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480 To U-Pass

Left to right: TTC market research director Mike Anders, TTC Chair Adam Giambrone, irate civil engineering Engineering Science student Ryan Campbell, and Giambrone executive assistant Kevin Beaulieu.
“Isn’t this just a quasi-communistic redistribution of wealth?” asked a student at the microphone, receiving hearty applause from a good chunk of the audience. He was inquiring about the new U-Pass being proposed by the TTC, which Mayor David Miller, TTC Chair Adam Giambrone, and Vice-Chair Joe Mihevc came out to a U of T lecture hall on Tuesday evening to push. A new non-transferable monthly transit pass that would be a compulsory $60-a-month student fee for all full-time undergraduates, it’s indeed quite explicitly a redistribution of wealth, as those people who don’t currently purchase Metropasses would be subsidizing those who do. But whether the scheme actually possesses the socialist qualities that both its backers and detractors imply was and is a bit more sticky.

“Everyone should have the right to participate equitably in life in Toronto,” proclaimed Mayor Miller, who filled us in on his days commuting to U of T as a law student, taking the bus from Yonge and St. Clair (why he didn’t take the subway was left unexplained) and later the streetcar from Parkdale. “When people have passes, they take transit more often.”
Councillor Mihevc, also a former U of T student (and a former professor of ethics, although this was left unmentioned) explained that the $60 price tag was set by the TTC with the intention of making the plan revenue-neutral. TTC’s market research determined that they get about $3 million every month from U of T’s 50 000 students, averaging out to $60 per person. But that was calculated back in the good ol’ days when a Metropass cost $99.75—now that it’s up to $109, the TTC would be taking a hit of “a couple million a year” (not including the cost to increase system capacity), but they’ve opted to, in Mihevc’s words, “suck it up” and keep their offer at $60 for the duration of the ’08/’09 school year. In the future, the price would be tied to increases in the cost of the Metropass.
Quite understandably, many students balked at paying the equivalent of a month’s rent ($480) for eight months’ unlimited use of a service they don’t need. Mihevc promised non-commuters, “You will use that U-Pass. It will become your passport to Toronto,” emphasizing that it pays for itself after twenty-five trips and increasing the number of transit riders is good for the environment.
2008_1_16WouldorWouldNot.jpg But there was also skepticism regarding the touted environmental benefits; as the TTC’s own research showed that 57% of students use transit as their primary means of getting to U of T, and only 4% drive, wouldn’t the 39% who are pedestrians and cyclists be better off continuing with those emissions-free modes of transport?
And for all of the speakers’ rhetoric implying that the U-Pass is a kind of progressive taxation, it’s really less “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” than it is an example of the Vulcan maxim, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” There will be winners and losers, Mihevc admitted. “We can appreciate that for some people, it might not be in their best interests.”
Well, the same could be said of the land transfer tax. But it’s safe to presume that most people flipping real estate are fairly financially secure. As one student put it, the U-Pass is essentially “poor students appealing to equally poor students to help them out.” In this way, it’s a little reminiscent of the “Everybody Gets to Play” scheme, unveiled at City Hall last week, in which user fees for community recreation programs will rise over the next several years, but there will be a slight increase in the number of people able to access them for free if they’re able to meet an income test.
Taxation is only progressive when a burden is shifted onto those who are better able to handle it. Merely spreading a burden around, diluting it, just forces some not-so-well-off people to pay for other not-so-well-off people, under the guise of creating “social equity” (a term Giambrone applied to the U-Pass program). It’s the same questionable math that lets the mayor claim that the street furniture program will lead to “less advertising by far” because instead of a given corner having a bus shelter with an ad and a garbage bin with an ad, there will only be advertising on the shelter—never mind the fact that there will be more than twice as many shelters with advertising as before, spread across the whole city. That kind of disingenuousness isn’t too far removed from advocating intensity targets as a meaningful way to combat climate change.
Another student questioned why a similar program couldn’t be implemented across the whole city, taxing all residents and making transit free. The mayor responded that property taxes—already regressive—would have to rise by a third. Apparently, however, it’s alright to effectively raise tuition—as a flat fee, arguably even more regressive—by a tenth. So why not look at road pricing, making drivers pay a user fee to cover part of the upkeep of roads which we currently all subsidize? The mayor has long argued that tolls would disproportionately affect people living in outlying areas where transit service is negligible. Doesn’t that mean that under the U-Pass, students in the suburbs would be paying for transit that, by the mayor’s own admission, doesn’t serve them?
2008_1_16ImTall.jpg But despite the iffy talk of fairness, it’s probably still worth it. According to Giambrone, “We know from our market research that if people get hooked on transit earlier in life, they’re less likely to ever own a car.” Among the general population, transit use suddenly plummets at the age of 22 or 23, as people graduate from university and move on to using a personal motor vehicle as their primary means of transportation. The U-Pass, says Giambrone, “is predominantly geared at getting the next generation of transit riders.”
This honesty is refreshing. So is the Utopian vision behind it. There are few more worthy investments in our society than in creating a future in which automobiles aren’t viewed as the default method of getting around. The intention of the U-Pass is to introduce students to a “transit lifestyle,” one in which cars are rendered mostly redundant, because the TTC is seen as a viable transportation option. This is the kind of paradigm shift that is necessary to move towards a sustainable society, and at $60 a month, it’s kind of a bargain.
The proposal is being put to a student referendum sometime in the next few months and, if approved, full-time undergraduates at the St. George campus will have their photos taken and receive their first-ever U-Passes this September. (The hope is that students at the twelve other campuses of the city’s eight postsecondary institutions will be giving the plan similar consideration around the same time.) After a first successful year, the TTC will expand the program to part-time and graduate students. And then to staff and faculty. And eventually beyond the academic world, into unionized workplaces, where contracts would specify that employers cover the costs.
“We are in this as a community,” said Giambrone. And, for the sake of a livable tomorrow, we should continue to travel as one, too.
All photos by Jonathan Goldsbie.


  • ysdn

    I can understand where many people are coming from especially since there are so many who would not need it.
    However as a student at York, 80% commute, and this would greatly improve many lives. So I’m all for this, and it is about time. (when comparing to other metros, the ttc is one of the most expensive…)

  • Gloria

    Not to mention, of course, a monthly pass already only costs about $60 in Montreal, and roughly half that for students. “Kind of” a bargain indeed.
    $480 is not a small sum of money; as pointed out, it’s a month of rent, or a semester’s course, or a tall pile of books.
    The fact is the TTC is NOT viable for many students who live far from campus, or who live ON campus (what’s the point?), or who don’t want to spend hours a day commuting because they have other priorities (work, family). We enjoy punishing drivers, but say, who am I to ask a cyclist to pony up $480 for my transit choices?
    I’m graduating by the end of this summer, so I’m glad I won’t have to live with the guilt if this passes through.

  • rek

    I’m sure there were dozens of things I paid for in college fees that I never once used, can I complain now and get my money back?

  • Gloria

    Rek, I’ve been nickeled and dimed (and dollared) to death by U of T for services and organizations I never patronize, but damn, $480 in one go. We’ve had votes and referendums on club fee hikes of $1.25.

  • paigesix

    At Western, it’s $60 for a YEAR long student transit pass. (And, to compare, $2.50+ for a one way ride…)
    But anyways. Most UWO students never use London Transit, but we all “paid” for the pass in our student fees…

  • Gloria

    As an aside: I’m willing to bet many drivers, walkers, and cyclists will stick to their ways and just sell their passes to other transit users at a discounted price. A decent chunk of change on the side.
    Maybe this *will* help out impoverished students after all.

  • Jonathan Goldsbie

    Here, for the record, are the mandatory “incidental fees” that I, as a current full-time undergraduate Arts and Science student with U of T’s Woodsworth College, am paying for the Winter 2008 semester:
    Athletics – FT 123.52
    Hart House St George – FT 65.00
    Health Service St George – 18.08
    Student Services St George 57.70
    CANCOPY License – FT 1.64
    Student Affairs St George 24.31
    Arts & Science Student Union 7.50
    SAC (St George) 31.21
    Varsity Publications 1.25
    Woodsworth College Student Assocation 7.50
    U of T Community Radio – St 2.50

  • Gloria

    Damn you, Community Radio! My children are in RAGS because of you!

  • Jonathan Goldsbie

    Actually, Gloria, that won’t be an option, as the passes will be similar to the ones that city councillors have now: rather than getting a new one every month, each person is issued a single pass good for the entire period, and it has your photo right on it.

  • Gloria

    How often do city councillors use their passes?

  • ked

    I’m all for minimizing cars on the road but I’m wary of the TTC argument in this case. “Hooking” people onto the TTC when they are students, regardless of whether they use the TTC or not just seems a means by which a poorly-run organization increases its lumbering hold on the city. Charge 60 bucks now and who knows how much when students hit graduation. Also, the more people shown to have metropasses only adds to the TTC’s cries for more funding and fare hikes later down the line (resources being stretched over so many new riders etc.) I think road taxes might work out as the better option here. Obligatory student passes – bad move TTC.

  • Gloria

    I’d be interested if more evidence could be presented that obligating people to buy transit passes would genuinely convert them to the TTC. Even without the subsidy, transit is already vastly cheaper than owning a car, so it seems rational to say perhaps it’s not price that’s keeping drivers in their cars, but some other factor — perhaps quality of service.
    Also, the service is already widely acknowledged to be overloaded. As the TTC will not be making money off this venture, they will not be able to channel any funds to accommodate an increase in ridership. An influx of 50 000 students (many of whom probably still won’t take the TTC) won’t be that much in the wider scheme of things, but drawing people to a labouring system can only hurt it, for everyone.
    I’d be happier subsidizing a bike program. It’s easily the greenest option, and the fastest and cheapest method of transit. Cyclists have taken the best option they can, and they deserve some kind of reprieve. Sure, not everyone wants to cycle to school, but hey, clearly not everyone wants to take transit either.
    Ultimately, I gotta admit that most people who attend university would be able to pay up the $480, and pretty easily if they’d just give up a few (ok, many) lattes. I’m just not sure if it’d really help.
    For the record, yep, I take transit and if I weren’t graduating next year, I’d benefit from this. And I pay my taxes (fairly) cheerily.

  • Jonathan Goldsbie

    “How often do city councillors use their passes?”
    It varies by councillor. You kind of have to take into account, though, that most of them live in or near the ward they represent, and at least a third of the wards are quite far from (or poorly-connected by transit to) City Hall.
    Here are the ones I know about:
    Adam Giambrone and Gord Perks famously use the TTC as their only method of getting around.
    Glenn De Baeremaeker and Adrian Heaps both bike (from Scarborough!), except in the worst parts of winter, when De Baeremaeker uses the TTC, and I assume Heaps does as well.
    Adam Vaughan variously bikes and uses transit.
    Janet Davis, I’m pretty sure, takes the TTC.
    Cliff Jenkins takes the TTC pretty often (I see him at York Mills station every once in awhile), but I don’t know if that’s his main way of getting around.
    Joe Mihevc carpools.
    And the mayor is chauffeured in a hybrid car, but he’s spotted on the TTC now and again.

  • sloanbuller

    Do you necessarily even need a separate card if the fee is mandatory? When I went to Queen’s, our student cards were also our transit passes because we had all paid. So wouldn’t it make sense if people just flashed their student ids, which already have photos? I’m sure one of the transit nerds will tell me why in a second.
    I hear t-cards are notoriously hard to forge anyways (and I thank my stars at least once a week there is no expiry date on those puppies. woot woot!)

  • Carrie M

    Actually, Paige, as a UWO student who was there before, and when, the bus pass was implemented (I’m showing my age!), it was definitely used by students. As a London resident, I lived off-campus during my years there, and bus traffic increased pretty dramatically. They had to add more buses to the routes and they were always jam packed. The irony is that because of this, I ended up just walking to school quite a bit!
    However, $60 (which I believe you could even opt out of at the time) is a far cry from what U. of T. wants. It seems like this would be more useful to test at York than a downtown school.

  • spacejack

    Would not have used it nearly enough to justify when I was a student; I got around by bike or by foot 90% of the time.
    Having a pass forced upon me would’ve made me lazier and been detrimental to my health.
    I’d like to think we would’ve been enterprising enough to figure out a way to sell it for cash.

  • rocketeer

    I couldn’t attend the meeting so I don’t know all the details of this proposed pass, but like sloanbuller said, why even issue separate passes? Are student cards be used as swipe cards or as payment for things on campus (via flex dollars) so why not just make them compatible with the turnstiles on the TTC?
    I live less than one block from campus and it’s vastly easier to bike/walk almost anywhere than get onto the Spadina streetcars or make it to Queen’s Park. I love the TTC, but this is neither the way nor the place (i.e. UofT) to try something like this.

  • rocketeer

    It’s a somewhat dubious assertion that the U-Pass will hook people on the TTC. The only possible new users would be those 4% that currently drive and everyone else either already uses it or lives close enough that that U-Pass would only be useful for non-school trips. Furthermore, new users will likely be seeing a TTC that’s limping from one funding crisis to another rather than the ideal transportation alternative that most people can agree they want to have.
    So… instead of starting a program that operates at a loss and adding riders to system, let’s first round up some funding commitments eh?

  • x_the_x

    This is what happens when you have a transit commission run by politicians, particularly those with a glaring lack of business acumen.
    You don’t win new customers by forcing them to use your product (or forcing current customers to subsidize new customers to use your product – since the TTC would experience a loss on this deal, it represents a subsidy by all users of the system to the U of T students, not just other U of T students as the article suggests), you do it by offering an attractive service at attractive prices. This is just subsidizing the TTC’s existing inefficiency.
    More to the point, how is giving student riders a taste of the maddening experience that riding the overcrowded, underserviced, dirty and inefficient TTC convincing them to be transit users once they aren’t compelled to purchase a pass?
    If you want to offer a cut-rate pass on grounds of access, as most other cities do, then don’t force those who don’t need it to buy it. Of course, all three politicians mentioned in the article are long-standing union supporters which is where they discovered their funding formula for this.
    I greatly wish for expanded and better transit service in this city, but it is clear with this current leadership all we will get are half-assed ideas that don’t begin to address the underlying issues with the TTC.

  • PhilipJ

    For everyone saying it won’t work, there’s prior evidence. The U-Pass program in Vancouver has been quite successful and student ridership is way up since it was introduced (source). It became so popular that other institutions (Vancouver Community College, possibly others) voluntarily wanted to join the U-pass program, and it was extended into the summer months and for graduate students as well.
    Even though the U-Pass was a fair bit cheaper than this proposed TTC pass (~$100/term, instead of ~$240/term), I’m all for it.

  • Dermanus

    The TTC would have to do a lot more than subsidize my pass to get me back. I haven’t taken the TTC since that wild-cat strike two years ago. The day after I bought a bike and until I got a job on the other side of the city in October I was a religious user of it. It paid for itself in saved fares in four months.
    I even hooked my wife on cycling, which not only saved us money (again, saved fares) but also helped her slim down.
    I’m gonna take the side saying that this is a waste of money and effort. There are much better ways than ‘the better way’.

  • raches

    Athletics – FT 123.52 – Went to the AC twice in four years
    Hart House St George – FT 65.00 – hate the place
    Health Service St George – 18.08 – wha?
    Student Services St George 57.70 – again, wha?
    CANCOPY License – FT 1.64 – I pay for copyright at Scholars Press
    Student Affairs St George 24.31 – never heard of them
    Arts & Science Student Union 7.50 – Anti-Calendar… worth my money
    SAC (St George) 31.21 – lame, elections are bothersome
    Varsity Publications 1.25 – lame
    St. Mikes College Student Assocation 7.50 – haven’t stepped foot on St. Mikes
    U of T Community Radio – St 2.50 – didn’t even know they had a radio station
    I’d rather pay for something I will actually use. I think that more than 57% use TTC to get to U of T and people who live downtown use the TTC all the time.

  • gorff

    UBC (Vancouver) U-Pass: $22/month
    U of Alberta (Edmonton) U-Pass: $75/term ($18.75/month)
    U of Calgary U-Pass: $75/term ($18.75/month)
    Montreal has no U-Pass, but students can get discounted monthly passes for $36/month
    Proposed TTC U-Pass: $60/month
    This price is ridiculous.

  • peregrina

    I know who sets the price for the monthly pass at the TTC but they clearly don’t know what they are doing. Clearly, a pass that requires you to use the system twice a day, six days a week, every week, to break even is idiotic.
    Explain to me how can Montreal charge its citizens 66$ for a monthly pass ($2.75 for a single ride)? And don’t tell me they have more money…

  • spacejack

    Quebec doesn’t have more money, they pay for it with Ontario’s money.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    I read somewhere (perhaps falsely) that the TTC is reluctant to sign onto the GTTA’s — sorry, Metrolinx’s — Presto card program, because that would reduce Metropass sales.
    I support the goals of ‘hooking’ young riders, offering discounts to students, and so on. Rather than forcing a fee on walkers, cyclists and other non-riders, why not let a smart card system automatically discount fare every time a student rides?
    Comparing the two makes the former seem like a cash grab, of sorts.

  • Diisparishun

    Montreal has no U-Pass, but students can get discounted monthly passes for $36/month
    Only students 25 years of age and under, by the way. To the many full-time students who are 26 and up, that’s a pretty significant detail.
    And eventually beyond the academic world, into unionized workplaces, where contracts would specify that employers cover the costs.
    I am curious about this. Why only eventually? And why only unionized workplaces — and, in that case, does that mean management doesn’t get hooked in? Is this about leveraging the sizes of unions — because, if so, why not also make it available to workplaces (including buildings with multiple organisations in them)?
    In other words. I assume this thing makes sense from the TTC’s standpoint for those organizations (including universities) with, say, a minimum number of people within a maximum geographic perimeter. So why not state clearly the exact terms on which the offer makes sense, publish the offer to the world, and see who bites?

  • Eunice

    University of Waterloo U-Pass: $50.58/term ($12.64/month)
    Cash fare: $2.50

  • Kevin Bracken

    I like to think of it in these terms:
    U of T students are some of the most boring people on the planet. No joke. I thought that by coming to U of T, I would be emerged in a large pool of creative, intelligent people who were actively engaged in the city in meaningful ways, started interesting projects, or who were at least fun to hang out with.
    Obviously I didn’t grow up in Ontario, because this perception of mine was dead wrong.
    Living in a St. George Street residence, I swear that even second year students didn’t know how to get to the streetcar stop two blocks west of our building, and especially not how to pay for one, how much it cost, or how to request a stop.
    If everybody had a Metropass, I would personally tutor U of T students in getting around the city, so they would actually experience life south of College Street.

  • Rachel Lissner

    Personally, I take the often subway to explore the city which makes most people gasp: they think it’s a waste of time and money. I sincerely doubt that the UofT student body, a lot of whom are on OSAP, are going to rally behind this.
    Where is UTSU in this? I bet if UTSU cut out their expensive advertising, ridiculous campaigns, and multi-million student-run building, and spent their money on the students, people would be keener on this. And the residences (at least mine) are heavily endowed for student-run magazines that suck.
    Still though, sixty dollars a month? Even for me that is steep and I am pro-U-Pass; I never doll out more than forty dollars’ worth in fare because walking is cheaper and enjoyable.
    P.S. Kevin, I think you will revel in the fact that my roommate was unaware that she lived downtown.

  • Rachel Lissner

    Personally, I take the often subway to explore the city which makes most people gasp: they think it’s a waste of time and money. I sincerely doubt that the UofT student body, a lot of whom are on OSAP, are going to rally behind this.
    Where is UTSU in this? I bet if UTSU cut out their expensive advertising, ridiculous campaigns, and multi-million student-run building, and spent their money on the students, people would be keener on this. And the residences (at least mine) are heavily endowed for student-run magazines that suck.
    Still though, sixty dollars a month? Even for me that is steep and I am pro-U-Pass; I never dole out more than forty dollars’ worth in fare because walking is cheaper and enjoyable.
    P.S. Kevin, I think you will revel in the fact that my roommate was unaware that she lived downtown.

  • paigesix

    University students are apathetic and unaware of anything outside of their own personal sphere… illustrated perfectly by Kevin’s tale of second-years not knowing how to take the bus (which isn’t Toronto-centric, UWO students are just as confused by transit with most kids coming from Toronto!) and further proven by Raches confusion/ignorance at all the institutions/services covered by UfT fees.
    (like, really? I didn’t even go to UfT but I can still tell you what each of those fees cover…)
    I do think that “complimentary” metropasses will make more students take transit in situations they otherwise wouldn’t have–if it’s free for a group to TTC to the bar, for instance, they’ll be less likely to chip in for a cab.
    But without a better transit system, these habits will disappear after graduation. As a student I was a die-hard TTC lover–but now my job is on the Etobicoke/Mississauga border and transit is just not useful out here.

  • Gloria

    Kevin: Or life east of Yonge St (or, gasp, the DVP)? We’re out there.

  • andrew

    York is not necessarily the ideal school with which to pilot this program, as many of the students who commute use different transit systems. Check out the main bus loading area in front of York Lanes and the Student Centre: there are like 5 different TTC routes, a GO bus [I think...I know the GO train stop nearby at Steeles and Keele gets students using it], VIVA, Peel, and Brampton. The main problem with getting more students and university community members using non-TTC transit is always the poor service – buses don’t run that often, they don’t stop near where people live, they don’t run as early or as late as the TTC – and thus the reason for all those parking lots at York.
    Plus, barring a miracle and that dedicated bus lane getting built by Sept 08, does anybody really want the 196 to be even more crowded?

  • andrewpmk

    This plan is only going to increase the number of students who live off campus, leaving residences with empty rooms because living off campus will be $50/month cheaper and living on campus will be $60/month more expensive. It will also encourage people to take short trips on TTC when they would otherwise walk and bike – for example, expect U of T students to overcrowd the Spadina Streetcar, subway and 94 bus, in some cases even when simply going across campus. Students who currently drive will continue to do so. It is likely to help downtown businesses though.

  • paigesix

    “This plan is only going to increase the number of students who live off campus, leaving residences with empty rooms because living off campus will be $50/month cheaper and living on campus will be $60/month more expensive.”
    huh what??
    please explain your math. and also, $50 is not incentive enough to make someone who doesn’t like cooking or roommate politics or paying rent over summer months leave the comforts of residence.

  • Jonathan Goldsbie

    Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler’s analysis (and even more qualified endorsement) of the U-Pass just went up on the Spacing Wire.

  • kingyens

    The only people I know who take the TCC daily are ones who commute to stay at home and avoid expensive rent or residence fees. Students living around campus are already spending a small fortune to be there. Enforcing a $60 payment so I can say “Gee now I have a metropass, lets go roam around the city for fun” is ridiculous. If I want it, I would already be purchasing it.
    Also, even if the TCC is making this whole thing “revenue-neutral” it would give them guaranteed revenue, allowing for quality of service to decline with less consequence to their bottom line. I am all for consumer choice on this one.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    Also, I’m not sure if editorial corrections are accepted so late, but the student in the picture is Ryan Campbell, and he’s in Engineering Science, not Civil Engineering.