When I was in my junior year of high school, I, like many in-state students, drove a couple of hours to Ann Arbor to take a tour of the University of Michigan. Sprinkled among other digestible one-liners about the school, our tour guide proclaimed that at the University, even “off-campus” housing was still essentially “on-campus.” To emphasize this, she pointed across South University Avenue, where just steps from the Diag sat high rise apartments and homes filled with students modeling how I could be living in a few years.
Eventually moving into East Quad a mere two years later, I whole-heartedly bought into the tour guide’s characterization of student housing. Many off-campus residences were actually closer to classes in Mason Hall than my own on-campus dorm room. My second-year bedroom was only two blocks away from my first, and currently, my commute to class consists of a brisk 10 minute walk through Kerrytown.
Although the University does not publish statistics on what percentage of students commute to Ann Arbor, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions reports “just about all first-year students decide to live on campus.” However, catch-all statements such as these overlook those who don’t fit the University’s seemingly simple criteria, leading to broad and uninformed conversations about how some undergraduates live and work.
What is objective is that the walkable convenience I, and many other students, enjoy comes at a cost. The Ann Arbor Metro area has the highest fair-market rent prices in Michigan and rent here is more expensive than 93% of areas nationally. Nevertheless, for many students still financially dependent on family members, the choice between a convenient location and financial stability is not one at all –– especially given the University’s extraordinarily high median income among enrollees’ families. But for some, compromises must be made, and home becomes a place far from Hatcher Graduate Library’s shadow.
At its best, commuting is empowering, bringing independence and freedom from constant university stressors. But at its worst, it’s isolating, time-consuming and harmful to the academic and social relationships crucial to a conventional college experience.
Though there are many motivations to live off campus, many U-M undergraduates cite finances as the leading factor that puts them beyond Ann Arbor’s city limits.
LSA senior Jesus Galvez lived in an on-campus residence hall his freshman year before making the decision to move to Ypsilanti for the remainder of his undergraduate degree.
“My family often doesn’t have the time or money to come see me, so I have to be able to afford a vehicle … I found that it was easier to live elsewhere so that I can have a vehicle and commute to see (them),” said Galvez.
And when one’s childhood home is relatively close by, that can be an appealing living option for some. LSA senior Buraq Oral opted to continue living with his parents in Canton after high school graduation.
“I was at home in Canton because I would be helping with (my mom’s) business … and it was just much cheaper commuting into U of M,” Oral said. “My freshman year I had a huge argument with my mom about whether or not I should live on campus and she won out because mom’s always right, you know.”
Despite living in close quarters with his parents, Oral was still able to find his own independence as a new student. Banding with other commuting classmates, he carpooled with friends for the 25-minute drive into Ann Arbor.
“My freshman year I would pick up one of my best friends and we would commute together so the car ride was really fun. It would be us just vibing the music … It was honestly a good experience.”
And depending on one’s method of transport, academic multitasking is possible in addition to enjoying the social element of the commute. LSA senior Dante Yglesias spends part of his multi-modal routine completing assignments when he doesn’t have to drive.
“I’ll drive to the park-and-ride on Plymouth Road and then I’ll take the plus-40-minute bus to campus. That way I’ll (do) work on the bus.”
LSA senior Casey Guilds similarly utilizes their downtime on their morning commute. Although Guilds lives near downtown Ann Arbor and the U-M campus, they utilize the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s routes 4 and 25 traveling to and from their job as a lifeguard in Pittsfield Township, as they cannot drive due to a disability.
“It’s good for me to relax,” Guilds said. “It’s nice to listen to a podcast episode and since the route goes right to Meijer, I can do two trips in one: to work and also to do grocery shopping.”
Despite the apparent benefits of their moments in transit, many describe their bus commute as far from perfect. Guilds’ journey includes a 20-minute walk after the lengthy bus ride due to the relative lack of fixed route service southwest of I-94. TheRide does offer FlexRide on-demand service in the area, but it has limited hours of operation and no service on weekends.
“There are some days where I wake up and my pain is really bad … and I’m really struggling to weigh the option of walking those 20 minutes,” Guilds said. “I could buy an Uber … (I have to decide) which one is more worth it, my body or my money?”
LSA junior Justin Green also found difficulty in getting over the initial hurdle of deciphering Ann Arbor’s bus systems.
“(The buses) use … you could call them ‘code names’ for different places to go to. If you don’t know the acronyms and things like that, you’re gonna get yourself lost” said Green.
Downtown construction added to the learning curve, with removed and relocated stops causing confusion.
Nevertheless, commuting by bus poses major benefits on the financial front, with Green citing it as another cost-cutting measure. Yglesias praises his lack of parking costs by using the bus in combination with the free park-and-ride.
“I don’t have to pay for parking downtown … parking (was) killing me,” said Yglesias.
Currently, on-street parking rates run at $2.20 per hour Monday through Saturday during daytime hours, and parking structures charge $1.20. Given the incremental nature of these parking costs, every minute spent on campus counts for those commuting by car, and a sense of efficiency takes hold of one’s actions, limiting the possibility for spontaneity.
“For me, time is money. The more that I park downtown, the more I pay for parking and the more trips I make, (and) the more I have to spend on gas,” Galvez said. “Whether or not I spend that with friends or I spend it studying, since I only have so much time downtown it’s something that I try to plan very wisely.”
For a semester or year-long option, the U-M Logistics, Transportation and Parking office markets the Student Orange and Student Yellow/After Hours parking permits for undergraduate commuters, with a cost of $84 for the Student Orange and $237 for the Student Yellow per calendar year. However, only those with class standing of junior and above can purchase these permits. Additionally, the lots that are available to the permit-holders are located on the outskirts of campus and an extra bus ride is required to get to most academic buildings.
Faced with the one-two punch of both added cost and an additional leg of travel, none of the interviewed commuters opted to purchase any of the U-M permits, and instead devised their own ad-hoc methods.
Oral dodges the downtown parking district all together, instead conducting a scavenger hunt around South Campus neighborhoods in search of a free spot.
“Sometimes I get really lucky and I find a spot immediately. But last year, for example, it could take me upwards of 15, 20 minutes to find a spot,” Oral said.
Before landing on this specific strategy, Oral encountered a bit of a learning curve in searching for parking. The only U-M parking permit available to underclassmen is the Student Storage Permit, but with only 130 permits available total, they are sold out for the 2022-23 academic year.
“As a freshman, I didn’t really understand parking. There was one week where I had eight parking tickets and I was like, ‘who’s even issuing these?’ … It was an expensive lesson,” Oral said.
When commuting to campus as a cost-effective measure, one becomes acutely aware of any money spent on parking, and convenience must be balanced with finance. Galvez often moves his car during the day to get the best of both worlds.
“Depending on how much of a hurry I am in, I’ll park on the street for a couple hours … and then I’ll move (to the garage) … Or if I’m early enough I will just park in the garage to begin with and just pay the cheaper price for the entire day,” Galvez said.
After factoring in the hours spent round trip commuting to campus each day, one must then negotiate with and have an intimate knowledge of Ann Arbor’s various parking infrastructures once they arrive. Given the logistical hurdles of this, Yglesias has reached out to University administration in the past via both email@example.com and an academic advisor in the Ross School of Business in search of parking permit relief, and specifically an exception to the aforementioned class standing requirement.
“There are times where I’d ask them for some kind of parking patch or something to help me out, and they wouldn’t help me at all. They kind of saw that as my problem,” Yglesias said.
Although commuting saves significant amounts of money on Ann Arbor rent in the long run, the day-to-day practice of it can be inconvenient and exhausting. Oral shaved some time off his commute this year by moving from an Ypsilanti apartment complex to one near Briarwood Mall. The new location is less than five minutes away from his job where he works as an EMT, but he still estimates a 20 to 25 minute commute to Central Campus.
Oral’s travel time was the shortest of those interviewed. Yglesias’ car-and-bus combo from Plymouth takes up to an hour and 20 minutes on a normal day. These numbers are much higher than the 15-30 minute ideal commute, which can become an inhibitor to well-being given that traveling long distances to work is correlated with reduced happiness.
“I’m now realizing how much time I spend commuting,” Yglesias said.
Still, campus commuters don’t see their routines changing anytime soon, and many have learned to find joy and solitude while in transit. Yglesias will often take an alternate route to Ann Arbor in an effort to enjoy the journey.
“One of (my routes) is way more scenic, where I get to see more of the rural area around where I live. I do like that,” Yglesias said.
Galvez similarly appreciates some of the freedoms living away from Ann Arbor allows, notably the added cash in his pocket.
“I find that I have a little bit of extra money especially with scholarships and whatnot … I’m able to maybe do a couple of things throughout the year, maybe go out for food a little more often than I probably should … having a car has (also) enabled me to visit areas outside of Ann Arbor,” Galvez said.
During the warmer months, Oral has found himself biking from his new apartment near State Street and Eisenhower Parkway, something that was more difficult to do when he lived near Ypsilanti.
“The biking itself is really rewarding, it’s like ‘two birds, one stone’ right? I get a little bit of cardio,” Oral noted.
Guilds found that he’s gotten better at time management and work-life balance while following the more rigid schedule of bussing to work.
“It also feels like I have two separate lives where I have my work life, and I can keep that completely separate from school,” Guilds said.
Geographic distance creates mental distance, something Yglesais has used to his advantage.
“Being on the outside kind of gives me a break from it. Whereas I think some people might feel overwhelmed; they’re going from class and going back … they’re always surrounded by school.”
Green characterizes his living environment simply, albeit sarcastically.
“The suburbs, I guess. I’m living the dream.”
And so emerges the mixed-feeling complexity of commuting to campus. Increased distance from campus lessens the convenience of walkable urbanism, but it also brings balance and a sense of separation. A decision often rooted in financial freedom, time might be money, but money is also money.
On a recent Friday morning, I went for a walk in the area near the intersection of Washtenaw Avenue and Stadium Boulevard. Although many U-M students might visit this location to shop at Trader Joe’s, two large apartment complexes exist behind the strip mall. Arbor Village advertises its proximity to the University’s Central Campus with a picture of the famous Law Library, along with “luxury living” and “indulgent details.” Ann Arbor Woods uses the tagline “Quiet Seclusion…. City Convenience.”
The seclusion is felt while walking down these complex’s tree-lined streets. My ears were loud with the absence of noise, bird calls feeling more prominent than engine roars. The landmarks of downtown Ann Arbor were notably out of sight, and any geographic identity associated with Ann Arbor dissolved into a sort of anywhere-ness.
My feeling of being in a college town was regnited when seeing navy blue sweaters emblazoned with block-serif “Michigan,” or by backpacks adorned with university-related pins. I was approaching a bus shelter where four students were waiting when TheRides’s Route 64 toward Central Campus arrived. As if on cue, two more students ran out of their front door and down the concrete path, hoping to avoid a 30-minute wait for the next bus.
The campus commuter must maintain friendships, academics and employment all while having their lives spread out over many more miles than a student who lives near downtown. They must carry all of the responsibilities of a full-time student while going the distance, both literally and figuratively. They execute rigid routines in a campus world built for spontaneity and all-hours-involvement, while being overlooked for years by the University they pay to attend.
While the University’s satellite Dearborn and Flint campuses have featured commuting students and their stories prominently on their website home page, little is publicized about those who make the same choices in Ann Arbor. While peer-institutions like Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin create programming and information centers aiming to integrate and support those who travel back and forth to campus everyday, the University of Michigan’s equivalent is a sparsely populated webpage with no focused information for students.
Yglesias compared commuting to being graded on a curve compared to his peers.
“They all (live) on campus, and they all … knew people who were also in the same classes because they live right next to each other.”
Following up on his request to U-M administration for a complimentary parking permit, Yglesias believes a little empathy — knowing that “off-campus” doesn’t always mean basically-on-campus — would go a long way in addressing current geographic inequities.
“I think that would really improve the lives of many commuters.”
Statement Correspondent Oscar Nollette-Patulski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.