The Universal Student Transit Pass

I have an opinion piece out on the City of Ottawa’s universal, student transit pass–also known as “the U-Pass.” Points raised in the op-ed include the following:

-U-Pass programs exist for roughly 30 universities and colleges across Canada.

-For a U-Pass program to be introduced, students typically must vote in favour of the program in student referenda.

-When there is a positive referendum outcome, the university in question–either its senior administraion, its student unions or both–enters into a partnership with the local transit authority.  Full-time students are then automatically enrolled in the program, and payment for the U-Pass is automatically charged to their individual student accounts when they register for fall term.

-A U-Pass will typically give a student complete access to public transit in the municipality in question, all through the academic year.  Yet, the cost of the U-Pass to students is considerably less than what they would normally pay for transit.  For example, the City of Ottawa’s U-Pass currently costs eligible students just under $40 per month.

-One of the reasons it is offered at such a low rate to students is that it is expected that some students will use their U-Pass only sparingly; some, for example, will continue to use a car as their primary means of transportation.  In effect, there is an element of the polluting students subsidizing the non-polluting students.  In this sense, the U-Pass contributes to a ‘green shift’ of sorts. (That said, over time, the U-Pass will also encourage many car drivers to become transit users, and that’s fundamental to the program’s success.)

-The municipality benefits in several ways.  First, far more students take transit when such a system is in place, and this reduces the cost of road repair, helps curb traffic congestion, and reduces pollution.  Second–and this is key–it encourages young people to get in the habit of taking transit instead of cars; this, in turn, offers an important long-term payoff to municipalities after these people graduate.  In other words, it brings about a ‘culture of ridership.’

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