Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Campbell promises cheap transit passes to post-secondary students

with 12 comments


B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell rolled out his election-campaign platform Wednesday in Vancouver, promising to extend a popular subsidized transit program to all post-secondary students in the province.

Campbell said if his party wins a third term in the May 12 British Columbia election, they’ll give all college and university students U-Passes starting in September 2010. The transit passes, which were first issued to university students in Metro Vancouver about five years ago, let all registered students pay a low monthly fee for access to public transit.

They have been in power for eight years and, as far as I know, this is the first anyone has heard from the provincial government on this issue. And that should come as no surprise since it really is none of their business. Everywhere in BC transit is a partnership between the municipal and provincial governments. Except that in Greater Vancouver, the province has always taken a more proprietary interest and under the BC Liberals municipal control has been greatly diminished if not quite removed altogether.

UPass costs a lot of money. But the policy to date is that it should be “revenue neutral” – which is a stupid concept for a system which is both cash strapped and capacity challenged. Systems that had spare capacity even at peak periods could afford to cut prices to fill it, since a seat mile is a highly perishable commodity. But that was never the case here. Since UPass was introduced at UBC and SFU, Translink has been playing catch up – and is still nowhere near even. Which is why they have not been able to afford to cut better deals with other institutions.

With this announcement, Gordon Campbell is telling the region that the last vestige of local control  over Translink will be removed if he is re-elected. Because he will impose UPass on the region no matter what anyone here says – Mayors or taxpayers. And this being an election pledge he does not have to say how it will be paid for. My bet will be that it will be local tax payers – not provincial ones. I do not expect any additional transfer of provincial revenues to cover increased operating costs. And universal UPass will cost plenty of those. And in many cases to provide an attractive price to students the idea of revenue neutrality by institution will have to be dropped too. 

I have no objection to UPass as an idea. What is of concern, however, is the priority that has been allocated to post secondary students in getting a break on transit fares ahead of many other deserving cases. Quite why students are more deserving than say single mothers on welfare or people with disabilities or schoolchildren who cannot now look forward to the occasional field trip (the cost of the bus fare is now prohibitive for group travel). Now you might think that this is the sort of question best dealt with by each community based on their local needs and ability to pay. And that is true in every part of BC – except Greater Vancouver. And somehow the policy wonks at the BC Liberals think this might be a good time to expand Translink to places like Abbotsford and Chilliwack which still retain local democratic control of their transit systems.

It is also the case that Translink has been trying to interest people in consultations on their long term plans – but of course this massively expensive idea is not in their plans. And without new revenue sources, those plans are unachievable. Indeed service cuts are promised once the reserves are drained. 

Of course, Gordon Campbell is also not known for keeping his pre-election promises. Either way, voting Liberal this time means you – the person who picks up the tab – lose.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 15, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Posted in transit

12 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Nice to meet you last night at Matthew’s shindig.

    On the topic of Upass, since this is not revenue-neutral for the students involved (there is a mandatory charge to the students, usually added to the student fees), there has always been a referendum at the schools to see if the students WANT U-pass. I think it took two tries to get SFU on side, but I may be dreaming that). Is Gordie going to force U-Pass onto students without letting the students decide if they get value for the money? hmmm…

    Pat J

    April 15, 2009 at 4:37 pm

  2. […] [The Hook] Greens back BC-STV [The Hook] The Coalition, BC-STV and next steps for the Left [Rabble] Campbell promises cheap transit passes to post-secondary students [Stephen Rees’s blog] A grim Campbell launches straight into a ’stakes are high’ […]

    re:place Magazine

    April 15, 2009 at 6:23 pm

  3. Last week it was turnstiles for SkyTrain -$100 million + $20 million annual operating costs and now universal U-Pass at tremendous costs.

    Watch for massive property tax increases and car levies.

    The U-Pass was first conceived in Seattle to put “bums on empty seats”.

    I wonder what transit fiasco Campbell is going to promise next week!

    Malcolm J.

    April 15, 2009 at 7:13 pm

  4. At both SFU and UBC were a significant number of students who drove who did not want the UPass at any price. I think at most other institutions the number of existing transit riders who would see a fare reduction IF they got a deal like SFU/UBC would get that through. But why do students get a vote on this when the taxpayers who have to make up the rest of the deal with increased subsidies don’t? And if Gordo is forcing UPass on all post secondary students, presumably the price will be based on what the provincial government deems acceptable.

    Stephen Rees

    April 15, 2009 at 8:51 pm

  5. Most colleges already have high transit ridership so passenger loads won’t increase too much, but revenue is sure to drop as tens of thousands who currently pay full fare get a steep discount. Will the province be making up the difference or will TransLink be forced to cut service?

    The U-pass overloaded an already crowded transit system without providing any additional revenue. From that perspective it’s been a disaster.

