TransLink's U-Pass yields hidden bonus
Melissa Chungfat managed her time well as an undergrad. In addition to handling her course load, the SFU communication student worked part-time and was active in organizations like Canadian Students for Darfur.
For the second half of her degree, the Port Coquitlam resident travelled all the way to downtown Vancouver, for classes at the SFU Harbour Centre campus. Being mobile for her many activities wasn’t a problem.
With her U-Pass—a public-transportation pass made available by TransLink to SFU and UBC students in 2003—Chungfat could zip across Metro Vancouver’s three transit fare zones without having to worry about purchasing an add-on ticket. She had unlimited access to TransLink bus, SkyTrain, and SeaBus systems.
It was affordable, too. A U-Pass costs SFU students $104.36 per semester, the equivalent of $26.09 a month. But everything changed after she finished her schooling.
“I felt the difference as soon as I graduated last year,” Chungfat told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from her home. “It was a different way of living, because I have to find change or buy a pass. And it was much less convenient, but also, like, four times more expensive.”
Unlike many, she found work immediately after graduation. For unemployed graduates, especially those saddled with thousands of dollars in student loans, the cost of transit is a drag.
“It’s quite a big expense for a fresh grad, especially when people are in the process of looking for a job,” Chungfat said. “I know people right now who graduated a year ago, and even for me to meet up for coffee with them, it’s a couple of dollars, and they’ll walk 30 minutes instead of taking a bus because it’s expensive. So even little, everyday things like that, it reduces their mobility”¦and especially if they don’t have a job, it really adds up quite fast.”
A postgraduation, price-discounted transit pass could help. This measure is one of the three recommendations made in a pioneering study by Elizabeth Caitlin Cooper. It’s particularly significant in light of the August 17 opening of the Canada Line, which whizzes by two postsecondary institutions: Langara College and Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Richmond campus.
Cooper submitted “Creating a Transit Generation: The Effect of the U-Pass on Lifelong Transit Use” last spring, as her thesis for a public-policy master’s degree at SFU. Her research reveals for the first time that U-Pass holders are likely to continue using public transit after their student days are over.
In an interview, Cooper pointed out that transit use tends to tail off as people get older, and that young people are more likely to use transit as their primary form of transportation.
“My research showed that the rate of decline in transit use was slightly reduced as a result of the U-Pass, meaning that students who had had a U-Pass while at university were more likely to remain transit users after graduation,” Cooper told the Straight. “This is important for policymaking because it shows that although the U-Pass costs TransLink a lot of money, it does achieve its long-term goals of creating lifelong transit users, which contributes to increasing the sustainability of the region by reducing the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road.”
Based on the results of a survey Cooper conducted of former SFU students, the paper notes that 53 percent of former U-Pass holders are frequent transit users, averaging between one and two round trips on public transportation per week.
An additional 23 percent of former U-Pass holders reported that they continue to use transit, although on an infrequent basis. This gives a total of 76 percent of former U-Pass holders remaining transit users.
Survey results for SFU alumni who were not U-Pass holders provide a different picture: only 42 percent reported being frequent transit users, while 17 percent said they use transit infrequently, for a total of 59 percent. “This indicates that the pass has had success in influencing transit use postgraduation,” the paper points out.
Providing former students with a discounted transit pass for up to five years after graduation would build on the success of the U-Pass, according to Cooper’s paper. “The 25-34 age group is important because this is when university graduates typically enter the work force, make housing choices, and may form life-long habits,” the study states. “The goal is to help make public transit a ”˜way of life’.”
The paper also notes that 43 percent of former U-Pass holders reported that the “ability to take transit or walk to their destination influenced where they live, work, and shop”. Furthermore, it shows that 40 percent of the same group use prepaid fares like monthly passes for their regular transit needs. Only 33 percent of those who were not U-Pass holders do the same.
Sally Tse graduated from SFU this summer, and she’s working part-time. She’s one former frequent U-Pass user who now rides transit infrequently.
In a phone interview, Tse said she would use transit more often if she had a pass that was more affordable than the current regular fare. She uses the family car.
“I definitely feel the impact of not having a U-Pass,” Tse told the Straight. “Now that I don’t have it, it’s pretty expensive to take the bus. Sometimes, when it’s a short distance, I would not even bother taking a bus, because it will be cheaper for me to drive.”
For recent graduates out job hunting or gaining experience through volunteer work, an affordable pass would be a good idea, according to Tse.
The introduction of the U-Pass at SFU and UBC in 2003 resulted in an increase in transit ridership of 39 percent and 53 percent, respectively, in the first year alone. The U-Pass has also had environmental benefits, as single-occupant-vehicle trips have declined.
The Richmond-based consulting firm Urban Systems reviewed the program and issued a report in May 2005 that stated SFU’s student-pass program had led to a reduction of 3,000 tonnes in greenhouse-gas emissions. UBC’s share was even larger, at 8,000 tonnes. (Don’t Be a SOV, a Web site put together by concerned SFU students, estimates that an average SFU student who drives to school alone creates 1.12 tonnes of CO2 emissions per semester.)
On February 6, 2009, UBC released its most recent transportation report. It notes that daily transit trips to and from the campus increased 168 percent between the fall of 1997 and the fall of 2008, mainly because of the U-Pass. Single-occupant-vehicle trips declined by six percent in the same 10-year period, even as the daytime population of the campus rose by 36 percent.
Carole Jolly is the director of the TREK Program Centre, UBC’s transportation-demand management department. “Transit now is our number one mode share, so it’s the most popular way people choose to get to and from campus over any other mode, including single-occupancy vehicles,” Jolly told the Straight.
