From March 26–28, a referendum will prompt full-time UTSG undergraduate students to vote on the U-Pass, an unlimited transit pass for the TTC. Should the referendum succeed, all students will be required to pay $280 per semester for the pass, with no option to opt out of the fee unless a student is proven to be unable to utilize transit under conditions set by the Ontario Human Rights Code.
The U-Pass has proven to be a contentious issue, with campaigns having been launched both in favour and against. Below, two contributors weigh the merits and shortcomings of the proposal made by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).
A U-Pass will meet the overwhelming demand for affordable transportation
Students should vote in favour of the U-Pass. It can help improve the day-to-day lives of thousands of students, even the ones who currently don’t use the TTC, by expanding their ability to move around this highly transit-dependent city.
Having access to affordable transportation would allow all students to better plan and organize their academic schedules, participate in university life, and explore Toronto with more ease and comfort. While the proposed mandatory fee of $280 per session may seem unfair to students that don’t use public transportation enough to justify the cost, it would work to lift a massive financial burden off the shoulders of thousands of students who rely on the TTC to travel to and from campus and to engage in other commitments.
The current cost of a postsecondary TTC monthly pass is $116.75 — which, for the majority of students living on a tight budget, is too much to spend on transportation alone. In a city like Toronto, which depends heavily on public transportation, being confined to areas within walking distance can leave students at a disadvantage when scheduling classes, extracurriculars, and daily activities. Some students have no option but to use transit to get to class, and the current cost burden on these students is simply too high.
U-Commute, an organization comprised of student union representatives from U of T, George Brown College, OCAD University, and Ryerson University, is currently advocating for more affordable public transportation options for post-secondary students. The U-Commute survey gathered over 16,000 responses from August 28 to September 28 in 2017, just under 10,000 of whom were UTSG students.
The survey demonstrated to the TTC that reducing transit prices for students would result in increased ridership — which would alleviate any concerns the TTC might have about potential profit loss associated with a substantially discounted pass. This has been the trend across other major universities that have subsidized public transportation.
Of the respondents who did not use public transit, 43.7 per cent cited it being too expensive. Moreover, around 95 per cent of students found public transit to be too expensive overall. About 95 per cent agreed that a U-Pass would be useful for them, with 96 per cent of all respondents saying they would vote for the implementation of a U-Pass in a referendum. Three-quarters of respondents used public transit as part of their commute, with 98.3 per cent of these respondents using the TTC in some fashion, making an affordable option for frequent transit users vital.
U of T is behind on the trend of providing more affordable transportation for students — on top of having one of the highest tuition rates and being located in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Several other major cities and universities, including the University of British Columbia, McMaster University, Montréal, and Ottawa, have subsidized public transportation in order to make it more affordable for students. UTM also currently has a similar U-Pass system in place. It’s about time that UTSG catches up to the other campuses.
There has been criticism over the fact that, complying with the TTC’s wishes, students will not be able to opt out of the proposed U-Pass fee. However, this ‘no opt-out’ clause seems to be necessary for any U-Pass deal to be made at all. This crowdfunded approach to the U-Pass may be the only way forward, and it is not a new approach to providing student services on campus. Students currently pay for services such as university gyms, college student unions, and the new Student Commons — even if students never take advantage of the services these funds make possible, they will have helped other students who find these services essential to their university lives.
The $70 per month fee may seem high for students who don’t use transit on a daily basis, but the U-Pass can alleviate much financial stress for the large proportion of students who continue to rely on the TTC, meaning this proposal is one worth investing in.
Yasaman Mohaddes is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science and Sociology.
The deal as it stands should sway students to give the U-Pass a hard pass
I urge my fellow students to vote against the U-Pass motion in the upcoming referendum. Not only is the described implementation of the U-Pass unfair in principle, it would be subpar in practice as well. As negotiated with TTC transit authorities and as will be put before us in the upcoming referendum, the U-Pass is not the best deal for UTSG students. Frankly, we deserve much better.
At a fee of $280 per semester, students would have the U-Pass for $70 per month. Considering the $3.25 adult fare that would otherwise be paid per TTC ride — $3 if you use PRESTO — the U-Pass initiative does benefit frequent commuters, especially those who currently use the $116.75 monthly metropass for their transit needs. Students who make round trips three times per week would roughly break even with the proposed U-Pass, and only those who commute more than that start saving in comparison to the status quo. Yet this doesn’t account for those of us on the other end of the spectrum.
Proponents of the U-Pass will invariably point to U of T’s reputation as a ‘commuter school.’ This reputation is seemingly backed up by the recently published U-Commute survey, in which about 74 per cent of respondents said that they used transit in some way during their commute. Yet there are serious flaws in this survey that render its results less conclusive, making it difficult to justify the implementation of the U-Pass on this basis.
Though a respectable sample size of about 10,000 students responded to the U-Commute survey, it was conducted online and circulated mainly by UTSU social media circles. Self-selection bias will skew the data toward commuters, who would be the likeliest to engage with an online survey collecting data on student commutes.
It’s also unclear whether the data from the U-Commute survey should supersede the findings in StudentMoveTO’s 2015 survey. StudentMoveTO had a similar number of responses but wasn’t conducted online, meaning that the results would have suffered less from the aforementioned selection bias. According to StudentMoveTO, only 43 per cent of UTSG students used the TTC to get to class. If we accept the results of both StudentMoveTO and U-Commute as accurate, then the proportion of students who commute to school would have increased by an astronomical 31 per cent in just two years. This discrepancy might be better explained by issues with U-Commute’s methodology.
The integrity of the survey might also be called into question — the UTSU itself admits on the first page of the U-Commute report that the questions and outcomes of the survey are a reflection of its negotiation strategy with the TTC. Students should not be basing their decision to endorse the U-Pass on a survey that appears to have been designed to make the proposal palatable to transit authorities.
Even if we accept the U-Commute findings, then at least a quarter of the student population doesn’t use public transit enough to justify the costs of the U-Pass. Forcing these students to pay $280 per semester so as to subsidize transport for the rest sets a bad precedent, especially considering the lack of opt-out.
Since a U of T education is already among the most expensive in Canada, any increases in fees must be closely scrutinized. A $280 sessionally mandated increase in tuition fees is a hefty sum that could otherwise go toward textbooks or school supplies. It may be particularly onerous for out-of-province or international students who do not have access to the Ontario Student Assistance Program to help offset the costs of education.
I want to be clear that I support the idea of a student transit pass — affordable transit is important, and these types of initiatives have worked well in cities like Vancouver and Calgary. But the deal being presented to us is a poor one, especially given that there is no option to opt out of it. It is difficult to believe that there aren’t enough students across UTSG, OCAD, Ryerson, and George Brown who would be willing to pay for the U-Pass, allowing the system to become ‘opt-in’ and removing much of our collective headache. It is also unreasonable that the result of one referendum would lock us in to a four-year commitment.
The UTSU has left us with more questions than answers when it comes to the current incarnation of the U-Pass — and it is our duty to push for a better, fairer, and more inclusive deal. The current U-Pass proposal might only be possible if we are all forced to opt in, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worth doing so. The TTC seems to be less interested in taking a critical look at its own revenue models and more interested in offloading costs onto the population least able to bear them. If this referendum fails and the TTC refuses to renegotiate, then we must take our discontent to the ballot box in the Toronto municipal elections later this year. Let’s reject this motion as it stands and ask our student representatives to bring the TTC back to the bargaining table.
Anvesh Jain is a first-year student at St. Michael’s College studying International Relations