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.
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?
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.