Cars for freshmen in the Stanford bubble

Opinion by Kirsten Mettler
Feb. 25, 2020, 11:45 p.m.

Over the past week, I have spent $156.43 on Ubers. I’ve also spent money on Zipcars, trains, buses and delivery. Over and over again, I find myself shelling out money and bending myself backwards to adapt to ridiculous schedules due to transportation constraints. 

Freshmen at Stanford are not allowed to have their cars on campus except under special circumstances. This is not unusual. Johns Hopkins, for instance, shares Stanford’s policy, and at Princeton, only juniors and seniors are allowed to have cars. Many universities use systems similar to Stanford’s, in which underclassman car use is limited and upperclassmen can have cars if they buy special passes. 

Stanford lays out a solid rationale for limiting freshman car use: It would not be possible for freshmen to have cars. They say that Stanford’s growth is limited by certain metrics under its General Use Permit, which therefore caps the number of cars on campus. Stanford specifically limits freshman car use because Stanford thinks freshmen will be the least impacted, as freshmen live on campus.

Institutions may also want to limit freshman cars for other reasons, although these reasons are not listed explicitly by Stanford. Safety is one such reason: As freshmen gain more freedom and take new risks, automobiles may facilitate risky behavior. Schools may also want to foster community by keeping freshmen on campus, perhaps a way of nudging students to make friends in their new environments.

I think these are all admirable and important goals, but there’s a problem here. Stanford is a bubble. If freshmen can’t have cars, what are they supposed to do? On campus, I can’t even get affordable groceries, let alone more niche goods. Want to get food with friends? You are limited to Panda Express, Subway or The Axe & Palm. Getting to the airport? Hopefully someone wants to split an Uber with you. Things to do on the weekend? There are no big movie theaters, bowling alleys or other “activity-centered” attractions on campus. So unless you are going to some kind of university event or a party, you have to go off campus for your entertainment as well.

Don’t get me wrong; the Stanford bubble is great in a lot of ways. It really makes Stanford feel like home to me. I run into people I know all the time, and it’s easy to bike around campus. However, Stanford’s campus is just a campus. It’s not a city school or even a college town school. Getting to Palo Alto is a trek, especially from west campus, and even when you get there, most of the businesses are expensive and bougie. 

Some may say to take the Marguerite. It’s free. However, it’s free and inconvenient. The online schedules are often unreliable, the Marguerite mainly just runs around campus and the run times don’t make a lot of sense for students who have classes all day. While the Marguerite is a great service to have, it doesn’t fill the need for more accessible transportation.

Not having a car on campus ends up being a concrete cost for students. Ubers and Zipcars add up, especially when you have to use them for basic things like buying shampoo. True, even if cars were allowed on campus, not all students would have one, but more freshmen would at least have friends with cars, increasing their accessibility to off-campus locations. As it stands now, freshmen are facing high costs and inconvenience by not having cars on campus. 

This doesn’t seem particularly fair. Why should freshmen bear all of the transportation burden? Freshmen and their wallets are already adjusting to a new life on campus. Why should transportation exist as another difficulty? It doesn’t seem right that one group of students should be so disproportionately affected by car policies. 

For better or for worse, Stanford has decided that freshmen cannot have cars, but with such an isolated campus something needs to change. Otherwise, freshman year is just hallmarked by ridiculous Uber bills for students.

In order to solve this transportation problem, freshmen would ideally be allowed to have cars on campus, but the University has listed sound reasons why letting freshmen have cars is unfeasible. Thus, perhaps the Marguerite could be improved to better satisfy student needs, or maybe the University could subsidize services like Zipcar. To me, it seems that the most valuable, although likely very expensive and time-intensive, solution would be to bring off-campus onto campus. For example, the University could build a movie theater or an affordable market on campus. 

Stanford is already limited in terms of space and construction, but some of these services could be integrated into existing campus space. I’m no city planner, but it seems that if Stanford were to bring a little civilization into the bubble, a lot of the current transportation issues would disappear. Additionally, students of all class levels would benefit by having accessible and alcohol-free activities and services. Student unions across the country have activities and stores accessible to students; take, for instance, University of Wisconsin, Madison which has pool tables and bowling alleys, or Cornell University which has a movie theater and TV rooms. Why are our options limited to a Panda Express?

Whatever the University decides to do, it’s important to address transportation issues for freshmen because, as it stands, the Stanford bubble is a challenging place to live without a car. 

Contact Kirsten Mettler at kmettler ‘at’

Kirsten Mettler '23 is an Executive Editor of The Stanford Daily. She is a former Managing Editor for Arts & Life and Desk Editor for News. Contact her at kmettler 'at'

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