Canada’s most expensive U-Pass: Students deserve what they pay for

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Ottawa City Council has voted to increase the cost of the universal student transit pass (the ‘U-Pass’) by almost 25 percent. In return, one would think students deserve better—not worse—service.

Canada’s most expensive U-Pass has become more expensive just as service is being cut. As a result, Ottawa’s municipal politicians run the risk of undermining the entire strategy.

For the second consecutive year, post-secondary students in Ottawa are piloting the U-Pass. They’ve joined with more than 30 other universities and colleges in Canada that have similar programs.

Through the program, full-time students get unlimited use of Ottawa’s public transit system. Here are three factors that make it a great deal for the city.

1. Savings on Road Repair: In February 2011, the City of Ottawa’s Transportation Committee estimated that a single car trip costs the city $2.50, versus $1.76 for a public transit trip. This is due largely to costs involved with road infrastructure and repair. Based on recent surveys conducted by OC Transpo—the city’s urban transit service—the U-Pass is believed to have eliminated 2,500 car trips a day, which means taxpayers see a direct benefit.

2. Elimination of the Middle Man: Thanks to the U-Pass, OC Transpo now saves tens of thousands of dollars a year on commissions. Students used to buy their transit tickets and monthly passes from private retail outlets, which charged OC Transpo a commission fee. The Carleton University Students’ Association alone used to take in $10,000 in annual commissions from pass and ticket sales at their retail outlets on campus. But there’s no foregone commission when students pick up their U-Pass at their university.  The middle man is sidestepped entirely.

3. Sustained Ridership: The City of Ottawa is home to 120,000 post-secondary students. Encouraging them to use public transit, rather than using a car, offers an important long-term payoff: it creates a ‘culture of ridership’—post-graduation, these young adults continue to use public transit, in large part due to their positive public-transit experience as students. The City of Edmonton has calculated that the sustained ridership created through its U-Pass results in more than $2 million a year in additional revenue.

Last year, student groups at Carleton and the University of Ottawa commissioned research assessing the costs and benefits of the U-Pass. That research found that the U-Pass, at its current cost of $145 per semester, results in net positive revenue for the City of Ottawa.

But in passing its most recent budget in November, Ottawa City Councillors voted to up the price of the U-Pass to $180 per semester, representing an increase of almost 25 percent. Even the original price made Ottawa’s U-Pass the most expensive in Canada. Now, Ottawa is the clear outlier.

The City justifies the increase by claiming it would lose money if the U-Pass continued to be offered at the original rate. But this contradicts the research commissioned by student groups, which found that OC Transpo’s own methodology overstates the losses from cash fares, doesn’t properly account for the use of transfers, and doesn’t provide a full accounting of long-term benefits arising from increased ridership after graduation. And when pressed, the City Treasurer concedes her own analysis was indeed “very simple.”

This is happening at a time when City Council’s approach to governance has grown increasingly heavy-handed. For example, in April, the City stopped producing detailed written minutes of committee meetings, meaning citizens now have to listen to hours of audio recordings in order to find vital information.

Likewise, when the new U-Pass price was recently debated at a meeting of the City’s Transit Commission, Councillor Steve Desroches asked students: “Why do you think you have the privilege to argue on what we deem is the price?” This left many students speechless. It even prompted the Ottawa Citizen’s David Reevely to tweet: “The students are getting a really, really rough ride from the commissioners. Downright hostile.”

By its own admission, OC Transpo is also trying to push student groups to accept the new price by taking away other options in the lead-up to this year’s student referenda, which must yield positive results in order for the newly-priced U-Pass to take effect. For years, students had the option of purchasing monthly and annual student passes (which remain beneficial for students without the U-Pass at Algonquin College, St. Paul’s University, and La Cité Collégiale). But City Council has just voted to remove those options, rendering the U-Pass—at its new price— the only show in town. In short, Council is pushing students to vote under pressure.

Last year, students lost the 117 bus, which provided critical service to Carleton students in the Ottawa South area. OC Transpo has also cut direct routes between Ottawa U and the academic building of the General hospital campus where both nursing and medical students regularly attend classes. Further, thanks in part to the City’s $22 million cut to OC Transpo’s operating budget last year, students report that ‘student routes’ now have considerably more jam-packed buses than before. More buses aren’t stopping to pick up passengers at designated stops; rather, students frequently watch as two or three consecutive buses drive right past them.

When students on Canadian campuses get good service in exchange for what they deem to be a fair price, positive outcomes—namely, savings on road repair and sustained ridership—can be realized. But if they feel gouged on price and screwed on service, the opposite can just as easily happen.

When the price of a service increases by almost 25 percent, that increase should be justified. What makes Steve Desroches and fellow Councillors think they have the privilege to do otherwise?

Nick Falvo is a PhD Candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration.