to obtain. Most universities do not have enough parking to cater for all students, staff, faculty, and visitors, therefore students and staff members are left competing over limited parking spaces. 

Commonly, universities only have enough parking spaces for around half (or less) of the student population. This does not take into account staff members and visitors who park in the same locations. Often it is not economical nor does it fit with sustainability strategies, to cater for every student or visitor to campus. Indeed, the lack of spaces can also encourage alternative transportation options, such as carpooling.

Even a campus with vast amounts of parking such as the 36,000 spaces the Ohio State University experience demand pressures.

Due to the challenges of campus parking, commuter students often have to plan ahead, taking into consideration the time needed to find an empty space. Lots and garages are often used as first come first serve, causing many students to leave their homes significantly earlier in hopes of finding a spot. Even if students purchase passes or permits, they are not guaranteed to find parking spaces. The difficulty in finding spots may affect a student’s ability to attend classes. 

Parking demand management plays a key role in providing convenient access to campus facilities and has a direct effect on the academic and cultural activities at every university. Given the complexity of a modern campus, it has become increasingly difficult to understand if parking is being managed correctly, and how to make vital improvements.

Inefficient parking distribution relative to demand results in congestion and frustratingly long dwell times as commuters look for convenient spaces closest to their destination.

Cars searching for spaces on campus cause congestion, cause traffic accidents, affect pedestrians, generate noise, pollute the air, waste fuel, and most importantly - frustrate the driver.

The stats

According to Barbara Jacoby, in the year 1990, 83% of the United States student population lived off-campus as commuters. These numbers have not changed much throughout the decades; in the early 2000s, the percentage grew marginally to 84.4%. In his study, Robert Kelchen further broke down the commuter statistics concluding that 27.5% of commuters lived with their parents, while 56.9% of them lived away from their parents.

Today, some universities’ commuters comprise between 85% to 87% of students, requiring schools to tackle problems related to the parking and transportation departments in order to meet students' needs. This information does not take into account the hundreds or thousands of staff members also struggling to find available parking. 

In accordance with a study done by Salem State University, many students park in areas not designated for their parking permits. This is often due to the lack of space within their own parking locations. The students at Salem State University also indicated their reasoning for driving to range from:

  • poor weather conditions
  • carrying heavy materials
  • physical limitations such as medical needs
  • traveling between multiple locations
  • concern for the lack of safety at night with public transportation or walking
  • unreliable public transportation due to the long distance from campus. 

On the contrary, many students said they prefer other forms of transportation besides driving, due to the time lost searching for parking, fear of losing the parking spot, access to campus shuttles, and having a compact campus. 

Hearing from students themselves

Maven Nzeutem, a student commuter from The Fashion Institute of Technology, describes her daily public transportation routine to college:

“I have a 45 min commute to school by train, but I always give myself an hour just in case there are delays or I miss one. Another perk to the train is that sometimes while sitting I can get some homework done if I need to. I wouldn’t necessarily mind biking to school as it’d also take an hour, but I don’t want to be sweaty when I arrive, and in the winter it’s almost impossible because of slushy snow and frozen hands. As a true New Yorker, I have no interest in ever owning a car or learning how to drive.”

Ja’Von Cotton, a recent college graduate from Loyola University at Chicago, discusses the difficulty of commuting to and from campus:

“My hour-long commute took even longer when having to search for parking. Due to the limited space in the school garage and the cost of parking, I would often try to look for parking on nearby streets. This was always difficult, due to street permits. My commuter experience became easier when I lived closer to campus and did not have to worry about parking, I just walked to class.”

Following a study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), “Effects of Free Parking on Commuter Mode Choice”, it was found that many students think it is unethical to pay for parking on top of school tuition. If students have to pay for parking, they are more likely to carpool or find other forms of transportation. In turn this decreases the amount of congestion found on campus. 

Ecko Carrasquillo, a commuter student from Northeastern Illinois University:

“College can already be pretty stressful but commuting there adds another layer. Having the added stress about where to park, how much money it will be, and if you’ll even make it to class, all before the day even starts can make going to class so much harder. I wish there was a better system that allowed students who are commuting to find easier and less expensive parking, as it would lift a weight off all of their shoulders.”

Reopening universities: The Post-COVID World

Online school was a relief for many commuters who no longer had to worry about the hassle of parking congestion, traffic, transportation, and parking fees. 

As the United States is beginning to open back up, universities have welcomed most, if not all students, back on-campus. With such, colleges need to once again tackle the challenges facing commuting students and their parking needs, particularly with any ongoing social distance or contactless policies. The pressure on the parking ecosystems are forecasted to be even higher than pre-covid, with many people opting to use personal transportation options ahead of shared and public options.

The key to improving the process of parking is providing up to the minute information on availability, as well as personalized guidance on the best places to park. To ensure the optimal efficiency of spaces for both students and staff, transportation planners can start by digitizing parking across their facilities.

Once a visual display of parking is in place, users can see available parking on their phones and make an informed decision on where to park prior to departure. This, in turn, has a direct impact on campus congestion by minimizing the time spent searching for available spots in garages and lots on arrival.

Personalizing the view of campus parking involves ingesting permits, parking conditions, and any other relevant criteria impacting parking entitlements. By integrating these into the digital parking platform, students and staff are then able to select their permit type, the time and day they plan to park, and are shown parking specific to their needs.

This dramatically improves the customer experience by removing the confusion and stress of trying to decode complex parking rules. It also allows people to travel to campus with the confidence that a parking space will be available, and they will make it to class on time.

In addition to the driver experience, digitization also brings with it a much more efficient management approach; events and temporary changes can be planned, published, and communicated seamlessly. Find out about future-proofing university campuses through digitizing parking - Modii.

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