U-Pass: A gift to students or evidence of a 'nanny state'? - Macleans.ca

U-Pass: A gift to students or evidence of a ‘nanny state’?

At a cost of $20-million, the UPass is no longer about post-secondary affordability


When British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell announced the creation of a universal $30/month transit pass for all post-secondary students in the province yesterday, the Canadian Federation of Students applauded the move.

“The U-Pass is an investment in the next generation, in the economy and the environment,” Nimmi Takkar, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students–BC was quoted as saying in a press release. “This program is going to make a major difference in students’ lives and go a long way towards building a transit culture in British Columbia.”

Just as fast as the CFS media machine cranked out its press release, opponents to the move started decrying the U-Pass announcement as a draconian, paternalistic move typical of our “nanny state.” One reader who responded to On Campus’s news story argued that “students are forced to pay whether they ride the bus or not” despite Translink’s “crappy” service, and who the hell are you anyways to tell me I shouldn’t drive my car?!

Such critics are right about one thing: the policy is not so much allowing students to “access” affordable transportation as it is compelling them to buy in. Nevertheless, none of the schools will sign on until the U-Pass is approved through a student referendum. Although I’m sure it’s annoying for car-loving, suburb-dwelling students out there to be outnumbered by their more green-conscience colleagues, that’s how our democratic society works–so live with it.

The U-Pass isn’t a new idea, but this announcement marks an interesting deviation from the original intent of the program that is worth noting. Originally, the program was intended to be revenue-neutral; basically, Translink would add up its cost of providing transit to a campus then split that cost among the students of that school, regardless of whether they took the bus or not. Translink didn’t make any money off the deal, but they didn’t lose any either. In essence, non-transit-using students subsidized the cost of a transit pass for everyone else. This is why negotiations for U-Passes at other colleges and universities in the Lower Mainland broke down; while the economics of the program made sense at big schools like UBC and SFU, the cost per student was significantly higher elsewhere, and student unions there wouldn’t accept the higher cost.

And so yesterday’s announcement represents a major shift in the philosophy of the project. The $30/month U-Pass is set to cost the provincial government some $20 million. No longer is this a revenue-neutral feel-good program, but a significantly expensive one. And, if this is truly about lowering expenses for students, it’s worth considering whether that $20 million would be better spent on, say, provincial needs-based grants.

But that argument is moot. Because the reality is that the U-Pass program is no longer about affordability, if it ever was, but about promoting a shift towards the “transit culture” Takkar refers to in the CFS release. Using economic means to push people into making more environmentally-friendly choices is par for the course here in B.C., where the country’s first carbon tax was implemented and where car-drivers have long subsidized transit through Translink’s gas tax.

My point is that this program should be recognized for what it is, rather than congratulating ourselves for supporting broke students. And that’s where The Province newspaper hits the nail on the head: “But why should students be singled out? Why is a 19-year-old university student any more worthy of government support than another 19-year-old starting out in life in a job? If the aim is to promote post-secondary education, a more direct way is to further subsidize tuition.”

If we accept the notion that the U-Pass isn’t the best way to subsidize post-secondary education, then the question becomes: is it fair to force students to purchase transit passes that they may not use in the name of promoting transit? Is it appropriate for universities to administer a fee that is fundamentally driven by the desire to shift society?

I don’t have the answer to those questions. But, for the record, I rode my bike to the office today in the rain.


U-Pass: A gift to students or evidence of a ‘nanny state’?

  1. Looking at subsidizing post-secondary access to public transit in terms of several benefits isn’t a bad thing. Just because there is more than one plausible benefit other than easing student financial burden isn’t a particularly good reason to rally against the program. Is this the most direct way of aiding the financial burden of students? No… but it *is* a benefit to a large number of students, and if this type of investment has the side benefit of aiding in the further development of transit infrastructure while *also* being a benefit to students, than I would see that as being more “bang-for-the-buck.”

    It is also incorrect to suggest that a 19 year old entering directly into the work force does not have access to some sort of subsidy from TransLink for buying a bus pass. Currently TransLink offers the Employer Pass program which provides a discount to businesses where 25 or more employees sign on to the program. Much like student associations in the past where they had to deal directly with TransLink and then have the membership approve before they sign on to the program… funny how similar those two things actually are (except in size).

  2. Benjamin, subsidizing student access to public transit is fine, as long as the people doing the subsidizing can AFFORD it. But why should your equally starving student classmates who live in residence, or live within walking distance of school, have to pay $200 a school year so that you can get a cheap bus pass?

