College students adapt to high gas prices

Instead of driving, students opt to walk, ride public transportation, or use Zipcar.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Back to school: Shuttle supervisor Leopold Lorenzo (c.) helps University of Massachusetts, Boston, students board a free shuttle to campus. He says he's seen a recent increase in ridership.
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    Danel Fostin, a student at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, rides a free shuttle to campus. “I won’t be getting in a car anytime soon, not with these gas prices,” he says.
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When gas prices climbed to $4.10 this summer, Old Dominion University student Azam Shafiee knew she had to make a few changes.

She drove less. Instead of commuting 25 minutes to work, she found a new job just 10 minutes away from the Norfolk, Va., campus.

"I walk around a lot more," she wrote in an e-mail.

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College students are arguably the group most sensitive to swings in gasoline prices and the quickest to adjust. So how has the dorm set reacted as the price at the pump surged then declined somewhat to a $3.64 national average?

They're finding inventive ways to spend less time behind the wheel, and university administrators are finding creative ways to assist them.

Just like the rest of Americans, students are mulling whether to use public transportation. Nationwide, ridership has been on an upswing. This year, public transportation ridership soared to over 2.8 billion trips in the second quarter of 2008 – an increase of about 140 million rides compared with trips taken in 2007, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Of these riders, some 10.7 percent of public transit riders are students, according to a May 2007 study by the APTA.

But it's not always easy to make the switch.

"Many people tell me to take the subway to school or work in order to save money on gas," says Cara Lipper, a senior at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

But the closest train station is a 15-minute drive from her house and a 20-minute commute on the train, she says, compared with a 20-minute drive into Boston.

Instead, she's looked into buying a hybrid car.

"Also, I carpool more than I used to," she wrote in an e-mail. "I will use public transportation to go to some places, even though I hate it. And I go for joyrides far less often."

High fuel prices actually cause Aram Pashaian to drive more. The student at the University of Nevada, who already spends an average $54 to fill his tank every six days, says he often drives around Las Vegas looking for the lowest gas prices. He notices the squeeze.

"At the end of the year it adds up," Mr. Pashaian wrote in an e-mail.

Campuses have also seen a shift in students' commuting behaviors. At Michigan State University, cars in the university's commuter parking lot have declined 25 percent to 1,661 vehicles in the past year, according to the campus police. And biking to campus has also picked up speed among students. During July and August, students registered 2,346 bikes – an increase from the 858 bikes registered during the same months in 2003, the police said.

Campuses are also taking steps to ease students' financial constraints by offering alternative transportation options.

The University of Houston has increased parking and invested in newer, larger buses. Rachel Rollins, a student there, says she has noticed that more students are opting to carpool in an area where alternative modes of transportation are admittedly limited.

She tries to walk and carpool with friends but says she doesn't worry much: "My car is very economical in its use of gas, so it isn't as big a problem.... It would take at least two buses for anyone to get remotely close to our campus."

Middlebury College, in Vermont, is one school that has joined with Zipcar, a car rental service, to serve students. Zipcar helps students cope with high gas prices by including the cost of gas, insurance, and parking in the rental fee. Currently, more than 70 schools provide the service, according to Zipcar.

Elissa Bullion, a student at Middlebury College, is considering signing up for Zipcar because of the advantages it offers. Although she often walks to get around campus and into town she says she likes "to leave Middlebury every once in a while."

But finding a car to borrow is a common obstacle she and other students encounter. So she sees Zipcar as a potential solution.

"Zipcar gives students access to a car, without having to deal with such stress. And because you only have to pay an hourly rate, and not for gas, it is also potentially cheaper," Bullion wrote in an e-mail.

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