University students in Ottawa will see their tuition rise by nearly $300 in order to fund a compulsory U-Pass program that begins Wednesday. Both the University of Ottawa and Carleton have been busy handing out bus passes to eligible students, the cost of which is affixed to tuition.
After years of lobbying by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) and two failed votes at City Council, the U-Pass was approved last February after Carleton was recruited to the plan. Referendums, required for the imposition of new fees, were then handily passed at both universities. Previously, a student bus pass would set students back at least $500 for an academic year. The U-Pass costs $290. “Its about making transit more affordable for students, promoting a ridership culture and making a real dent in some sustainability issues,” Dina Skvirsky, vice-president student issues for the Carleton University Students’ Association says.
So far the University of Ottawa has distributed more than 8,000 passes and Carleton more than 7,000. “From an administrative perspective, its been a success,” says Ryan Flannagan, Carleton’s director of student affairs. Although Carleton University did not explicitly endorse the plan, it will be administering it on behalf of the students’ association.
Alex Cullen, chair of City Council’s transit committee, is thrilled that the plan is underway because it will help the city reach its goal of having 30 per cent of all trips in Ottawa being taken through OC Transpo. “What attracted us to it, is that we’d be able to capture a large number of students who are taking OC Transpo,” he said. However, there are no immediate plans to make improvements to transit. “Both universities are already on high frequency transit lines,” Cullen said.
Despite providing reduced transit passes for students, not everyone is happy with the new fee. Charlie Taylor, who studies journalism at Carleton, is running for mayor and opposition to the U-Pass forms a central plank in his platform. “By forcing people to buy the product, you no longer have the motivation to provide a good product at a reasonable price,” he said. “They’ve got a captive consumer base now. They can basically do whatever they want.”
Other than exemptions for those with disabilities who already have bus passes provided for them, students from Quebec, and those who will be away studying afield, the U-Pass fee will be universally applied to all full-time students at both universities.
For students who currently cycle or walk to school, Skvirsky says that they can still make use of the U-Pass on evenings and weekends. “Most students do take transit and we do got a mandate from our members,” she said.
As for students who live outside of OC Transpo’s jurisdiction, Ted Horton, vice-president university affairs for the SFUO, says they actually have the most to gain from the plan, through Transpo’s Park n’ Ride program. The program permits drivers to park their cars at transit stations for free, and then ride the bus. A parking pass at the University of Ottawa costs $700 between September and April. “All feedback, both positive and negative, however, has been overshadowed by the vast number of students who have contentedly filed through the University Centre to pick up their U-Pass without complaint,” he says.
Cullen says the U-Pass will help to recoup costs from those who don’t pay taxes in Ottawa but nonetheless make use of city services. “Those folks ought to be using Transpo . . . they drive on our roads which they don’t pay for,” he said.
The pilot program will be reevaluated by city council next year to determine if it succeeded in increasing ridership without becoming too costly. U-Pass programs have been implemented at several universities across Canada, including at Brock University and the University of Alberta. The British Columbia government announced a plan in June to bring a U-Pass to all students attending a public university.
photo by Dick Penn