The Toronto UPass scheme

The Toronto Transit Commission is trying to sell students on a $720 a year mandatory U-Pass. The pass will be mandatory for all 150,000 part and full-time university students in Toronto if the TTC gets it’s way. It will be charged at a rate of $60 a month during all terms which a student is registered, including summer.

According to the TTC, 60 per cent of students currently use the TTC. Based on this figure, the UPass should have a monthly expense of about 60 per cent of the current student monthly pass cost to be revenue neutral. The proposed TTC pass is set to 68 per cent of the current cost. This is a nice 8 per cent bonus in revenue for the TTC. Even if they increase surface route service at the “suburban campuses” they are still going to make a killing.

Both Ryerson and UToronto are downtown and serviced primarily by subway or streetcar — there will be no increase in service to either service because of the UPass. (Streetcar service improvements are planned to serve the population of Toronto — not student riders.) There are nearly 90,000 students who will be paying for a UPass without a real increase in service.

If the TTC claims this is revenue neutral, then why are they so interested in having this pass? There has to be a benefit for them.

Both downtown campuses are walking distance for many students, these students will fork out money to subsidize passes for students living away from campus who pay lower rent or live at home. What a great deal!

Let’s be clear here: the TTC is not doing students any favours. This pass will not save students any money — it’s merely shifting the burden of commuter students’ transportation costs onto students who live within walking distance of campus. The idea that this helps the environment is bunk, what truly helps the environment is people living within walking distance of campus; this UPass will discourage that.

In short, this UPass is a rip-off. If the TTC and Mayor Miller were serious about saving students money and helping the environment, they would actually be offering students savings — not creating a system that will result in more revenue for the City and no overall savings for students.

When Toronto comes a little bit closer to the national average of $120 – $140 for a eight month UPass (Toronto’s eight month cost is $480, more than three times the national average), then they can talk about giving students a deal. Until then it’s just an elaborate scheme to fill the coffers of the TTC at the expense of students.

Additional (after lots of feedback, it’s clear this is a popular topic.)

Students in Toronto will be signing themselves to a long term contract that may prove to be damaging in the long term. There is a “turf war” occurring in Toronto between the TTC and the Greater Toronto Area transit authorities. GO Transit and other municipal transit services in the GTA (with the exception of Hamilton) have begun to integrate their services. One needs only look at Durham Region to see the future of transit in the Toronto area. Students at Durham’s post-secondary institutions pay $100 for a eight month UPass valid on both GO Transit and Durham Region transit. This means they can take the 407 Express, the GO Trains, or local buses all for $100. With a few trips to Toronto on the GO train from Oshawa station, they save enough money to pay for the pass.

We are only about five years away from a fully-integrated transit system outside of Toronto proper. Signing this expense deal today makes it very difficult for students to get a good deal when the regional transit pass is finally created.

The best comparison to Toronto in terms of a UPass is Vancouver. Vancouver already has a integrated transit authority. Translink runs everything, including building of roads.

The Translink UPass only costs SFU students $26.09 a month. UBC students pay $22 a month. In exchange, they get unlimited access to all Translink bus, Skytrain, and Seabus service. The savings for students is between 66 to 69 per cent compared to a monthly one zone pass. The Vancouver UPass enjoys corporate sponsorship that assists with the cost of the program and Translink realizes that the program is not revenue neutral — they have to increase service to match the demand.

Now, there have been service concerns expressed by students at both UBC and SFU — both schools are getting larger buses and increased service. Demand for transit has increased by 39 per cent at SFU and 53 per cent at UBC since the program came into effect in 2003. The supply of buses is getting better slowly, but it is still not adequate to meet demand.

Students in Toronto would be wise to hold out for a better offer from the City of Toronto and even wiser to wait until after the next provincial election — it appears very likely that the TTC’s rail services will be transferred to the province soon after 2011. As more and more people get used to integrated transit outside of Toronto, Queen’s Park will find itself facing demands from regional commuters to take over the subways and integrate them into a seamless transit grid.

It is then that Toronto area students will benefit from a discounted transit pass — not just the few that live in the suburbs within the city of Toronto. The pass will likely be an overall discount to students at that time as well, much like students in Vancouver are receiving an overall savings.

At the least, rejecting the city’s proposal now will force Mayor Miller to come back with a better offer. Don’t kid yourself: this is about more revenue and power for the TTC. Miller and company need this UPass more than students. Its up to students to leverage their power against City Hall.