Car-free College Living


Grand Avenue sidewalk.

While it is very cool to have a car, a disadvantage of owning a car might be the fact that you will have to drive a lot and in occasions when you don’t want to. A friend of mine in college recently bought his own car and since the news inevitably spread, many people started asking him favors to drive them places whenever they need him to. While he normally gladly drives his friends around, some asking do not even know him that well and at the end of the day, he does not have all the time in the world. This often puts him in bothersome and awkward situations. Furthermore, owning a car could mean that you might always have to be the sober designated driver whenever you go out, and be very prone to drunk-driving. With transportation options such as bicycles, buses, light rails, rentals and Taxis, I believe that college students in the Twin Cities such as myself can find perfect alternatives of cars here for almost every occasion.

First of all, most of the colleges here in the Twin Cities (aside from the U of M) are relatively small in size and designed so that the entire campus is within walking distance. Currently living on campus, I can complete all of my daily routines on foot, whether it be going to class in different buildings, the library, the cafeteria, or the sports center. Of course this would change if I decide to move into a house off campus once I become an upperclassman, as many of whom do. While this is common, it is noteworthy to mention that many upperclassmen still decide to remain living in the dorms because of how convenient it is to live on campus. However, even if I lived off campus, I still wouldn’t need a car because most of the students are able to find housing in the vicinity of their college: when off campus parties happen on the weekends, you always see students walking to the houses and nobody is driving. Also, sometimes driving to class might be more cumbersome as the parking lots could be either full or located far away from the building one is trying to get to.

Many might argue that while cars are not essential for a college student’s everyday life, it can be useful for many other special occasions. For the rare occasions that would require a car such as road trips during spring break, the facility services of the college provides van rentals. When I simply get sick of my school’s cafeteria and want to go out to a nearby place for lunch or dinner on the weekends either by myself or with a small number of friends, I can either walk, bike or take public transportation. Most of the times when college students drive their cars is to go somewhere further with a larger group of friends such as to downtown, the mall or a special event. However, in this situation, an ordinary student-owned car is usually not enough to take everyone. Even if somehow the rare occasion presents itself where there are two people from the group who own a car, the group would be forced to split up during the trip.

The obvious alternative in these kinds of situation, public transportation, is more time consuming and less convenient, but for me it makes the trip more fun and meaningful. By taking public transportation, we can explore the city as we are on our way, often discovering places that we would never have known about if we simply drove straight to the destination. Furthermore, because we have to figure out together what bus to take and where to get off and transfer, not only do we get to know our neighborhood better, but also get to bond and hang out through our journey by working together. We are also prone to fun surprises, unexpected encounters and spontaneous adventures. From my own experience so far, taking public transportation with a large group of friends is definitely more fun than taking an automobile for sure.

In summary, aside from the classic concerns about cars such as pollution, parking and financial burden, especially relevant for college students, it is also more socially undesirable to own one of them instead of enjoying the perks of their perfect alternatives that can be found in the Twin Cities. As a freshman at Macalester College who has never lived in the US before, I have already found enough reasons to dismiss the idea of buying a car. Therefore, I would also like to encourage all other college students, especially the ones who live in the Twin Cities and who can identify with my experiences, to reconsider their incentives to own a car.

Written by Isaac Liu. Isaac is a Macalester College student, class of 2019

Macalester Student Perspectives

About Macalester Student Perspectives

Contributing writers to this column were college students enrolled at Macalester College in Saint Paul. These posts were part of classes in the Environmental Studies, Geography, and Urban Studies Programs.

9 thoughts on “Car-free College Living

  1. Monte Castleman

    My sister went to Northwestern. And it’s true that if you were lucky enough to have a car, you were unlucky enough to be the designated driver every time a group of people wanted to go someplace (but never the designated driver to a bar since going there is strictly forbidden and students have been expelled for drinking or dancing). This applied both when students would want to go to their hometown for the weekend, or just out to Target or the buck theater.

    Students left a lot less often than I’d speculate they do at other colleges. The students going there tended to be in not for off-campus partying, and with mandatory chapel and college sponsored social activities and a focus on academics there was less time and reason to leave. Generally it only happened for a couple of hours on weekends to go catch a movie and get shopping done.

    There’s not a whole lot in that neighborhood to walk to, although the college itself has spread to the other sides of Lydia and Snelling, and a lot of students live off-campus in the cheap apartments on the other side of Snelling, so crossing Lydia is an issue.

    I also kind of doubt many of them would find it “fun” to have to haul shopping bags and be crammed on a slow, indirect bus with a bunch of strangers as opposed to going directly to their destination with a bunch of friends in a friends car. A lot of them have probably never used a bus and have no idea how to go about doing so.

    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      It doesn’t help that the bus route that serves Northwestern is rather frustrating to use. Want to go to Rosedale or downtown Minneapolis after class lets out at 3 PM and come back at 6 PM? Sorry, the bus only goes southbound at 6 PM, so there’s no way to get back to campus. The 225 route (and its pair, the 227 route) are not set up well at all during rush hour for anyone in between the endpoints, and Northwestern isn’t an endpoint.

      That being said, if the A Line was extended to that area, I’d imagine students would start using it more. A route that is frequent, relatively straight, and has a higher level of amenities would be much more appealing than the current low-amenity, frustrating-to-understand-and-use “Roseville Circulator” 225/227 routes.

      1. Monte Castleman

        It doesn’t look like it’s particularly easy to get to Target either, where everyone my sister knew did just about all of their shopping. They couldn’t afford and weren’t the type to go to typical Mall stores at Rosedale.

        I don’t doubt some students would ride the A-Line, but is displacing some of their currently carpool trips to Target worth it?

        1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

          That I’m not convinced of, and would probably not be worth doing 10-minute frequencies that far north at this time.

          That said, the 225 (and 227) routes could really use a bit of care to get them to be running both ways during rush hour, and maybe even have a bit longer service hours (end at 7-8 PM instead of 5-6 PM) and expand to Sunday service to make it a bit more viable of an option for students and other residents in that area (there’s some apartment complexes and businesses in the area, along with single-family residential households.)

  2. Joe

    Northwestern probably is harder without a car (though certainly not impossible), but anyone at the city schools (Augsburg, Mac, Metro State, St. Thomas, Concordia, Hamline, the U, St. Kate’s, MCTC, SPC, Luther, North Central, MCAD, etc.) could be car-free no problem.

  3. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, simply forbade students from having automobiles. (Don’t know if this is still the case.) That policy probably simplified matters for the administration, promoted a more uniform social level among students, and presumably encouraged greater focus on academic work. Aside from the automobile issue per se, I found the atmosphere stifling rather than stimulating. The town of Northfield is (or was), however, welcoming to and appreciative of students. Carleton liked to fancy itself “the Harvard of the Midwest,” but it’s a small school and Northfield is no Cambridge, Mass.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I went to St. Olaf, and I believe Carleton and St. Olaf have similar policies. In general, you need to have a good reason to have a car on-campus — such as an off-campus job, living far from home, etc. At St. Olaf, the designated student parking lot is about half a mile, down a significant hill, from the heart of the campus. Northfield also has extensive parking restrictions around the campuses that would make it hard to “hide” a car on-street.

      So not quite prohibiting, but it certainly makes it difficult for most. As a result, many do without cars. I didn’t have one at all until a year after I graduated.

    2. Betsey BuckheitBetsey Buckheit

      Carleton no longer has this policy and has built a substantial amount of student parking in the last 20 years to accommodate demand. Student cars must obtain a parking permit and are only permitted to park in certain lots, but are otherwise allowed.

    3. Nathanael

      I liked Carleton but they had no thought to how to provide public transportation for students to get off campus, so cars became essential, not daily but regularly.

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