University commuter community calls for improved parking accessibility

Thursday, March 15, 2018 - 6:19pm

When LSA freshman Shelby Alston received a full scholarship to the University of Michigan, she began to consider how she might factor housing into her life at the University. Hailing from Royal Oak and Alston was working a job in Auburn Hills, she didn’t want to sacrifice her job to come to Ann Arbor. Alston decided commuting from home would be the best way to ensure she would be able to keep doing the work she loves.

Each weekday, Alston makes the 90-minute commute to campus, the first hour driving her own personal vehicle and — after parking at the Plymouth Road Park & Ride Lot — the last 30 minutes riding the public bus. While the lengthy commute can often be an inconvenience, Alston explained, it’s the refund check she receives from a part of the University’s original room and board cost that allows her to pay her travel expenses.

“If I don’t use the money for room and board, they give a portion of it back to me in a refund check, which I use for gas,” Alston said. “It worked out really well.”

According to the Office of Financial Aid, the estimated on-campus room and board cost for in-state freshmen and sophomores is $11,198. University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email interview benefits and resources like Alston’s commuter allowance plays a large role in reducing financial strains for students who choose to commute to campus.

“Students who commute will reduce room and board costs significantly,” Broekhuizen wrote. “The allowance for commuting students is $4,814 for the academic year to acknowledge ongoing family household expenses (food, utilities, etc.) and transportation costs.”

Though Alston has enjoyed the advantages of being a commuter student — financial advantages along with the ability to use the public bus system for free as a student of the University — she said easier access to parking near University buildings would be most helpful in ensuring accessibility for students who choose to commute and save their financial aid for other expenses.

“Sometimes I feel as though it’s kind of a community that’s not thought of as much,” Alston said. “We’re not really accommodated for, which is understandable — there’s such a small percentage of students who commute. I think it would be tremendously beneficial for the school to offer on-campus parking.”

According to Broekhuizen, the University currently does not keep track of data on the commuter student population, the number of students that commute or the reasons they decide to commute. This lack of data is what some commuter students believe could serve as a pipeline to creating better resources for their commutes.

Business sophomore Subhan Chaudry lived on campus his freshman year, but later decided to commute from home, about 10 minutes from Central Campus. He explained having more information on the commuter student population or following patterns of other state universities would help the University better acknowledge students who commute from home.

“I think even looking at the state of Michigan in general, most of the other colleges in the area, even if you look at Michigan State or Wayne State and a couple of those places, have better programs built in for helping students navigate that space and having spots available for them … where it’s more convenient,” Chaudry said. “U-M doesn’t really have as much in comparison to them, and I know a lot of schools also track more heavily how many students (commute) so they can focus on whether they need to put funding towards things like that. I think that’s one thing that (the University) can probably improve on.”

Other state universities, such as Eastern Michigan University, Michigan Technological University, Northern Michigan University and Ferris State University, currently offer programs, presentations or other resources for commuter students. According to University Logistics, Transportation and Parking, student parking permits are only available to students with junior standing and above. Typically, junior and seniors would be most likely to live in Ann Arbor but, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median rent in the city has risen 14 percent from 2010 to 2015, showing a considerable cost to upperclassmen who chose to live off-campus instead of commute.

For freshmen and sophomores like Alston and Chaudry, student storage permits are offered but are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis and only 180 permits are distributed per year. The two storage permit lots, one on North Campus near Baits I Residence Hall and one on South Campus on State Street, accept the same permit but if one lot is full, a student must park at the other. LTP suggests commuters utilize alternative transportation methods such as bicycles, the Park and Ride program Alston utilizes and more for students who may not be able to secure a parking permit.

Broekhuizen offered LTP’s resources but could not comment on further parking resources for commuter students at the time of publishing.

When it comes to what actions the University could take to better accommodate commuter students, Chaudry agreed with Alston that more accessible parking lots for newer students or cheaper parking passes would allow for greater ability to take advantage of the benefits of being a commuter student.

“I think more parking spaces, or at least more permits available to purchase (would be beneficial), because it’s kind of difficult to go and navigate finding someone who lives in an apartment and has a spot available, and if you do it’s usually like 15 minutes away from wherever the normal classes are so it makes it kind of inconvenient,” Chaudry said. “For some people, it’s even further.”

LSA sophomore Yara El-Tawil, who makes the commute from her family’s home in Ann Arbor, expressed similar sentiments in the hope that finding more convenient parking might take away certain worries about commuting.

El-Tawil currently rents a parking spot a few blocks from campus, and while she explained the price for this is significantly lower than what she would pay for on-campus living, commuting for students who aren’t familiar with the Ann Arbor area could be made much easier with more accessible parking and information on public transportation opportunities.

“The biggest thing I would say that I wish the University did do is make it easier for people to commute,” El-Tawil said. “I know for some commuters it’s hard to figure out the public transportation system, and I have an advantage because I’ve lived in Ann Arbor for 14 years so I know it, but a lot of people don’t and I wish that (the University) did (emphasize it), or if they do do it they’re not doing a good job of emphasizing it.”

In terms of the community of commuter students, El-Tawil explained current dialogue about commuting, that it might be difficult to do or it might place a strain on student social life, should be changed. She expressed her hope the University provides more information about commuting to students interested in saving money or commuting for other reasons that making the commute from home is not as difficult as some might think.

“It’s mainly not a commuter campus, which is hard,” El-Tawil said. “When I was trying to figure out how to do it, so many people would just be like, ‘You can’t do it … You’re not going to have a social life, you’re not going to be able to do anything,’ but that’s really not how it is. I wish that the University just did a better job of making (commuting) an option and making it something people knew about.”

Chaudry agreed and said while his ability to participate in some social activities has been limited by time and spatial constraints of commuting, his experience overall has been positive.

“It puts a restraint on social activities, but other than that it’s been pretty good for me,” he said.

For students interested in making the commute from home, El-Tawil suggested they should not be afraid of engaging in dialogue about opportunities for commuter students, and should recognize the benefits of finding alternate forms of transportation to travel to campus.