Often feeling overlooked, graduate students have been facing difficulties with parking and transportation that leave them in debt, stressed and late for classes.
Graduate student grievances include bus stops that are not handicap friendly, inconvenient bus schedules and the high cost of a Science Drive garage parking pass.
For Kristin Wainwright, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the School of Nursing, the transportation issue is particularly problematic because of her neurological disability.
Wainwright said it took her three years to obtain an ambulatory (AMB) permit despite having a permanent handicap plaque on her car. She continued to press for an AMB permit because she said she could not afford to Uber for the entire year. However, Wainwright noted that it can be impossible for some students to obtain the AMB permit because of the discouraging process.
“At the beginning of the year, when I’m trying to get [transportation] straight, it drives me to tears at least once or twice because it's just frustrating," Wainwright said. "It’s like I have to prove I’m disabled.”
When she was finally able to receive an AMB permit, Wainwright explained that she was still not guaranteed a handicap parking spot because the limited number of spots are often taken, including her reserved garage spot. She said she would see empty handicap spots near where she works but does not know how to gain access to them because they are behind closed gates.
Wainwright noted that Duke likely does not have a map of the AMB parking spots, and it has taken her years to find where open handicap and AMB parking spots are located.
Additionally, Wainwright described the bus system as not accommodating to those with disabilities because there are no benches or coverings for the Bassett-Research (PR1) bus stops.
“Part of my disability is heat sensitivity, so my first semester—after waiting for a bus in 90-degree weather and having complete exacerbation of my symptoms and not being able to walk—I tried [the buses],” Wainwright said.
Ceri Weber, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in cell biology, said that the bus system tends to revolve around the undergraduate schedule, so there are limited bus options on academic holidays and during the summer when graduate students are still expected to work. The PR1 and C3 buses also only arrive every half hour and often overlap, so if she misses the bus, she has a choice of waiting another 30 minutes or walking 20 minutes to the garage.
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Stephanie Stefanski, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment, spent her second and third year at Duke attempting to use the bus system to commute. She said there were many times she was almost late to a class or meeting because the bus would skip her stop in the morning or run infrequently.
She added that during the summer and holidays, a five-to-10-minute bus commute could become a 30-to-40-minute ordeal.
“It feels that we are often treated as employees in every sense except the ability to reliably and safely access campus,” Stefanski wrote in an email.
Because the PR1 stops running at 8:30 p.m., Weber explained that short bus hours can also lead to safety issues because students have to walk in the dark to get to their parking garage. Weber said that she parks in the Hock Plaza garage because it's close to where she works. However, she often does not walk by herself to the garage due to safety concerns.
Additionally, the LaSalle Loop bus does not run on the weekends, so Weber said getting to work on the weekends is particularly difficult.
“I think a lot of people are upset because when there’s traffic and you miss the bus—you’re only living a few miles from campus—and these turn into 45-minute commutes,” Weber said. “You miss meetings and you’re late to classes. It’s an unnecessarily stressful part of the day.”
Both Weber and Stefanski acknowledge that Duke encourages bikeshare and carpooling. However, as graduate students with vastly varying hours, Weber said coordinating schedules can be nearly impossible.
Although Stefanski said she had tried biking to campus, the lack of bike lanes and the number of blind turns, led her to decide bicycling was not worth the risk. Wainwright also said that because the streets are not well-lit and do not have a bike lane, she is terrified to bike around campus.
Additionally, Weber said that though she has not used the Duke Vans service, she knows of students who were dropped off at the edge of campus because the service would not take them to their nearby apartment.
Stefanski questioned whether Duke was keeping up with the burgeoning graduate student population.
“I believe the ever-growing size of current and incoming professional and graduate-level student classes has outgrown the resources available to reliably transport students between home and campus,” she wrote.
The Science Drive parking garage costs $459 per year for graduate students, whereas parking on East Campus costs $195.
Weber explained that because there is no payment plan, graduate students have to pay off their bursar account before they register for the next semester. Therefore, students have to pay the entire cost in the space of two months. Wainwright noted that many nursing students do not receive their stipend until after the permit fee is due.
“That is like the cost of rent—like two of my car payments, two of my student loan payments—that is a lot of money for us to pay at once,” Weber said. “We’re paying a lot of money to be in lots that are really far away, that don’t have regular buses, that we can’t use on weekends or game nights—and the parking office isn’t working to make that easier on us.”
Employee payment plans have not been made available to graduate students, Weber noted, but she said they would alleviate most of the burden. Paying $40 a month is a much more affordable payment plan, particularly for graduate students, she explained.
Prior to the opening of the Science Drive garage in late 2016, graduate students had to park on East Campus and would be placed on the Circuit Drive garage wait list for four to five years, according to Weber.
When Science Drive opened, she explained that students on the Circuit Drive waitlist were able to obtain Science Drive permits, and those who were on the Circuit Drive waitlist for longer than three years were put on the Hock garage waitlist, Weber explained.
Although the Science Drive garage is closer and more convenient than East, Weber noted that there are still issues with the garage. She described fifteen minute traffic jams going into the Science Drive garage in the morning and called it "chaos."
According to Madelyn Tarr, a third-year student in the School of Law, law students would normally park in the Green Lot for $179, and third-year law students could park in the Chemistry Lot close to the Law School. However, Tarr said that law students were forced to park in the Science Drive garage this year.
"I now pay about $300 more to park in a more crowded parking garage where I often have to circle for a parking spot. I have to add five to 10 extra minutes to my commute which is only seven minutes to begin with," Tarr wrote in an email.
Fixing the problem
Weber said she felt that the parking office does not consider the fact that graduate students have to commute between meetings, work, classes and research.
“We would need to have collaborations… to find out what the issues are together and to think of creative solutions,” Wainwright said.
For example, instituting a payment plan must occur to help lessen the burden of cost, Weber said. She emphasized that this change must happen now because there students are currently blocked from registration due to debt.
Carl DePinto, director of Parking and Transportation Services, wrote in a statement that the department does not have flexibility in terms of payment because billing is handled by the bursar's office.
Weber also mentioned that minor changes, such as amending bus times and routes, could make a considerable difference. She expressed that she would like the LaSalle Loop to run on the weekends and for the PR1 and C3 to not overlap. She noted that certain changes could be piloted in order to test new times and routes.
Stefanski said that increasing bus availability during the weekends and summers when graduate students still have to work would also lower the number of cars on campus.
DePinto noted that the transit times are based on an academic schedule and the routes are based on volume, the reason for limited service on holidays.
"We also review all bus stops annually to assess needs for new stops or structures based the allocation of students in a specific area. We work with Facilities Management to create new bus stops or structures for existing locations if needed," DePinto wrote. According to an article in DukeToday, Duke last amended bus routes in Fall 2016.
Because many graduate students live off campus in areas not served by Duke’s buses and are looking to start families, Stefanski said that graduate students should be given more flexibility in terms of parking options. She explained that many students need easy access to their lab to transport equipment or have tight schedules, but current transportation options are not accommodating.
“A parking permit system that allows Ph.D. students to park close to their labs and advisors would also enhance the quality of life for these students,” Stefanski wrote.
Weber said that she wished people were aware of the transportation issue and that student parking is given more priority. She said that undergraduate students also have overlapping issues with parking, and it is important for undergraduates and graduates to work together in order to be heard.
DePinto stated that the department invites student input, and the Duke Transportation Advisory Committee—comprised of undergraduate and graduate students—helps them identify issues.
However, on the issue of the new lot and increased prices, Tarr wrote, "I tried to call and complain, I’ve sent emails, my friends have tried to contact the parking office, but not one of us received any response."
Weber explained that having a permit in Hock has made her life much easier because she does not have to budget in an extra half-hour of commute, spots are always open and she does not have to worry about buses. On the other hand, Wainwright said that she is looking for parking four days a week. Both students admitted being late to class due to parking issues.
Wainwright noted that, with chronic illness management, being able to mitigate the little things such as transportation can make an appreciable difference because those little challenges add up throughout the day.
“I’m really just excited to have people listen and work to create solution," Weber said. "It’s a really sort of trivial thing—just to have an easier day—but it really means a lot because graduate student life is stressful."