    When this program first came in, I was taking ONE course per term at Capilano University, which is 10 minutes from my house. I was levied $138 per term on my fees. That was a 40% increase on the cost of going to school there!!

    If you think student bus passes should be subsidized by someone, let it be someone who really deserves to have to pay. Raise tax on gas-guzzling automobiles to pay for it. Tax the oil companies. Or just plain demand the the government lower the prices on passes because we’ve paid enough tax already that we should be entitled to better service. Don’t squeeze your fellow students.

    The precedent set by this is alarming. If students can vote by majority rule to impose any old charge on their classmates, regardless of how high, then where does it end? To heck with transit. That’s not THAT environmentally friendly. How ’bout if the students of UBC just band together and make a deal with a bicycle manufacturer to provide a top-of-the-line bike to every student in exchange for a $300 levy on their student fee? You live to far away from school to bike? Oh well then, I guess you’re not very environmentally conscious and you deserve to have to pay for other people.

    I mean, come on. This is just silly. As anybody who is remotely familiar with Vancouver knows, where you live has little to do with how environmentally conscious you are. It has everything to do with how expensive it is to live here. If your classmates are too broke to live near good bus service, milking them for another $200 a year sure isn’t going to help matters, and it’s not going to do a thing for the environment.

  3. I have to disagree with your claim that the U-Pass is not about helping broke students. I do think that buying into the U-Pass should not be mandatory, though.

    As a student that is too broke to ever afford a car while going to school, I depend on my U-Pass for EVERYTHING. It is a huge deal for me to get a U-Pass for $70 a term (I go to UVic) instead of having to buy an adult pass for more than $80 a month. To be honest, my finances are stretched so thin that I have no idea how I would make ends meet without that U-Pass to get me to school and work.

    Students that are wealthy enough to not only afford a car but the insurance and gas costs that come with it need to seriously rethink their priorities if they’re complaining about the cost of the U-Pass. As long as you have it, you might as well save on gas and take the bus once in a while.

    As for the desire to shift society away from a car-based culture, I think it really is a worthy goal. Not just for the environment, but because cities with a strong pedestrian and transit culture are more pleasant to live in. As someone who was raised in a car-based city carved up by lots of busy streets that prevented us kids from being able to walk or bike to our friends’ houses, moving away from a car-focused infrastructure is very important to me. It promotes a more positive urban culture, and I think it’s completely justified for universities to be supporting that.

  4. Well, I’m a broke student, and it’s not helping me to have to buy half your bus pass for you. I just about cried the first time I saw that on my student fees. How do you think you’ll feel if, next term, UVic students decide to bill you $100 for some nice potted plants or some other environmentally friendly item that is completely useless to you?

    You know why I have a car? Here’s the simple math:

    My car costs me an absolute maximum of $3000 a year.
    My rent costs me $6000 a year

    If I move to to the city, my rent will cost me an absolute MINIMUM of $9600 a year. ie: more than what it costs to live here and have a car. If I’m in a suite that’s near a bus stop, you can bet it will be higher.

    I left the city precisely because of this. Trust me, the last thing on earth I really feel like doing is hanging out here in the burbs where you can’t find a coffee shop open after 8pm.

    You want me to be environmentally responsible? Build a transit system that gets me where I need to go without adding 90 minutes to my commute. THEN come and talk to me about riding the bus.

  5. Pingback: The Scoop: Our campus media opinion roundtable | News

  6. Kris, let me provide another illustration of why mandatory U-Pass can be very unfair. I live in Ottawa, as a grad student, in a relatively central area near the campus and my off-campus lab. I go to campus maybe twice a week to teach a lab, or take a course, and the rest of the time go to the off-campus facility to do my research. I generally walk to campus, when I need to go there, which takes me about 30 minutes. I walk everywhere–the school, work, grocery store, church, whatever. I don’t own a car, and take the bus maybe once a month on average to see relatives that live on the far side of town. So, my total transit bill is maybe $10/semester and my carbon footprint is effectively zero. The University has just implemented a grad student U-Pass that runs at over $200 per semester. So for a bus pass that I might get $20 usage out of, I’ll be paying over $400. At this rate, it’s probably worth my while to move farther away so that I pay less in rent, give up on walking and take the bus everywhere instead.

    And here’s the real problem: the reason U-Pass works is because of people like me. They know that there are going to be some people who will use the pass far more than they get in cost recovery, but figure that the poor suckers who don’t use the pass will make up the difference. You will never see a non-mandatory U-Pass for precisely this reason; it relies students who don’t use the pass to subsidize those that overuse it. What’s particularly disheartening is how easily the beneficiaries of the U-Pass are willing to throw their fellow students under the bus (so to speak) because it benefits them personally to do so.

  7. I am a transit user, and would have loved to be able to get a U-pass and pay a fraction of the cost of transit service. However, I do NOT think that it’s fair that students who are unable to use transit have to pay for my subsidy.

    While I know many students who just prefer to drive (when I look at 2+ transfers, 1/2 hour wait times between transfers, having to stand for 1/4 of my trip because the bus is packed tight in rush hour, sitting in the questionably clean and stinky c-train, in Calgary’s warm and balmy winters, and a bus ride that is 2 hours long vs. a 25 minute ride in the car, I don’t blame them at ALL – but all of that has a lot more to do with transit, than the UPass) I also know many students who either live out of range for transit use, or who were lucky enough to actually find a job after classes, or who have young children who go to daycare.. or… or… or… for whom transit use just isn’t feasible. Considering three of the five major post-secondary institutions are located in areas where housing is out of the financial range of the average student, and secondary suites are facing a slow death on the steps of city council, the idea of “well move closer” just doesn’t work here any better than it does in Vancouver.

    Indeed – why is the government only trying to create this social shift in one small group of our population? Here in Alberta we have the lowest PSE involvement rate in the country – so why are students here also being used in this social experiment?

  8. ““The U-Pass is an investment in the next generation, in the economy and the environment,” Nimmi Takkar, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students–BC”

    An all too typical CFS stance—We know what’s best for you and you WILL pay for it!

  9. @ABarlow: Think about the number of students who are currently buying into the UPass program at UBC – it’s been there since 2003. According to an ’05 report, over 90% of students intend to use their UPass in one way or another (http://www.upass.ubc.ca/research/pdf/U-Pass_Review_Final_Report.pdf). With such strong numbers, why shouldn’t this program benefit the mass majority?

  10. I note that, according to that report, only 71% used the pass often enough to justify its cost. One needs to ride transit over 15 times a month in order for the pass to pay for itself.

    Thus, a full 30% of UBC students are subsidizing the other 70%.

    That said, who cares if it’s even 1 person who is not getting the benefit? If that person is placed in a situation of financial hardship, you are still screwing a fellow student for no good reason.

    People who drive don’t expect you to pay for their gas. People who bike don’t expect you to pay for their bike maintenance. People who walk don’t expect you to subsidize their running shoes.

    If you want to take the bus, fine. Take financial responsibility for your choice and don’t expect others to help pay for your bus pass.

  11. Timmy, I never said that the program wouldn’t benefit the mass majority. But then again, I could come up with a lot of unfair things that would benefit the majority. Say that I pick 10% of the student population randomly, and increase their tuition fees by $1000/semester. The money gained from this is used to give grants to the remaining 90%. Clearly, this program is good for the majority of students; does that mean it should be implemented? The U-Pass does the exact same thing–it unfairly redistributes income. Income redistribution isn’t necessarily bad–that’s why we have taxes and things after all–but this isn’t taking money from the rich and giving to the poor; this is taking money from one group of (mostly) poor people and giving it to another group of (mostly) poor people.

    From my personal point of view, the issue boils down to this: why should I be required to pay $400 for a service that I can get for $20?

  12. A lot of people who prefer their cars to commute to school are missing out on some important points:
    1) What if your car broke down in the midst of driving to school and there happened to be a public transport connection point? Isn’t having a U-Pass handy?
    2) Your typical cars are guzzling out tons of CO2 per year. Unless really necessary, I would rather take public transport instead of driving. You’re adding to the health risk of others when you’re driving. Taking the SkyTrain and/or bus, gives me more time to study/nap and you won’t churn out more temper if you’re having a bad day. ;)
    3) Fuel prices are still high at the moment. Add them up yearly and you get more than you paid for your pass.

  13. Jason,
    1. If my car breaks down and I take the bus a couple of times, it will cost me $10 max. With the U-Pass, it costs me $90. How is that a benefit?

    2. If you’re really concerned about the environment, walk or ride a bike. Buses also churn out tons of CO2, which poisons others. Why should students who are REALLY envrionmentally conscious–those who walk and ride bikes, rain or shine–have to pay for your pollution-spewing bus ride?

    3. The only thing more astronomical than fuel prices is the price of rent in Metro Vancouver. Owning a car and living in the boonies is still cheaper. It’s nice that you get to be all self-righteous because, apparently, your life is arranged in such a way that transit works for you. Consider yourself fortunate. Don’t expect those who aren’t so lucky to pay your way for you.

  14. Mature Student, your opinion is based on lies and untruths, therefore invalid.

    You claim that rent in Vancouver costs a minimum of $800 per month, more if you live near a bus route. That is false. I live on 11th Avenue, 2 blocks west of Clark. There is a 99 B-Line stop at Broadway and Clark. Unless you think walking 2 blocks from 11th Avenue to Broadway is too far?

    The rent is $625, this is for a studio apartment. Water, electricity, heating included.

  15. Cel,
    First: A lie and an untruth are the same thing.

    Second: According to the CMHC, the average price of a studio apartment in the city of Vancouver TWO YEARS AGO was $798.

    See: http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/housing/pdf/2008cmhcdata.pdf

    If you got a great deal, congratulations, but unless you can find 10,000 apartments in the vicinity of UBC for the same price you got yours for, then don’t assume others are lying when they say they couldn’t find one when they went looking.

    Again, you get to live in the city on a transit route for $625?!!! Consider yourself fortunate.

  16. Cel,
    First of all, a lie and an untruth are the same thing.

    Secondly, I’m not lying. According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation statistics from October 2008, the average price of a studio apartment in the city of Vancouver was $798. I concede, I was off by $2, but I’m sure that the rent increases since October 2008 have taken care of that.

    It’s a little ironic that you call me a liar for citing my own personal experience and then cite your own personal experience as the only evidence contradicting it.

    If you got a great deal, congratulations, but unless you can find 10,000 apartments in the vicinity of UBC for the same price you got yours for, then don’t assume others are lying when they say they couldn’t find one when they went looking.

    Again, consider yourself fortunate. If you got such a great deal on a place, then you’re monthly expenses are less than mine, and you don’t need my help buying your bus pass.

  17. Wow, are you kidding?

    You originally claimed the “absolute minimum” for an apartment in Vancouver was $800. Now you say that the “average” is $800. Big difference between the average and the minimum.

    Second of all, it’s true the average rent for an apartment is $800. That’s because of high-priced areas like downtown, where a studio apartment can be well above $1000. As a student you won’t be able to afford an apartment in Coal Harbour or the downtown core, fine.

    If you live in Kerrisdale, Main Street, Mount Pleasant, then studio apartments are well below $700 a month.

    Don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself: http://vancouver.en.craigslist.ca/search/apa/van?maxAsk=650

  18. Cel, there aren’t many bachelor suites renting for over $1000…not even in the West End. The reality of the situation is that the vast majority of what’s out there is exactly in the high $700 and low $800 range. And yes, even Craigslist backs that up.

    And to the extent that there are things out there cheaper, you’re lucky to find something that isn’t filthy or in disrepair. I don’t know about you, but when I have to study and work (which I also do from home) I find the sight of cockroaches scurrying across my kitchen floor to be rather distracting.

    Again, if you got a good deal, great. But the numbers don’t back up your assertion that 10,000 UBC students could all do the same thing.

    If there were even remotely close to 10,000 studios in the $600 range in Vancouver, then the over all average would be substantially lower than it is.

  19. PS: I should also add that the “great deal” you have on your appartment is still $125 a month more than what I pay for mine. That $125 a month covers the entire cost of my car insurance and then some.

  20. Let’s face it. We all love to complain about things that don’t benefit us. In the case of the U-Pass, the MAJORITY of students benefit and that’s what matters. I agree it sucks if you don’t need the bus pass, but in reality, many things benefit the majority and not the minority. For example, I can’t opt out of the $220 health/dental plan when I only used about $125 for my dental check up and annual eye exam. Should I complain because I got ripped off about $95? I guess I was in the position of subsidizing other students. Another example are all those other miscellaneous student fees that I haven’t used this year. Those add up to about another $100 so should I protest the student union for charging me fees when I don’t use their service? Furthermore, I believe those that complain are also don’t care about the environment and like some adults, believe they should not be “taxed” any more for their single occupant vehicle usage.

  21. George, tell me one thing: why SHOULD other students, many of whom are poorer than you, have to help you buy your bus pass?

    Why can’t YOU take financial responsibility for your choices the way other normal grown-ups do? (and yes, I’d complain about the health plan too…another fine CFS creation)

    As for your insinuation that you’re more environmentally friendly than those that complain, I’ll make you a deal: If you sign a legally binding agreement promising never to drive an automobile for at least 10 years following graduation, I will believe that you are indeed more concerned about the environment than I am, and I will subsidize your pass.

