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Columns

To Pop the Harvard Bubble, the College Must Subsidize Students’ Public Transportation

By Shunella Grace Lumas
By Jonah S. Berger, Contributing Opinion Writer
Jonah S. Berger ’21, a former Associate News editor, is an Economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

Every Harvard student has probably been warned about the “Harvard bubble,” the tendency to lose awareness of the outside world during their four years on campus.

That bubble often takes on the form of a physical boundary, trapping students for weeks at a time within campus limits. The reasons for this immobility are numerous, with campus obligations being an obvious one.

But almost any undergraduate would also tell you that the costs and difficulties of transportation factor in. For stingy college students, spending nearly $5 on the T or $30 for Uber rides to and from downtown Boston can be the difference between venturing out on a Saturday night and staying in Harvard Square.

Administrators seem to understand how important it is for students to leave campus regularly to explore; the College’s own website includes first-hand testimony from a current student, Marilynn Miguel ’23 touting the benefits of “leaving the Harvard bubble.” Miguel writes eloquently about how her outings to Chinatown and Haymarket helped bring back memories of home.

Yet Harvard does virtually nothing to promote or enable that type of exploration.

Its shuttle system is mostly limited to within-campus movement. Some students can receive a modest MBTA discount, but only when buying a semester-long pass, which costs hundreds of dollars. Harvard’s partnership with Zipcar provides a slight discount, but trips can still be prohibitively expensive.

And the M2 shuttle, the closest thing College students currently have to free transportation off-campus, runs only twice an hour and not late enough into the evening for college sleep schedules. The M2 — which stops in Central and Kendall Squares on its way to the Medical School in Longwood — is often painfully slow during rush hour and doesn’t even get within a mile of Boston Common and many other downtown attractions.

What Harvard students need is a convenient, cheap, and easy way to get around the Boston area, whether to eat, party, or just explore:

Attending political protests in Boston Common or the State House. Experiencing the culinary and cultural diversity of Boston. Taking in Boston’s rich history through the Freedom Trail, abolitionist sites, or Faneuil Hall. Meeting students from other schools in the area. Visiting the Boston Public Library. Volunteering around the city.

A truly fulfilling college experience for many students in the Boston area means exploring one or all of these.

And that exploration could even extend beyond just downtown Boston. Harvard maintains its own 281-acre preserve, the Arnold Arboretum, which could offer a mental and physical respite from classwork to countless students if it were easily accessible.

Yet currently, few are able to take advantage because getting there requires close to an hour of travel on a bus and a subway. Driving there directly takes just over 20 minutes, on the other hand, meaning that if Harvard stepped in and provided a free shuttle (or reimbursed students’ Uber rides), many more would be able to easily and regularly visit.

It’s not as if Harvard doesn’t have a model to follow to make transportation easier for students. For decades, students at colleges across the country have been able to travel on public transportation free of cost. At the University of Pittsburgh, for example, students receive free unlimited rides on any subway or bus line in the city, as do University of Texas students.

In fact, an arrangement between dozens of schools and local transit agencies across the nation, called Unlimited Access, has provided more than 800,000 university affiliates with fare-free service as of 2001. The average cost of Unlimited Access for the universities was just $30 per student per year, a figure that would likely be even lower for a school like Harvard without student commuters.

At the end of the day, Harvard must decide whether it wants to help students pop the bubble the University itself helps create, or continue to deny them ample, affordable transportation options.

Sitting in the middle of a vibrant metropolitan area teeming with history, culture, and attractions, Harvard students would benefit immensely from being better connected to their environs. Harvard itself needs to start showing its nearly 400-year-old hometown a bit more appreciation, whether that’s paying its fair share of taxes or not producing rapid gentrification in Allston.

The University can start by giving students the ability to develop a love for the Boston area and a desire to stay here and make it better, rather than seeing the city through a purely transactional lens.

The only question left is: What is Harvard waiting for?

Jonah S. Berger ’21, a former Associate News editor, is an Economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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