Jolly hadn’t heard about Cooper’s recommendation to extend affordable transit passes to graduates, but she said that any opportunity to provide people with an incentive to take public transportation and remain loyal transit riders should be explored.
Not all postsecondary institutions in Metro Vancouver have the U-Pass. Langara College and Capilano University were added to the program only in May 2008 and January 2009, respectively. In April, following years of failed negotiations with TransLink, the student unions at Vancouver Community College, Emily Carr University, and Douglas College filed a complaint with the B.C. ombudsman against regional and provincial transportation officials. Joined by the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students, they alleged that TransLink’s price-setting policies and procedures discriminate against students at their schools.
In their complaint, the student unions noted that while TransLink offers students in U-Pass institutions monthly fares ranging from $26 to $38, those excluded from the program pay between $73 a month—the cost of a regular one-zone monthly pass—and $136, for a three-zone card. The ombudsman has yet to respond.
Students hoping for a U-Pass have a champion in Cooper. Her second recommendation in “Creating a Transit Generation” is for TransLink to extend the program to other postsecondary institutions. This would “increase both student transit use and post-graduation transit use”, the paper states. Cooper also proposes the standardization of U-Pass contracts for all participating schools.
“Although smaller schools might not see the 50 percent increases in student ridership that UBC and SFU experienced, increases in the 15-20 percent range could be expected at schools that currently have high ridership levels,” the study notes.
In the run-up to the provincial election in May, the governing B.C. Liberal party vowed to work with postsecondary institutions, TransLink, and B.C. Transit—the Crown corporation in charge of public transportation outside Metro Vancouver—to introduce a U-Pass program for all students across the province. The Liberals stated in their platform that they would deliver on this pledge by the time classes open in September 2010.
Lori MacDonald, an organizer with the Emily Carr Students’ Union, explained that student bodies have been trying without success to set up a meeting with Prince George–Valemount MLA and new transportation minister Shirley Bond to follow up on this promise.
“They’ve made a commitment that increases access to education at a time when students are in the worst financial situation and being affected by the economy,” MacDonald said to the Straight. “The province needs to come through with that promise.”
It was MacDonald who informed the Straight about Cooper’s paper. She and other U-Pass advocates became aware of “Creating a Transit Generation” about two months ago, when they were told about it by none other than TransLink board director Nancy Olewiler. A professor of economics and director of SFU’s public-policy program, Olewiler supervised the preparation of the thesis that earned Cooper a master’s degree.
Speaking as an academic and not as a TransLink director, Olewiler said in a phone interview that Cooper’s study shows a need for something more than just U-Passes for students, if policymakers want to encourage lifelong transit use.
“It’s the first time anybody has looked at postgraduation ridership and correlated that with the presence or not of the U-Pass,” Olewiler explained to the Straight. “It’s the kind of [academic] work that we should do more, and I would love to see a more expanded study.”
TransLink’s spokesperson, Ken Hardie, cannot say offhand how heavily the current U-Pass program is subsidized by the regional transportation authority.
“It’s not cost-neutral, because we always see the ridership go up—which is what you want, right? But what happens is we have to put in extra buses and extra hours of service,” Hardie told the Straight.
The 2005 review by Urban Systems noted that TransLink incurs additional costs of $4.6 million a year to support the U-Pass programs at SFU and UBC.
B.C. Transportation Ministry spokesperson Linda Gold said the government is “still moving forward” with a provincewide U-Pass program for September 2010. “As far as details about costs and things, they haven’t determined that yet,” Gold told the Straight by phone.
But a U-Pass expansion doesn’t figure in TransLink’s proposed 10-year plan, set to start in 2010. Worse, the transportation authority is on its way to bankruptcy unless it gains the means to generate more revenue. This year, TransLink started drawing on its reserves. The regional body has projected a 2009 deficit of $103 million, which would drop reserves to just $268 million by the end of the year. In June, however, it slightly revised its estimated deficit, announcing that the shortfall would be $93.5 million. If revenue projections for its megaprojects—the tolled Golden Ears Bridge and the Canada Line, both of which opened this year—are off target, TransLink’s financial woes will only deepen.
Even though TransLink is in a financial sinkhole—and there are many opinions as to why—Cooper maintains that public transportation plays a major role in enhancing sustainable lifestyles and communities. Her third recommendation is quite revolutionary, one that, as she notes in her paper, hasn’t been tried in a jurisdiction as large as Metro Vancouver. It involves giving residents passes good for a few days, in return for a compulsory flat fee. This, Cooper claims, would effect a structural policy shift that would slowly wean people off their cars and turn them toward transit.
“Through the survey conducted for this study as well as other research conducted on Deep Discount Group Passes, there is proof that when a pass is made mandatory for a group of people, not everyone in the group will use the pass, but almost everyone in the group will benefit, either from the use of transit or from decreased congestion on the roadways,” the paper points out.
According to “Creating a Transit Generation”, this could be done in increments, giving TransLink time to increase service to meet greater future demand while providing the cash-strapped transportation authority with a reliable source of revenue.
Cooper told the Straight that in order to alter behaviour, “we need to introduce a structural change that will force people to think about their choices” when it comes to transportation.
“The U-Pass provides an incentive to use transit because the student has had to pay for it, whether they want it or not, and since they have it, there is a tendency to use it,” she said. “This concept could be extended beyond university students to the general population, where all residents could receive a transit pass for which they pay for directly or indirectly, thus encouraging people to make some of their trips by transit.”