U-Pass presents major test for city’s commitment to sustainability

Proposed fee increases with no additional benefits put successful program at risk

Any reader who has made plans with me knows I probably won’t offer to pick you up. The reason for this is the same reason that I was so excited to vote “Yes” in the U-Pass referendum four years ago. I don’t drive.

But over the past four years as I went from an insular second-year student to UMSU president, I gained a much deeper appreciation of the initiative.

What I once saw as simply a 60 per cent discount on my monthly bus pass has proven to be one of the most successful emissions reduction programs in the city.

So when I heard the public service recommend a fee increase of $24.50 per term, I was deeply concerned this program that myself and many students have grown to admire could be on its way out.

After just two years of the U-Pass being in effect, ridership on routes to and from the U of M is up by 25 per cent over previous rates. That’s as many as 5,000 vehicles being taken off the road each day on routes to the university — more than one per cent of all vehicles owned in the city of Winnipeg. That’s a significant amount of emissions saved when dealing with 5,000 round trips that would otherwise be taken by car.

It should not be a surprise that the seeming goal of the U-Pass was to decrease automobile traffic, decrease the amount of automobile emissions, alleviate parking pressure, increase ridership and enhance mobility all around Winnipeg.

A tax on emissions

However, nowhere is it mentioned that the mandate of the U-Pass is to subsidize student transportation costs. Make no mistake — the U-Pass is a program I wholeheartedly support and one that has been extremely successful. But it is nonetheless a program that is more of a tax than a subsidy.

By mandating every capable full-time student within the city pay for public transit — at a highly reduced rate — you provide a number of incentives. These include rewarding those who are already using public transit with a cost reduction, enhancing the cost incentive to switch from driving to using transit by increasing the total cost spent if one continues to drive and ensuring that students who continue to drive are essentially “taxed” for their emissions.

The two most misguided critiques of the U-Pass are that there are no opt-outs for those who drive to school and that the subsidy is too great — even larger than that for the proposed low-income pass — given that students aren’t necessarily among the most financially disadvantaged population.

However, it is the universality of the program that is necessary to enforce the incentive structure behind that conversion rate. There could be no U-Pass without universality. Further, frequent transit users who do not drive due to cost are more likely to be in lower income brackets of society than those with access to a vehicle. Therefore, it is likely that a majority of those who receive a flat subsidy on their pass are in fact in need of one, and a majority of those who are paying without using the service are able to withstand it. But the revenue generated from the non-users pays for a majority of the corresponding subsidy. In this way it behaves quite similarly to the carbon tax.

It’s apparent that the U-Pass is as much a case of students giving the city a major benefit through their consent to this tax as it is the city doing students a favour with a subsidy.

The reason for the increase is clear. With a mandate to extend the U-Pass to Red River College that will increase costs, coupled with a reduction in provincial funding, the city is forced to either expand the subsidy it’s willing to give to the program by sacrificing spending elsewhere, or increase the cost per student.

While UMSU strongly opposes the increase in fees, it also presented the city with a third option: extend the winter U-Pass from four to eight months, increasing the fee to raise additional revenue, but giving students access to affordable transit year-round.

This is the only way to raise the additional revenue necessary to cover the Red River College expansion, while not forcing students to vote for a cost increase with no additional benefits.

Some of the additional revenue generated would be offset by students no longer purchasing the more expensive post-secondary pass, but because buses rarely run at capacity in the summer, the increase in demand would not necessitate the increased service costs that have been incurred for the fall and winter pass, making it a more affordable option.

The U-Pass program has been an unambiguous success for the city of Winnipeg and for many U of M students.

But increased costs with no additional benefits could put the program at risk of discontinuation.

If that were to happen, the city might save some money, but it would render its $500 million rapid transit investment under-utilized while simultaneously putting 5,000 cars back on the road — producing a much higher emissions-based “social cost.”

If the city wishes to show its sincere commitment to sustainability, it ought to reconsider its budget to avoid or reduce a U-Pass fee increase, or at least extend the benefits of the program into the summer months.