    In other words, if you are willing to go through the life transitions–the professional job requirements, the toddlers in diapers–that some of your fellow students are going through without ever resorting to using an automobile, then I will concede your claim.

    In reality I don’t buy for one second that you are any more concerned about the environment than I am. I’ll bet your U-Pass subsidy and then some that as soon as your lack of automobile becomes a complication in your life, you’ll be driving one just like the rest of us.

  22. Mature Student: For the same reason that I SHOULD pay for BC Hydro to build power lines to rural towns. By your logic, those people should take responsibility and move to a more central location or fork over the millions to build their own power lines or generators. For the same reason I – 4 years post-graduation without a car – SHOULD pay for the lines on the road you drive. By your logic, you should be entirely responsible for maintaining automobile infrastructure. I shouldn’t be subsidizing your irresponsible (but not totally unreasonable) choice to drive a car.

    Get real, buddy. There’s no system anywhere at any scale of society which doesn’t short-change somebody. Your standards are impossible to reach. We can’t all get what we pay for, except for the needy, who get more. Bulk purchasing of transit, health coverage, etc., can achieve economies of scale, but after unavoidable administrative overhead, we rarely end up far ahead. There is no policy which will magically solve everybody’s problems. If you have a *specific* suggestion – U-Pass opt-outs below a certain income range, or for people who live more than a certain distance from campus, or in regions poorly served by transit – then make it, or put your money where your mouth is: hoist the black flag and start slitting throats.

  23. John, you DON’T pay BC Hydro to build power lines in rural towns. The only people who pay BC Hydro are the people who actually USE BC Hydro.

    Moreover, John, as a low-income student, you can’t credibly claim to be paying for much of anything through your taxes. The vast majority of the services you use, from roads (which busses drive on too, by the way) and health-care right on down to the government subsidy on your tuition, is largely paid for by the taxes on people WEALTHIER than you are. Don’t think you’re paying your own way. You’re not.

    This is what makes the U-Pass system fundamentally different from the tax system.

    The U-Pass taxes students who are POORER than you in some cases and makes them give you more perks.

    If you can sit around with a clear conscience while single mothers living in residence buy $200 and $300 bus passes for 18-year-olds who live at home and have mommy and daddy paying their tuition, knock yourself out. But I think it’s dispicable.

    And as for me proposing a solution goes, I’m sorry, but once again, it’s not my job to take responsibility for YOU. YOU implimented a system that exploits your classmates for your own gain. YOU fix it.

  24. I am a mother of three, that lives an hour and a half from campus. The reason for this is because I cannot afford to live any closer to the city, and the country areas around it don’t have enough daycare to provide spots for my three children. I am now being forced to pay almost $300 for a upass to go to university, a upass that I will never use, because the bus doesn’t even run anywhere close to where I live. So I was told to drive an hour and 15 mins to a park and ride, and ride a bus to campus. Upon asking other students, it could take upwards of an hour on the bus to get to campus. So I would not only lengthen my already long commute by 45 minutes, but I would be stuck waiting for a bus, and a long bus ride to my car to get to my children in the case of an emergency…And any parent with children would tell you that is not an acceptable position to be in.

    So I ask you why is it fair for my who cannot afford to live in the city, pay for a bus pass for people who can?? Why should I pay for a bus pass for a bus that doesn’t run to where I live?? Why should I not have the choice, and why are people who I have to pay fees for making these bad financial choices for me, and I have to live with that??

  25. I go to Ottawa u and am getting charged 290 for this u-pass crap. The only people whom think that it is a good thing are the people whom benefit from it, and at the same time are to ignorant to care about the people who don’t. I didn’t even know it existed until i went to pay the bill. It’s October now, do they take a little off of the price for the month that i didn’t even have it, obviously not. To charge a person for a service that is not rendered is immoral. The student federation wants to make you think that they are doing something good for ya. The main thing I thought they were supposed to be doing was lobbying the government for a lower priced university education. Instead they create “Great Ideas” which always cost the student $$$$, wtf!. And on a side note I live about 10 to 15 minutes (on foot) away from campus depending on my speed and the destination building. I also live by most of the downtown bars so i don’t pay cab fairs or bus fairs for anything, so i basically feel like I’m being swindled out of the 290. The spell checker in this comment box has done more for me than the stupid student federation ever will.