College Blind Spot: Addressing Van Driver Availability

Mairo Yamano // The Phoenix

As the Swarthmore COVID bubble continues to deflate, students, clubs, club sports, and other organizations are ramping travel back up to pre-pandemic rates. This travel is, of course, often facilitated by students who hold van driver certifications. To become certified, students must complete a rigorous driver certification process consisting of a driver safety webinar series, a motor vehicle record (MVR) check, and a road test administered through Public Safety. 

Swarthmore’s system of providing transportation for student groups is wholly dependent upon van-certified student drivers. This arrangement and lack of student availability is the cause of many planning and scheduling issues faced by clubs and organizations when planning off campus trips.

Albeit, the 2022-23 academic year features beneficial updates to Swarthmore’s shared vehicle fleet. Currently, there are ten vehicles total, including five-passenger Honda HR-V and Nissan Rogue crossover SUVs, seven-passenger Toyota Sienna Hybrid minivans, and larger ten-passenger Ford Transit vans, all available to reserve by certified drivers. A road test with Public Safety is required for students who wish to drive the larger transit vans. The expanded variety in vehicle types aims to provide appropriate-sized transportation to students, while also supporting the college’s sustainability and carbon neutrality goals with the increase in hybrid vehicles and improved fuel efficiency.

Swarthmore also lies ahead of the Tri-Co community with its fleet management and vehicle offerings for clubs and organizations. Although Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College have similar driver certification processes, both colleges have fewer owned vans and vehicles to choose from, shorter distances that the vehicles are permitted to travel, and Bryn Mawr requires payment for the rental (not including compensation to the driver).

At Swarthmore, the difficulty lies not before or during the driver certification process, but rather in attracting van-certified students to accept trips to transport students to activities. Once students are certified drivers, Public Safety places them on a list shared with clubs and organizations across campus. The current protocol is for club leaders to send emails to this list of authorized drivers whenever they have a game, event, or activity requiring transportation. Then, it becomes a waiting game. Sometimes, if a van driver is available on the day of the trip, they can help the club or organization. However, this is unfortunately not always the case. As academic responsibilities pick up at the height of the semester, it is becoming increasingly difficult for van-certified students to dedicate an entire day, often a Saturday or Sunday, to assist with a trip. To make this shortage of available drivers worse, if clubs or organizations do not have funds approved by the Student Budgeting Committee (SBC) for transportation, they cannot even offer to pay van-certified students for their time. The only form of incentive some clubs and organizations may offer is inclusion in the activity they are being transported to, such as a complimentary ticket to a sporting event.

At that point, if students are not able to find a generous enough van driver to transport them to an activity, they must either cancel or postpone the trip, causing a scheduling nightmare for busy students. Swarthmore’s proposed solution to this problem is encouraging club leadership to sponsor members of their organization to obtain a van certification to then be able to transport members to activities. Although this advice is marginally beneficial, the fact remains that not all students are eligible to become certified based on the length of their driving history, which must be at least two years. There are also significant trends at play making it evident that Gen Z is waiting longer and longer to receive their driver’s license, which was further exacerbated by the pandemic. As many activities take place in nearby Philadelphia, students might also feel uncomfortable driving large passenger vans in tight city environments, which may jeopardize the safety of themselves and others. 

In the event that clubs cannot certify their members or find a random van-certified student to drive, Swarthmore should step in to provide clubs with a college employee to transport students to and from the activity. Not only would this failsafe provide club leaders and members with peace of mind, but it will also ensure that the individual transporting students is always compensated. When college employees operate vans, they will receive compensation, which will alleviate the need for students to accept unpaid trips, especially given that students accept these trips much less willingly. Van-certified students should not feel obligated to volunteer their valuable time to support the transportation needs of a club they are unaffiliated with. 

The travel needs of a consistently growing student population will only continue to increase. The issue does not primarily concern a shortage of van-certified students. The problem largely regards the availability of students to commit entire days to transport other students. Therefore, the college should step up and support clubs as a last resort, be that in the form of booking ride-sharing vehicles, external professional van services, or assigning an internal shuttle driver. Only then will transportation needs be adequately met on campus.

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