By Nimmi Takkar
There are few issues that unite students more than the need for real change in our chronically under-funded transit system.
Overcrowded buses and lack of late-night service plague our system. But the most significant problem in Metro Vancouver is that over 20,000 college and university students are excluded from TransLink’s universal transit pass program.
The U-Pass is a system whereby every student at a given campus pays a (compulsory) reduced fare in exchange for an unlimited-use bus pass.
In Metro Vancouver, only certain institutions are allowed to be a part of the program. Institutions for which TransLink ridership is high are not allowed to participate.
Yes, you read that correctly: the students who would most benefit from a U-Pass are actively excluded from participating.
Current TransLink policy puts profit ahead of fairness and environmental sustainability. Naturally, students are fighting back.
On April 8, students at Vancouver Community College, Emily Carr University, and Douglas College filed a complaint with the B.C. ombudsman regarding discrimination within the U-Pass program.
Students had no other choice. After working for over eight years to expand the U-Pass program in a fair and universal manner, we have tried every avenue available to engage TransLink.
The complaint has two basic assertions. First, TransLink discriminates arbitrarily against students at certain institutions in the name of profit.
Secondly, students argue that TransLink has been inconsistent with the implementation of its own policy. Based on TransLink’s 2005 student survey, the U-Pass generates significant revenue at some institutions and operates at a loss at others, making the ban on our three institutions even more confounding.
Discrimination in similar programs would never be considered acceptable. Offering a seniors’ bus pass that depended on where the senior is living would generate a backlash at the ballot box that would have politicians cowering in their offices.
Students have, with some success, used elections for organizing too. Students won a partial victory when the B.C. Liberals’ 2009 election platform included a commitment to work with universities, colleges, TransLink, and B.C. Transit to introduce a common U-Pass program for all postsecondary students across the province. The platform committed to “a flat fee that is the same for students throughout Metro Vancouver, and lower for students in other areas that have less access to public transit in their region”.
As the pressure on TransLink builds, CEO Tom Prendergast has stated publicly that TransLink is ready to “put revenue-neutrality aside” and work toward a fair and equitable program.
However, TransLink is in the process of setting its 10-Year Transportation and Financial Plan. To increase transit service, including the expansion of the U-Pass, TransLink is in need of $450 million of additional funding.
Despite the positive developments, members of the TransLink board of directors have suggested that the funding for an expanded and standardized U-Pass program will not be included in the next strategic plan.
Without immediate dedicated funding, the provincial-government commitment of an expanded U-Pass program by 2010 seems all but impossible.
Former transportation and infrastructure minister Kevin Falcon legislated a TransLink board of directors nominated by the provincial government, essentially amplifying the responsibility that the B.C. government has to fund public-transit improvements in Metro Vancouver.
Although their powers have been reduced by the minister, area mayors are recommending a $450-million investment, and the City of Vancouver supports the expansion the U-Pass program as promised in the provincial election.
The U-Pass is characterized by a fair and standardized price for students that encourages sustainable transit. The B.C. government must keep its promise to provide dedicated funding for U-Pass expansion, starting immediately with the TransLink 10-year plan.
We encourage TransLink and Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Shirley Bond to consider our complaint to the B.C. ombudsman on U-Pass price discrimination, as well as our willingness to find fair solutions, and to ensure that the U-Pass program can be expanded to public postsecondary students within Metro Vancouver by September 2010.
Nimmi Takkar is the external relations officer for the Students’ Unions of Vancouver Community College.