Since classes for our Spring semester started just last Wednesday, my approach to the university this morning (from freeway exit to parking garage) involved a huge line of cars, creeping very slowly. It also involved campus police directing the movement of long lines of cars at what is, in normal circumstances, a four-way stop. It has been this way since last Wednesday, and it will continue to be this week for probably another week.
In about a week, as if by magic, campus police will no longer be needed to move the traffic, and the lines of cars at any given moment will be reduced by at least 50%.
Why, I wondered as I creeped up in the line toward the garage, does the getting-to-campus traffic always show such a sharp improvement about two weeks into the term? Do the two weeks of traffic hell persuade people to shift their commutes just a little bit earlier? To park in the remote lots, or to car pool, or to take the light rail?
Do the traffic-directing efforts of the campus police actually exacerbate the traffic problems?
Then the flash of understanding: In another week or so, a good portion of the students -- having secured permission codes to add the classes they really, really need to take to graduate (please!!!) -- will stop coming to class.
First week always made me glad I wasn't driving.
This happens at my university also and I still do not have a good explanation. The only one I could come up with is that everyone can park for free and without a parking pass the first week or so of class each semester without worrying about Parking Services writing tickets. Just like there, the traffic miraculously dissipates after a week.
In Lund, Sweden, most people do not drive, so there's no traffic jams to speak of. But you have a huge amount of people milling around everywhere the first week or two, then it suddenly calms down.
It is, as you say, a matter of settling down. A lot of people (especially new students) need to do the initial semester administrativia, first classes (with attendance taking, schedule and literature list distribution and group partitioning if applicable) are beeing held, other groups, associations and committees all hold their preliminary meetings. Many student associations hold orientations, get-to-know-each other fun and games and other such events.
Lecture halls and meeting rooms are booked to the rafters for all these activities.
Then, after two weeks, fairly exactly, things settle down and suddenly everybody has the normal staggered, not all that cramped schedule to contend with. And being academia, of course, nobody wants to book an early morning classroom (you'd have to get up early!) so each day starts a different time for everyone. There's still lots of people around, it's just that they aren't all coming and going at the same time anymore.
I agree with both your post and Janne's comment; it is a mixture of the large number of students who need to get their various administrative tasks out of the way and those who, after two weeks of class, lose their resolve to attend every single day.
That being said, it would be nice to figure out what the ratio is. It seems like there should be some way to adjust beginning-of-semester administrative hoops so that they can be jumped through at various points throughout the semester, rather than all at once, causing (in part) the huge traffic jams. But then, students would probably still get everything settled in those first two weeks, while they're still thinking about it.
I'm tempted to create a questionare for an ethical committe to begin sending it out to students to actually GET a ratio (correlative) to reflect on. I think it would make for a good social psychology paper.
The same effect occurs at my university, but the effect is felt in both student and administrative parking lots. At the beginning of the term, there are no places to park between 8:30 am and 3:30 pm, while by the end of the semester you can arrive at 10:30 and be likely to find parking near your building. I've noticed faculty & grad students almost never miss the first two weeks of class, but after that a certain number are away at meetings any given week.
Of course, right now parking is very easy. That could have something to do with the high temperatures hovering between -15 and -10 F though. Who wants to drive in that kind of cold? This time of year, everyone who can takes a bus (on campus or off).