    If the Premier still lived in West Point Grey he’d know that when the U-pass first came out hundreds of students drove to his old neighbourhood and parked for free then hopped on the bus as if it was a parking shuttle. The only thing that has slowed that down is the fact that many buses are now too full to pick up anyone in Point Grey.


    April 16, 2009 at 10:54 am

  6. Only in BC would a transit pass for students be such a controversial subject..I had one when I was a high school student in Bordeaux.. in the 60s. By coincidence this week I was checking the fares for the Rennes transit system (Rennes, in France’s Brittany, is the smaller town in the world–so far– to have an automated light metro. its population, including the suburbs, is 1/2 million). As with most Euro transit systems with transit smart cards they have a big number of fares..Rennes fares, as in some other towns, go by age so ANYONE under 27 get a discounted fare but they also have more specific fares for high school and university students: a 10 month pass at reduced price for months when the school/ university is on plus a “summer” pass (2 months for the price of 1). A propos of gates / turnstiles even London, held in example by Falcon, doesn’t have them everywhere…I also found that the roving fares inspectors on the Paris transit system (RATP) carry a hand held device to check smart cards on board…another expense that Falcon hasn’t budgeted for?

    Red frog

    April 17, 2009 at 9:17 am

  7. Sorry, Monsieur Frog, but London now does have gates at all underground (and overground) stations. The initial installation of automatic gates was in the late 1980’s but was confined to the Central Area and thus much less effective than it needed to be. It took a while but now all stations have gates – and staff on duty at all times to deal with people who cannot get through them.It is that staffing cost that the current capital injection ignores and is far from trivial.

    Stephen Rees

    April 17, 2009 at 9:25 am

  8. What’s interesting is that London’s other rail transit system, the DLR, still operates without gates. Instead they have a passenger service agent aboard each train who checks fares in addition to their other duties.

    I agree that it’s ridiculous that giving students a different fare is being made such a big deal, but we live in a place where public transit isn’t treated as a public service.

    Every provincial government since 1980 has used SkyTrain as a means for enriching developers and/or gathering votes, never as a tool for efficiently moving people. The day to day running of the transit system is expected to operate like a business and turn a profit on its own instead of being recognized as a valuable public service that may need a subsidy.


    April 17, 2009 at 2:53 pm

  9. This is what I read about using the Oyster in Wikipedia at “Passengers enter or exit most London Underground stations through ticket barriers which are operated by swiping an Oyster card or other valid ticket. Some Tube stations (such as those at National Rail interchanges) and DLR stations have stand alone validators with no barriers. In both instances, PAYG users are required to touch in and out”
    from the National Rail: “All London Underground and many National Rail stations in the London area have Oyster card compatible ticket gates or validators” validators are stand alone devices that are commonly found in towns that have a transit system that includes a subway but has no fare barriers.

    Red frog

    April 17, 2009 at 10:42 pm

  10. Transit in Van/metro-van is so damn expensive as to make it more economical to drive a car,go figure.
    Why not just make transit free ? And rather than spending billions on Skytrain,freeway expansion,& road expansion,run light rail down the middle of main streets(trains control the traffic lights)buses feed the trains.
    Finance it with a carbon tax on gas,we might then actual be able to lower carbon emissions ,i.e by giving people real viable options(other than driving).
    I believe cars produce 1/3rd of all carbon emissions.
    But then again I like to dream,no government would ever propose such a solution,sure as shit not a Liberal one that’s for sure.
    Instead we get a non-nonsensical carbon tax(I guess that money will help build more roads),lousy transit,expensive transit,more freeways, and on it goes.


    April 20, 2009 at 10:07 pm

  11. How could transit be more expensive than a car? the yearly insurance on a car alone is as expensive as an average yearly pass. Then you have to pay for parking, gas, maintenance and repairs..and the price of the car itself….

    Red frog

    April 20, 2009 at 11:29 pm

  12. Transit is absolutely not more expensive than a car. In 1999 and 2000, I kept a log of every penny I spent on my Corolla. Then I calculated the marginal per-km cost (fuel + maintenance + repairs). It worked out to $.08 in 1999 and $.11 in 2000 (my average gas price was $.54/L and $.69/L, respectively, and my repair costs were low).

    At the time, I was making a short commute (~14km return, iirc) between Lougheed Mall and SFU, where a parking pass was $47 for two months. I don’t recall the price of a transit pass. By my calculations, assuming I kept the car for pleasure, the car was still no cheaper than transit.

    In reality, most families have two cars. Transit can make it possible to reduce that to one car, saving fixed costs also. Then transit is dramatically cheaper than driving. In fact, that is what my wife and I have done.

    Of course, even the total cost of ownership is only a fraction of the true cost, which includes the amount we collectively spend to provide the road infrastructure. I believe I have seen numbers placing this in the range of $5000-$7000 per car per year. (Never mind externalities like health.)


    April 21, 2009 at 12:35 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: