Has UW changed from a traditional campus-based university to a commuter school?


Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many UW students — including myself — opted to live on campus. This was especially true for students living more than an hour away from Waterloo, such as those from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Being an hour’s car ride away from home (with complicated transit options for those without access to a car), living on or near campus seemed like the only option. 

But after the pandemic, many of my classes went online, so there was no need to be on campus. I simply continued classes in the comfort of my home. I officially returned to campus in person in the fall of 2022 and decided to commute because I would only be on campus twice a week.

Throughout my first year at UW, the bus route 30 from Bramalea GO to campus was almost always empty. But to my surprise, in that first week of September 2022, the bus was filled with students commuting to campus. During that first week, I spoke with a first-year student that I met at the Bramalea GO Station. While waiting for the bus, we discussed our programs, co-op, and commuting. They mentioned that they were not living on campus. I immediately responded, “You must have a decreased course load, then?” They said they did not. They were on campus five days a week with a full course load, yet chose to commute to Waterloo daily. When asked why, they explained that the cost of living away from home was too high, but they still wanted to study at UW and given the frequent transportation to the university, they decided to commute. They added that their friends were doing the same. 

A handful of my friends also began commuting after the pandemic. When I asked a friend (who lived on campus her first year and began commuting post-pandemic) why she made the switch, she explained that the frequent train and buses from Bramalea GO make it possible to commute and save on housing. 

A 2023 report for the Waterloo Region compiled from various data sources, including Statistics Canada, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), academic and media reports, and general conversations from within the community, indicated that the Waterloo Region grew twice as fast as the rest of Canada between 2021 and 2022 (3.8 per cent compared to 1.8 per cent). Moreover, the vacancy rate for units affordable to the bottom 20 per cent of renters in the region was zero per cent in 2022, suggesting a shortage of housing options for the lowest-income group in the region. 

The statistics from the report indicate that the Waterloo Region, post-pandemic, drastically grew in population, increasing the cost of living in general, which students at the university have felt the impact of. Given the increased cost of living, it seems reasonable to expect that some students may choose commuting over residing near the university.

Gurleen Kaur, who recently graduated from the accounting and financial management program, lived on and off campus throughout her undergraduate degree. Kaur was a co-op student and found it difficult to secure housing during her school terms, as she wanted to avoid dealing with the stress of subletting during the months she was away on co-op. “Finding affordable housing near the university is difficult, and living at home alleviates the many worries of renting, allowing me to focus on school rather than stressing about where to live and the increased costs of living alone,” she said. Consequently, Kaur decided to commute to school because it was less stressful and more affordable than renting. 

Glen Weppler, director of campus housing at UW, shared his insights with Imprint about the increasing costs of off-campus housing in recent years and the university’s proactive measures to address the challenges faced by students seeking off-campus accommodations. Drawing on his 25 years of experience in student housing across Ontario, Weppler highlighted the increased concerns from students about off-campus housing in the summer of 2022. The complaints during that period primarily revolved around issues such as housing availability, affordability, and landlords not acting in good faith (such as breaking leases). 

However, by 2023, complaints decreased significantly. Weppler talked about the pre-pandemic norm regarding housing. “Up until the pandemic, there was a normal cycle of how students would come and go throughout the university, including students subletting and then leaving after graduation,” he said. “But the pandemic interrupted that; students were no longer on campus, so landlords had to pivot.” 

He explained that landlords found alternative tenants that would not cycle out, including families or people working in the city, causing the student housing cycle to be disrupted. “In the summer of 2022, a lot of students were trying to find housing when landlords pivoted to other types of tenants. The decrease in complaints for summer 2023 is probably because the cycle started to re-establish,” Weppler said. This suggested that students were able to find housing that fit their needs again. He also highlighted UW’s efforts to support students: “The university has revamped their off-campus housing website. It has become conscious of promoting it, so students looking to live off-campus are provided with the help they need.”

Moreover, frequent lines from the GTA to Kitchener and Waterloo make getting to campus much more accessible than it once was and maintain the option of studying at UW for those who do not want to move away from home. Transit to and from UW became particularly more accessible since the beginning of 2022 with the opening of UW’s transit terminal beside E7, making it easier for students to catch buses travelling with the GRT, ION, and GO transit.

Metrolinx, a major inter-city travel service which runs the GO transit system, has continued to expand its service based on the needs of commuters post-pandemic, making it easier for people to get to Toronto, Waterloo Region, and Hamilton. There has been an increased demand for better Kitchener line service, a pattern further reflected by the insufficient flow of buses to and from the university, which causes students to be left behind. Metrolinx and other bus providers continue adjusting their services to meet increased demand. Along with adding service options and lines , Metrolinx has made transit more cost-efficient, as full-time post-secondary students currently receive 40 per cent off a single fare when they use their PRESTO card on any GO train or bus.

According to data from Metrolinx Media, “in November 2023, ridership at Kitchener GO Station averaged 1,759 riders per day. For comparison, Bramalea GO had an average of 6,492, and Brampton GO had an average of 4,520 riders daily.” The data indicates a high demand for transit services in Brampton compared to the Kitchener GO Station. Metrolinx also said, “Ridership has rebounded strongly in the Kitchener line market relative to other parts of the corridor. As part of our January 2024 service changes, there have also been increases to train lengths on some trips on the Kitchener line to accommodate growing ridership.” The adjustments reflect a dynamic approach to meet the changing needs of commuters, showcasing the commitment to providing efficient and responsive transportation for everyday riders.

Jonathan Chan, a UW alumnus and senior specialist on the innovations and partnerships management team at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, strongly believes housing is a multi-faceted challenge which demands a collaborative and comprehensive approach from all stakeholders. 

Drawing from his personal experience as a former Waterloo student, he reflected on the notable shifts in housing dynamics. “When I was in school, student housing was affordable, but back then, the quality of houses was also not the greatest,” he said. While Chan recognizes the need for affordable housing, he also emphasized the importance of students living in housing that meets their needs and is safe.

“Housing requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, and [Waterloo] as a region [does] a lot of collaboration because there is a willingness to solve housing problems residents face in the city.” His insights highlight the need for continued collaboration, innovative solutions, and a collective commitment to ensuring affordable and sustainable housing remains at the forefront of the region’s development agenda.