U-Passion of the Bikes
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U-Passion of the Bikes

Last week, undergraduate students at UTSC (University of Toronto Scarborough) rejected the U-Pass by a stunning margin, with full-time students voting against it 1674 to 622, and part-time students spurning it 53 to 16. Minus the abstentions and spoiled ballots, that worked out to 73% No for for full-timers and 77% No for part-timers. When last we wrote about the proposed offer—a compulsory $60-a-month transit pass for all students, with no potential to opt out—we proffered a qualified endorsement, believing that the goal of discouraging future car ownership was sufficiently noble for us to be able to overlook the scheme’s inherent unfairness. But we later recanted “after reading all of the comments here and on the Spacing Wire….and after seeing that even Adam CF doesn’t yet endorse it for St. George, AND after finding out that the passes won’t be swipeable.”
What’s so frustrating is that everyone involved in creating the proposal did the best job they could have, given the unfortunately limited resources of the TTC, and yet the plan they’ve come up with simply isn’t good enough to warrant serious consideration (that is, a referendum), at least not at St. George. For years, student unions had been asking the TTC to offer a pass for postsecondary students, as many other transit systems do, and the TTC eventually responded. The problem is that their response was the most logically efficient one: to average out among all students the total amount they spend on the TTC on a monthly basis; the burden of paying for transit would be shouldered by all students regardless of their level of use, and such a perfect redistribution would result in the TTC collecting no more or less from the farebox than it does now. (The TTC later agreed to kick in a couple million a year to keep the price of the proposed pass at $60 so that the rate wouldn’t have to be hiked in proportion to the recent increase in the cost of a Metropass from $99 to $109.)

The student unions have been negotiating a better offer and have managed to squeeze out some concessions, most notably an agreement that the details of the program could be customized for each campus, in order to respond to the needs of particular students bodies [PDF]. UTSC, for instance, got the TTC to agree to extend the proposal to part-time students; because that campus doesn’t offer any continuing education courses, the TTC didn’t have to worry about adults enrolled in “one personal-interest course” taking advantage of the deal. The other tweaks included:

• monthly price is held at $60 until May 2010
• U-Pass is semester based and is offered for 3 semesters per year
• access is provided to commuter parking lots on the same basis as regular Metropass users

All fairly minor, in the scheme of things. Indeed, the other student unions were concerned that if UTSC approved the proposal, it would hamper their ability to further negotiate a more favourable offer. The problem, of course, is that the thing everyone wants—an opt-out clause—would undermine the foundation on which the U-Pass plan is based. Barring a considerable budget reallocation from the City of Toronto, or a sudden infusion of cash from either of the other levels of government, there will be no opt-out clause, and the U-Pass is destined to die as ignominiously as it did at Scarborough. School administrations could also potentially chip in to subsidize the pass, observed UTSU VP External Dave Scrivener in The Varsity, as is done at UBC, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Alberta. But, despite its $1.8 billion endowment, U of T tends to be extremely reluctant to fund anything that might improve the student experience.
A phase-in strategy suggested by Paul Brown of George Brown (no relation) that would see the pass only be available to incoming students, such that current students wouldn’t have to bear a sharp fee hike, improves the project significantly, as it would position the U-Pass as a factor for secondary students to consider in making decisions about where to go to college or university, and where to live while going there. It could make certain campuses and living options more or less attractive, and, most importantly, it would be an upfront consideration. TTC Vice-Chair Joe Mihevc seemed fond of this idea.
2008_3_26UPassResults.jpg Nevertheless, although this modification would greatly mitigate the drawbacks, it wouldn’t address them directly. Students whose primary means of transportation is walking or biking, commuting methods more sustainable than public transit, shouldn’t be encouraged to shuffle onto a system that is already bursting at the seams during peak periods. Rather, they should be commended for selecting an active lifestyle with an even smaller carbon footprint. The idea behind the U-Pass—cultivating a “transit lifestyle”—is a respectable and necessary one, the point being to show students that transit is a viable primary transportation option. That is, once you get used to being able to hop from one part of the city to another at your convenience (travelling within the core is still remarkably rapid), you don’t really want to go through the hassles and costs associated with car ownership, from paying for gas to finding places to park. It dramatically changes the way you move around and think about the city. The fundamental flaw in this approach, however, is the assumption that transit is the only alternative to car ownership, as expressly conveyed in the TTC’s survey of last summer. Cycling and walking simply don’t fall on the City’s radar; the City is at best only minimally interested in investing in the (comparatively dirt cheap) infrastructure necessary to foster those as viable transportation options. Instead of looking at transportation as a car vs. transit dichotomy, the City of Toronto must respect the fact that there are other ways to get around that for many people are vastly preferable. The U-Pass could indeed be one part of a larger strategy to ween people off car use and into other modes of commuting, but nothing else of significance is happening. The City, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t build bike lanes, and doesn’t consider including them even when they’re redesigning a street, anyway (see Jarvis, Lansdowne, Bloor). And good luck walking on a sidewalk if there’s been more than a little snowfall the night before. Or try traversing the portion of Yonge Street that crosses the 401 [PDF].
There seems to be a misunderstanding of the ways lots of people live, and a certain patronization in the assumption that if you’re not a transit rider, you’re a motorist, or that you will be one someday. At the TTC’s special meeting on Valentine’s Day, Chair Adam Giambrone remarked, “It’s easier to keep someone on transit than it is to attract someone to transit.” This is true, and this is important. But imposing transit doesn’t have to be part of this equation.
The downtown campuses (St. George, Ryerson, George Brown, and probably OCAD) are currently trying to have a contract finalized by August 1st in preparations for referenda in October or so. Regardless of the plan on offer, it will be a challenge to mobilize notoriously disengaged commuter students at St. George in numbers sufficient to approve the plan, and the other schools will likely face similar hurdles, if not to the same extent. Student unions are pretty happy with the current VIP (Volume Incentive Pass) program, anyway, as they keep students coming through their offices on a monthly basis, allowing them to inform students of ongoing campaigns and services. Just as the objective of a petition is to collect your contact information, part of the attractiveness of offering monthly passes—as opposed to the year- or semester-long U-Pass—is to give student unions a crack at their members every thirty days.
We suggest that UTSU uses the next opportunity to survey current Metropass purchasers on their feelings regarding the U-Pass. If you don’t even have them onside, then it’s time to walk one block east to Queen’s Park.
Screen grab of Adam Giambrone’s Facebook page by David Topping. Jonathan Goldsbie is a U of T St. George student and loves his Metropass dearly, using it two to four times a day. He would love to try biking, though, but wouldn’t feel safe without bike lanes.