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.