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Opinion: New data from over 18,500 commuter students should inform campus decision makers

New Toronto survey demonstrates unique commuting challenges
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SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

A recent study for StudentMoveTO, led by investigators from four major GTA and Hamilton postsecondary schools — including U of T — indicated that 30 per cent of postsecondary students commute for more than two hours to get to campus and back, and a further 41 per cent indicated that commute times discouraged class attendance.

This survey highlights the challenges that commuting students face. Course selection is one of them, as the more spaced out your classes are, the more days you need to travel. Commuting is expensive, too: the survey shows that commuting costs average to $220 per month, with costs increasing as one moves farther from the major urban areas of Toronto and Hamilton.

Student groups and the university administration should prioritize commuters when making important decisions. We’ve seen in the past how ignoring commuting students puts them at risk, such as when classes went digital this past winter semester two weeks after the first documented COVID-19 case on the TTC, or when UTSG closed for a blizzard late into the afternoon in 2019.

With more than 18,500 postsecondary student participants, the StudentMoveTO survey is the largest survey ever done on student transportation. As such, it should inform important decision makers on campus about what commuter students go through to attend class.

Breaking down the numbers

The average one-way commute hovers around 46 minutes and covers a distance of 14.6 kilometres. Preferred mode of travel varied greatly with the duration of the commute: commuters who travelled by car or bicycle, or chose to walk, had a commute of approximately 30 minutes, whereas those who travelled by local or regional transit had significantly longer commute times. Regional transit, including GO transit, was the mode of travel for 60 per cent of all commuting students.

Furthermore, the survey indicated that 41 per cent of all students felt that the long hours of the commute discouraged them from coming to campus, and 46 per cent reported that they had to pick courses based on the commute. This could be why trips to campus decline throughout the week after Tuesday, as students might try to pick as many classes as they can within a single day.

The timings of commute support this theory as well: most commutes to campus occur from 7:00–10:00 am, and 39 per cent of all commutes from campus occur from 4:00–7:00 pm, indicating a tightly scheduled day.

With a compact schedule and full day of classes, it is perhaps not very surprising that 60 per cent of commuters blamed their commute for their disengagement in campus activities and events, and 31 per cent of all respondents believed that their commute was a hindrance to academic success. Another 48 per cent noted that the commute was a barrier to their co-curricular experience.

Research agrees: commuting isn’t ideal

These findings support the idea that the duration of one’s commute negatively correlates with their contentment and time spent with family and for leisure.

A 2004 study had respondents rate their mood while completing various daily activities and discovered that commuting was among the activities that received the highest negative scores. Research has established that commuters with long travel times face symptoms related to stress, such as headache, pain, and exhaustion, at a much higher rate than those with shorter commutes, which impacts not only mental health, but also the ability to engage in hobbies and spend time with families and friends.

The health impacts of commuting also depend on the mode of transportation used. A 2019 UK study found that work commutes via public transport were associated with higher rates of absenteeism and sleep deprivation. The researchers did find that people who utilize passive transportation, such as carpooling and public transport, have lower prevalence of mental illness compared to people who commute alone or drive.

However, the duration of the respective commutes was not specified in this study, which can serve as a confounding factor. Thus, if one has a choice, it is better to take part in active commuting. Active commuting, such as bicycling or walking to work, can help resolve the physical inactivity and obesity epidemic that we currently face.

How decision makers should view these results

In an email, Tyler Riches, Vice-President Public & University Affairs of the University of Toronto’s Students’ Union, claimed that students have always faced various barriers to academic success due to mental health, which has only become more obvious since the pandemic began.

He reiterated that even though there are multiple spaces present on campus, most are accessible to only a small population of the student body, leaving commuters with very few places to hang out at before and after classes or other activities.

He also added that the pandemic has only made the commute harder for postsecondary students attending in-person classes, as the risk and strain of commuting and attending classes is exacerbated by infrequent TTC service and limited access to safe, on-campus amenities.

These are some general considerations for commuter students that U of T’s administration should take into account when making decisions that affect an entire campus. But the buck doesn’t stop with awareness. There are several changes that need to be made to the current governing policies to better accommodate commuters.

All lectures and tutorials should be recorded and posted online after class to facilitate commuter students, as students can miss classes for reasons that are completely out of their control, such as when the TTC is unreliable.

Furthermore, first- and second-year mandatory courses should be offered at midday rather than the morning or evening so commuters do not have to travel at odd hours. If classes are spaced out and at reasonable hours, one can expect to see more involvement from commuters in extracurricular activities as well.

Ideally, the solution would be to have commuter-friendly policies as well as better transit infrastructure. However, it may take a while before we see any changes in the transit, so as a public university, it is the responsibility of the administration to take action.

Disclosure: Amna Noor is co-president of the Cell and Systems Biology Student Union and an administrative representative for the Victoria Off-Campus Association.