Campus Micro-Commuting

Towards a Sustainable Campus

As an individual walks along a beach they leave a footprint, which is essentially a mark in the sand. As an institution, such as UW, goes through its life-cycle, it leaves a mark on nature. This mark is an "ecological footprint," and all to often its effect is detrimental to the natural environment. For a sustainable campus, the University of Waterloo must set a goal to reduce its ecological footprint.

In order to accomplish this the inputs, throughputs and outputs of the University must be evaluated and changed. It is no longer an acceptable practice to harm the earth with the belief that future generations, or advancements in technology, will "fix," our environmental problems. It is time to adopt the concept that we borrow the earth from our children and do not inherit it from our ancestors. A key idea behind this shift is that of sustainable development. That is, development that can go on infinitely without being detrimental to the natural environment. The University of Waterloo is an innovator and a leader. Therefore it is important that Waterloo take a position as a leader in environmental change throughout the world.


In North America there is a continually growing reliance on the automobile. When the twentieth century began, it was difficult to get from one city to another, or from a city to a rural centre by car. Instead one could depend on rails, and horse drawn carriages. In the 1990's it is difficult to get from a city to a rural centre without a car. This trend is growing. Highways dominate landscapes throughout North America. The Automobile has brought a sense of freedom to the people of North America, but it is a freedom that has had high cost. Each year cars emit millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into our environment through their exhaust systems. This is a major contributor to the warming of our planet. Millions of gallons of fossil fuels are burned in automobile engines. These fuels are a non-renewable resource. They have negative environmental effects ranging from: oil well spills and fires, to oil tanker ruptures which pollute waters and beaches and do harm to marine wildlife. Where roads exist often a storm sewer system is present. These sewers often take road runoff and put it directly in a watershed where it becomes groundwater. While water runs off the road it collects pollutants which are deposited in the soils, or go into lakes, rivers or the water table. Often they are absorbed by small plants and then work their way up the food chain, often ending up in humans. Clearly there is much evidence which demonstratrates that excessive automobile use is unsustainable (Flavin, 1996).

On the campus of the University of Waterloo (UW), we are observing the worldwide trend of reliance on the motor vehicle instead of the more environmentally friendly, and thus more sustainable practices of walking and bicycling. Our group has identified this continuing reliance on motor vehicles on campus as possibly being excessive. In fact, the number of faculty and staff on campus has declined in recent years. The number of students on-campus has also seen a slight decline as well. Despite these trends, there has been a need to expand the number of parking lots on campus to meet the increase in the number of cars on campus. We have devised a study based on the rationale that this reliance on motor vehicles can be reduced in order to sustain, and enhance, the campus ecology. Automobiles do have an impact on the campus. Sand and salt are necessary to keep the road surface in a driveable condition in the winter months. These substances run off the road when melting occurs and go straight into the local watershed. Emissions from the burning of fuels also cotribute to regional air pollution. Please click here to see a diagram of micro-commuting and some of its environmental problems.

A concern was raised by security and parking personnel with regard to the number of students who reside in the on-campus residences, drive to class and park in central-campus parking lots. Please click here to see a map of the campus, its residence and central-campus parking lots. We define these short trips as micro-commutes which are short trips on the campus, from residence parking lots to the central-campus parking lots.

This leads to the research question.

Research Question

Is unsustainable automobile use (i.e. micro-commuting) by students who reside in University of Waterloo on-Campus Residences occurring on campus?

Previous Studies at UW

There have been several studies previously done at UW that have been useful to us as background information:

University Transportation System, Project Study. This was a study of the University of Waterloo fleet. It concluded that there were some issues that made the fleet unsustainable, such as: Each department bought its own vehicles independently of other departments, so the fleet was quite large. Vehicles were often left idling, which is an inefficient use of fuel and causes unsustainable emissions. There was no central transportation co-ordinator for UW, so departments could be making overlapping trips, when only one was necessary. The group had several recommendations, some of which were: that vehicles be bought at the same time, that UW investigate natural gas or electric vehicles, and a central co-ordination office for the campus fleet be created. This study was important to our study because it gave us direction as to what to do next in terms of "on campus," transportation.

University Transportation Commission. This study examined a failed universal Kitchener Transit bus pass for UW students. It showed us that there is indeed some interest and some initiative to make transportation to UW more sustainable.

Transportation to and From Campus. This paper was useful because it identified the problem of people driving to campus from short distances. It found that approximately 30% of people driving to campus could have easily walked or biked. We believe that this study had problems with its statistical design. Therefore, we feel that the number that they came up with could be biased. They did highlight a problem area which others can follow up on.

Student Transportation on Campus

Who is Involved?

The main activity we are examining in order to complete our study is the on-campus transportation between the on-campus residences and the central-campus. Essentially there are three main modes of transportation between the residences and the central-campus, they are; walking, bicycling and, driving an automobile. We are focusing on the driving of automobiles between the aforementioned parking lots. Below is a list of the groups we must look at on-campus to complete our study.

The groups of people involved in automobile transportation on-campus are:

The individuals who drive their cars between the lots. We are excluding those people who are disabled because a vehicle may be their most feasible means of transportation. The way we will determine if they are disabled is by looking for a permit or sticker placed on the vehicle that indicates this.

Parking Authority. The UW parking authority is responsible for running all the parking lots at the university. They administer parking permits and run the visitor, coin, and metered lots. They are responsible for dictating when, where, and how much snow removal occurs. They are responsible for administering repairs as well.

The Campus Police enforce the parking and transportation regulations set by the parking services and University Administration.

UW Administration. This group is responsible for all policies on campus, including traffic and parking policies.

WATgreen. This group is a student, staff, and faculty group that assesses and recommends environmental initiatives and policies on campus. WATgreen may provide feedback and comments to the UW Administration, Parking Authorities, Campus Police, and may pressure those who drive from residence to class. We are part of the WATgreen actors as participants in ERS 285.

To view these interactions please click here.

The Campus as a Road and Parking Lot System

The color coded map of the campus clearly shows the residence parking lots and the central-campus parking lots. The central-campus lots are the ones we will be auditing for cars from the residence lots. The criteria to be evaluated is the amount of cars, driven from residence to in campus parking lots. The question which will then be asked is "is this an acceptable number, and why?" From there we will evaluate changes that can be made to the system. It is important to keep in mind that some cars will, out of necessity, be making these trips. The group we can specifically point out is those who are disabled because they should have a permit on their car that indicates this.

Study Objectives

The objectives of our study were:


Visual Audit

To park in a parking lot on-campus at UW, a driver must have a decal for that lot displayed on the windshield of their vehicle, or they must pay. To park in a residence parking lot a driver must have a decal that displays which residence the car comes from. Thus, to identify a car which comes from a residence one can simply look for a sticker on the windshield. Therefore, in order to identify micro-commuters a visual audit was conducted. The audit consisted of group members walking through each parking lot that students had access to and looking for windshield stickers that were from an on-campus residence. Each parking lot had its own audit form that had each residence's name on it. If a car was found, for example, in lot A from the Married Student Apartments a tally was placed beside Married Student Apartments on the lot A audit form. (It was important to identify which residence the vehicles came from because a trend may have been apparent and let us focus our recommendations. For instance, a number of cars come from Columbia Lake Townhouses. In this case, it was in the best interest to set up a separate recommendation as to how alleviate this specific problem.) For each lot the number of micro-commuters and which residence they came from was tallied up.

Originally, the study design included determining the extent to which weather is a factor influencing micro-commuting. To accomplish this weather data for each day was recorded. However, due to the short time in which the study was done there was not much variability in weather. Therefore, the temperature and weather description (i.e. cloudy) was included. The study was carried out as winter passed and spring commenced, so there is some indication of the influence of temperature on the study.

We chose to conduct the audit on March 18, 20, 24, 25, 26, 27, 1997. These were as many days as possible that twe could audite because of the time constraint of doing this study in one academic term. Also, the previous 2 weeks were used as a trial run to troubleshoot problems with the study. Since there are so many factors that make micro-commuting on-campus fluctuate. To be completely representitave of the term the audit should be carried out over the entire term, several days per week.

For the audits, all lots that students have access to were studied. Examining all the vehicles parked in the necessary lots would be a very time consuming procedure, so sampling was the most viable option. Therefore, we chose to audit portions of the lots, or clusters. Each cluster contained one quarter of the total parking spaces in each lot. This saved time and gave a fairly accurate sample of the number of micro-commuters in each lot. To arrive at the number of micro-commuters in each lot we simply multiplied the cars found which originated from the residences by four. (This is because there are four clusters per lot.)

The actual cluster shape of each lot had to reflect the fact that a driver will park as close to the campus buildings as possible. Therefore, the clusters for most lots were long strips that started at one end of each lot and stretched all the way across to the other end. (To view a diagram of this please click here.) This ensured that the clusters were as evenly distributed as possible. However, for lots located within the ring road a standard cross, dividing the lot into four, was used for cluster shape. This is because these lots were surrounded by buildings, so it is hard to tell exactly which building a driver would be travelling to. By doing this the clusters in these lots were evenly distributed. Please click here to view a campus map that contains each lot as it was clustered.

It should be noted that some of the parking lots on campus are quite small. These lots were not clustered and the entire lot was audited. The cars found in these lots were not multiplied by four to reflect the entire lot. Instead the number of cars was added to the number arrived at by multiplying the number of cars found by four.

In order to build some randomness into the study we chose audit times randomly by designating 2 hour time slots throughout the day. Starting from 8:30am and running to 6:30pm, for the daytime audit. For the evening audit one hour time slots were used starting at 7:00 pm and going to 10:00pm. The time slots chosen for both periods reflected the class scheduling at the University. To further build randomness into our study the clusters were numbered (1-4) and the cluster to be audited chosen using the random number table. The lots we audited, their capacities, and the cluster size for each lot can be seen in the following table by clicking here.

To view our Raw Data, please click here.

To view the limitations of the audit design, please click here.


There are a number of very useful, and interesting findings as a result of the on-campus parking lots audits. They are listed below.

Number of On Campus Commuters

The study showed that there is indeed micro-commuting on campus. The results of the study indicated that on average 101 of the cars that were audited in the central-campus parking lots, came from the on-campus residences. (This number has a standard deviation of 30.) In context, this number of micro-commuters is approxamately equal to the parking spaces available in the O or R lots, and is bigger than lots B1, ECH, D, W, ECEC, PAC, and Health & Safety. Some of these lots are constructed inside ring road and presumably the land could be put to other uses. This number represents is the number of micro-commuters that operate on-campus each day. Therefore, in order to get a more accurate breakdown of the actual number of micro-commutes per daytime and evening we must look at each (day and evening) audit seperately. The following graph shows the actual number of micro-commuters found per day. To see a table with a breakdown of day vs. evening please click here.

(The percent of the vehicles in the lots that were found to be micro-commuters is 2.7% This is arrived at by taking the number of micro-commuters found and dividing it by the number of cars sampled for each audit, then taking the average of the numbers. When this number is taken from the entire 5,515 parking spaces available at UW, the number of micro-commuters per day is 140.)

Day vs. Evening

The daytime audit results showed that, on average, 59 of the cars surveyed in the on-campus lots, originate from on-campus residences, with a standard deviation of 12. During the day the parking lots on campus are about 90% full. Hence there is less of an opportunity for someone to illegally enter a lot without a permit. Thus to micro-commute during the day one must have a permit or be willing to drive around the visitor, or parking meter lots until a space opens.

The findings of the evening audit showed that, on average, 42 of the cars in the on-campus lots, came from on-campus residences, with a standard deviation of 20. However, the number of students on campus each evening is much less than the number of students on campus during the day. In contrast, the number of micro-commuters does not drop much. The amount of cars parked in the lots drops significantly during the evening. So it is easier to micro-commute at night.

To see a table with these numbers please click here.

Weather as a Factor

The results of the audits showed weather to have some influence on micro-commuting. The first two days of the audit, March 18 and 20, had an average temperature below freezing. These two days had the second and third highest number of micro-commuters on campus with 130, and 128 respectively. The third coldest day had the highest number of micro-commuters. These numbers are much larger then the daily average of micro-commuters. The last day of our study, March 27, had the highest temperature of 18C and had the lowest number of micro commuters at 46, which is much less than the daily average.

To see a table of these numbers please click here.

Residence vs. Residence

There was significant variation with regard to the number of micro-commuters coming from each residence. The two residences which contribute the most people to micro-commuting were the Villages, with between 46% and 56% of all micro-commuters, and the Columbia Lake Townhouses, with between 28% and 38% of all micro commuters. Married Student Apartments contributes 1% to 11% and is the third highest contributor to micro-commuting. With respect to sustainability, the micro-commuters from the Villages and Colmbia Lake Townhouses, produce between 24 and 30 litres of Carbon Dioxode per trip to campus, based on the car being occupied by one person. Translated accross a 62 day academic term this is 1,488 to 1,860 litres of Carbon dioxide per term, per vehicle. To further see this impact, the walk from village to the middle of the campus is between five and ten minutes, and an average distance of 1.4 km to the largest permit parking lots. depending on which village the traveller originates from. From Columbia Lake to the middle of campus it is about a 25 minute walk, or a 2.4 km drive to the largest permit parking lots.

To see a table of these numbers please click here.


Micro-commuting is indeed occurring at the University of Waterloo and this is an unsustainable practice. There are various reasons for this happening however one thing is certain, it is not an environmentally friendly practice and must be stopped. There are several recommendations that will help alleviate this problem. The environmental degradation of our world is, among other things, due to the unsustainable use of the automobile. It is imperative for the survival of future generations that unsustainable use of our resources is eliminated. Starting locally will begin to help what is a global problem.

At UW, a significant portion of all micro-commuting occurs during evening hours. One reason for this is a perception that the campus is not safe or convenient for pedestrians. Improving the safety and showing that UW is indeed a walking campus must be made a priority if micro-commuting is going to be eliminated.

Weather is a major influence on micro-commuting at UW. With the weather being inclement for over half of the academic year it is imperative that something be done. The mindset that one must have their car on campus is unsustainable and it also leads to laziness. Something must be done to change this mindset before vehicle use starts to have dramatic cumulative effects on the campus and the region.

The most central of all residences at the University of Waterloo is the Villages. Over half of the micro-commuting on campus is committed by tenants of these residences. Something must be done to eliminate these car rides which are less than 2 km in distance and contribute tens of thousands of litres of carbon dioxide annually.

The University of Waterloo is consistently ranked among the top institutions in Canada, and is internationally recognized as a leader and an innovator. Driving from an on-campus residence, to a class on-campus can be described in one word, lazy. As a progressive university and an innovator, UW must take a stand and implement changes to prevent the continuation of this unsustainable practice. A university that prides itself on graduating innovative students must not let such an indolent practice continue.


The results of the visual audit showed that micro-commuting is indeed occurring on the campus of the University of Waterloo. Several steps are necessary to alleviate this problem and are listed below.

Prospects For Follow Up

This study has touched on a problem on campus and shown, to some extent, how bad that problem is. However, it is not a complete picture. This project presents future ERS students with many opportunities for follow up.

Please click here to view our acknowledgments.

To view our bibliography, please click here.

Last updated April 17, 1997, by ibp