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The politics of getting around campus

At the University of Georgia, students join the SUV debate

By Lila King

Sport-utility vehicles fill campus parking lots.
Sport-utility vehicles fill campus parking lots.

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Editor's note: As part of our coverage of the 2004 election season, is sending correspondents to the colleges where they studied to report on issues affecting today's young voters. In this edition, Lila King returns to her alma mater, the University of Georgia.

ATHENS, Georgia (CNN) -- Scan any parking lot at the University of Georgia and you're likely to learn two things about the school's student body: They like their cars red, and they like them big. Sport-utility vehicles in red and black -- the school's signature colors -- line the campus streets like ants at a picnic.

Students like the big cars for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is simply that they are large.

"[There's] more room for a party, people to put in there, space for coolers. [It's] great for road trips," Richard Henry, a senior business major at UGA from Atlanta, says of his Lexus SUV.

But their sheer size and visibility make SUVs targets for complaints around campus. SUVs get blamed for worsening traffic, guzzling gas, and endangering bike riders who have to share the road with them.

The way people get around campus at the university, known to everyone as UGA, is a polarizing issue. Transportation politics pit SUV drivers against bike riders, convenience against the environment. It's an issue that provokes heated debate and strong opinions. Going into an election year, many students relate the way they get around to national politics.

"I think it totally influences my vote," says Kenshata Watkins, a senior from Rome, Georgia, who rides her bike around campus. "I'm all for alternative ways to find fuel or to create new things that don't run off oil."

Some students even go as far as linking large vehicles to the war in Iraq, arguing that the big cars' fuel tanks increase the United States' dependence on foreign oil.

Vandals strike fraternity parking lot

Anti-SUV sentiment on campus came to a head September 30 when vandals sneaked into a fraternity house parking lot and scratched up several SUVs. Members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon awoke to find broken windows and the word "no" scratched in big capital letters on many of the SUVs parked outside.

Robert Gardner's Ford Explorer had "no" etched into its front windshield. Gardner, a sophomore from Memphis, Tennessee, was upset because driving an SUV for him isn't so much a personal choice as a matter of financial circumstance.

"It's just what my parents gave me," he said. The politics of SUV driving don't really concern him. "As far as gas mileage, I could care less to tell you the truth. As long as I have gas, that's my only concern."

Police say they are still investigating the cause of the incident, but some students think the vandals were making a political statement.

John Waters, a freshman from Peachtree City, Georgia, who also drives an SUV, thinks the attack was the wrong way to deliver a message.

"It's a coward's way to get your point across," says Waters. "If you're against SUVs, and you're worried about the environment, the way to make change is to do it the proper way. Don't go destroy someone's property. We have a fairly efficient political system in this country. People can have an influence."

Driving on peanuts?

Vandals scratched the word
Vandals scratched the word "no" into the windshield of this Jeep Cherokee.

Christopher Ingham, on the other hand, says he doesn't condone ecoterrorism, but believes "Sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do." Ingham is a junior from Augusta, Georgia, who tools around campus on a 1980 Vespa scooter that he's trying to modify so that it will run on biodiesel fuel.

Biodiesel is any processed vegetable or animal oil that can be used as a fuel for a diesel engine. University professor John Goodrum is working with students to make it a viable fuel for transportation. "Chicken fat makes a great biodiesel," he says. "So does peanut oil, canola, and even restaurant grease."

As the world's petroleum resources grow thin, Goodrum says, the world will have to look for alternative fuels. Renewable, biodegradable and efficient biodiesel may be one of the more promising options.

'Band Aid solution'

One student group approaches the SUV debate from a very oblique angle -- by addressing reliance on the automobile from the viewpoint of urban planning. Made up mostly of landscape architecture students, the Students for New Urbanism advocate a model for cities that includes walkable, human-scale development that lessens the need for cars.

"I personally feel like the alternative fuel vehicle is a patch, a Band Aid solution to a larger problem," says Jacob Lindsey, the club's vice president. "It is the automobile itself that creates mobility and many of the social inequities we have in the United States." At a recent meeting of the club, over half of the attendees arrived on foot or by bicycle.

In the end, the student debate over SUVs is a balancing act of environmental concerns and individual rights. As freshman John Waters puts it, "We all have to live here. But if people are willing to pay $60 to fill up their tank, they should be able to do so."

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