Every time University of Georgia junior Connor McCarthy pedals his bike across campus, many classmates assume he's doing his part to save the planet. But it's more about saving green than going green. "A friend saw me and asked if I was an environmentalist," says McCarthy, 20, an international-affairs and economics major. "I said, 'No, I'm an economist'."
In these days of soaring gas prices, students used to cruising campus in cars are converting to fossil-fuel-free commutes. Whether biking, busing or trekking across campus on foot, students are ditching the wheels that had long been as essential to college life as pizza. But with the price of gas more than doubling between 2005 and 2008, students now must choose between filling their tanks or their tummies. A recent survey by the Opinion Research Corp. found that three quarters of students are angry about gas prices. "Gas prices have ruined my car-buying fun," says Molly Bruns, 20, a marketing major at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Bruns works three jobs and hoped to buy a car to avoid riding to school with her mother, who works at Xavier. But Bruns can't earn enough to keep up with gas prices. "It's hard enough being a full-time student, juggling my jobs, paying for living expenses," she says. "It looks like I'll be riding with my mom for a while."
This new gilded age of gasoline is driving subtle but noticeable changes in students' commuting patterns. Requests for parking permits for fuel-sipping scooters are soaring—up 200 percent at the University of Georgia alone. At the University of Florida, roughly 3,000 students are zipping around on scooters, one out of every 17 students. To accommodate the scooter surge, the University of Cincinnati is add-ing skinny parking spaces.
Many students, though, are skipping the gas pumps entirely and riding bikes. That has put a crimp in that time-honored university-revenue raiser—the parking ticket. But campus police at Kansas University are rising to the challenge. They've been busy writing parking tickets for illegally parked bikes. More than 100 were "towed" during one period in spring 2008 for what transportation coordinator Derek Meier described as "illegal, interference-causing parking." The scofflaws apparently couldn't find legal spaces in the bike lots, which, Meier says, had been "swamped" with student cyclists. You can't really blame schools for looking for new sources of revenue; they've been hit by high gas prices, too. A typical example: the University of Georgia budgeted $1.2 million on fuel for its fleet of school-owned vehicles for the 2008–09 academic year, compared with only $200,000 five years ago.
To mitigate student concern over gas prices, some schools are marketing the fuel-saving merits of dorm life. Northern Kentucky University even provides a commuting calculator on its housing Web site. Punch in the latest price of gas, along with the mileage for your proposed off-campus commute, and it tallies up what would be your outrageous gas bill.
Some schools, though, are helping students with gas prices without trying to sell them a dorm room or a scooter parking space. As pump prices started to soar in 2007, the University of Cincinnati began picking up the tab for bus fare for students, staff and faculty. In the first year, there were 815,000 free bus trips, up substantially from the year before. At Kansas University, campus bus trips grew by almost 20 percent in the 2007–08 school year to nearly 1 million. And school bus ridership is expected to increase by 200,000 in the 2008–09 academic year.
In Los Angeles, home to some of the highest domestic gas prices, UCLA students are increasingly sharing the ride. More than 2,400 students from six counties in sprawling southern California rode in 155 van pools during 2007–08. And there aren't many empty seats; the occupancy rate of the van program is 96 percent and growing. UCLA students are also riding together in cars in addition to vans. Nearly 1,000 car pools take 2,000 students, staff and faculty to campus. An additional 7,500 take the bus. In fact, in a city where 75 percent of drivers commute alone, only 30 percent of UCLA students are driving solo.
When gas prices first started rising, NKU student Corey Scott parked his Toyota RAV4 at his off-campus apartment and began taking the bus (which the school subsidizes). At first he was virtually alone. But these days he has a hard time finding a seat. "I don't mind," he says of his suddenly cramped commute. "It's convenient and it's free. Almost everybody you talk to on the bus is taking it to save on the cost of parking on campus and because of gas prices." For many college students, park-and-ride is replacing gas-and-go.