Ignorance about U-Pass is stoking the controversy

For transit too? Protesting University of Ottawa students demand lower fees

Editor’s note: The following is cross-posted from Spacing Ottawa contributor Peter Raaymakers’ site, Public Transit in Ottawa.

It’s pretty amazing to think that the City of Ottawa’s U-Pass pilot project has become such a hugely divisive issue. The project, for those who use public transit regularly, means a 50 per cent savings for those with a regular student pass (based on an eight-month school year). And since it qualifies for up to and including rural express fares, it means a nearly 60 per cent savings for ‘express’ students, and a massive nearly 70 per cent discount for ‘rural express’ students.

The problem, though, arises when considering those students who don’t use transit. And maintain that they won’t, whether or not they’re given a pass. Without an opt-out clause, it means a $290 tuition increase for those students who don’t use transit that comes without direct benefit.

Charlie Taylor eventually lost his run for Ottawa’s mayoralty, but his campaign was memorable for his passionate calls to end the U-Pass project, which he called an “unethical” tax on students who choose to walk or bike rather than take the bus or train. He mustered a small but active following based on his stance.

Complaints about the U-Pass have peppered local papers for months now. Quebec residents, for instance, are not eligible for the pass. And there was the memorable case of a Carleton University student caught in a sting operation trying to sell her non-transferable U-Pass on Kijiji. For her efforts trying to recoup the $290 expense, she was fined $610 for illegally trying to sell her pass.

The story prompted a bit of a back-and-forth in the Ottawa Citizen’s letters to the editor, beginning with a letter of support from a University of Ottawa student who said the pass, and the charge therefor, are “unfair” because all students must pay for a service that not all students use.

That letter was followed by a rebuttal validly pointing out how commonplace it is for municipal services to be paid for by all, but only used by some. Take, for instance, OC Transpo itself, which is hugely subsidized by Ottawa’s taxpayers–a 50 per cent subsidy–even though far from all residents in the city use the service. The author of the letter also cited other social programs, like employment insurance, welfare, and, fittingly, higher education, as instances where all must pay for the benefit of some.

Some history on the U-Pass: It was heavily promoted by the student federations at both the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, as well as the Canadian Federation of Students. Reluctantly, OC Transpo agreed to a pilot project for the U-Pass after referenda at both universities passed (albeit with characteristically low student-voter turnouts). But it’s still a pilot project: Right now it’s for one year, and OC Transpo hasn’t really changed anything in preparation for the project–although they seem to expect lost revenue as a resul of the project–because they’re waiting to see what becomes of it. From the 2010 city budget:

Council implement a two-semester pilot program establishing a U-Pass for $145/semester, beginning in September, 2010 with no changes to the service levels and with any resulting revenue deficit in 2010 to be taken from the Transit Reserve. Staff to evaluate the actual costs and benefits of the pilot program after the first semester and provide a report to City Council prior to the 2011 Budget.

So there’s nothing permanent here: The city, OC Transpo, and–one would assume–the student federations are waiting to see what comes of the pilot project. But this also means that students outraged by the project have plenty of opportunity to make waves during this year’s student elections, either by running directly for positions, proposing referenda, or just getting their peers out to vote.

This isn’t something that’s been forced on students. And if students are looking to change it, they have every opportunity to do so. But if other students want to keep it around, they’ll have to be vocal about it, as well.

photo by Miliquin


  1. All in all a balanced take on the issue. I won’t get into my reasons as to why the U-Pass is an unethical and illegal policy as these are well documented in all manner of media and are a matter of public record. I would however like to make a couple of corrections to minor factual errors in this article:
    One: Quebec residents are not exempt from being forced to buy the bus pass, only residents of Gatineau who live within STO service area are exempt. That means, if you live in, say, Buckingham, you still have to buy the pass even though you most certainly don’t get OCTranspo service where you live.
    Two: To say that a writer “validly” pointed out that it is commonplace for municipal services to be paid for by all is a value judgment which fails to take into account that these taxes are levied by municipalities. Universities are not one of the bodies legally allowed to levy taxes under the BNA and so are not allowed to charge for municipal services. This makes the U-Pass different from say, library fees, which are a service provided by the university. The U-Pass is unconstitutional, which will be one of four major legal points we will be pursuing in our class action lawsuit on behalf of U-Pass victims.
    Three: The student federations are NOT waiting to see what comes of the pilot project. They actively campaigned during the municipal election to try to get candidates to guarantee they would support a permanent U-Pass. They also staged events and circulated propaganda suggesting students shouldn’t support candidates who don’t support extending the U-Pass. That is hardly a wait and see attitude.

  2. I’m not a full-time student anymore, so I’m not paying for it, but I’m still against it. I didn’t vote for it in the referendum last year, and though I won’t have the opportunity again, I wouldn’t vote for it in the future if I could. Sure, it’s great for students that use transit daily, but for those who don’t, it’s a huge, expensive levy. If anything, it discourages students from living downtown, since the difference in rent costs usually makes up for having to buy the pass.

    And let’s face it: for your average student, $290 is a lot of money for something that you rarely use. And unlike taxes, that $290 is in no way tied to your financial means (as income tax is, and as property tax should theoretically be related to); you have to pay that, no matter what.

    If it were a question of much less money, say $145 for the whole eight months, then I might be convinced. As-is, I definitely support those who have come out against it.

  3. As a past and possibly future student?

    If I’d had this available to me when I was in my Algonquin diploma program studies? I’d have used the thing to within a micron of its life. I know that I was absolutely dependent upon the old student-priced bus pass that OC Transpo offered to those able to document their status with the universities and colleges back in the day. Bus travel or no classes, full stop.

  4. I went to university in Kingston for 6 years and can tell you that in that city where Queen’s and St. Lawrence students can use their student cards as bus passes because they all pay a mandatory fee for the annual pass, it is extremely convenient and supported by almost everyone -even students who rarely take the bus (especially Queen’s students because the campus, student housing area, and most amenities are within a 15 minute walk)! I don’t understand why it’s so controversial in Ottawa.

  5. I actually suspect that if you calculated the economic benefit to Ottawa of its universities and colleges including the spending power of the students, the vibrancy and economic activity of the downtown core, the benefit to landlords (and therefore the tax base), etc etc, the City would have a strong argument to let PS students ride for free just by showing their student card., out of pure gratitude that they chose to study here and not another city.

    It would send a message across Canada that this is a student-friendly town; I bet we would all benefit.

  6. I think the Upass is great. I did my undergrad at the University of Guelph where a universal bus pass has been in place for awhile and the project has been really successful. When I came to OU for grad school I was excited to see that Ottawa had a Upass as well but have been totally blown away by how controversial it is, the complaints seem completely self interested. This isn’t so much a tuition issue as it is a social issue. We need taxes when we live in a society. If you don’t use the Upass – fine, you can roll your eyes about how annoying it is to you as individual who walks or bikes to campus, but keep in mind the community around you, of the people who aren’t able to afford to live so close to campus etc. 

  7. Another variable that many forget to take into account is the benefit to society in general by taking more cars off the road. A huge proportion of students are from the suburbs and drive to school; because they are forced to buy the bus pass, it is now in their interest to take the bus rather than pay for gas and parking, which already would have cost them a significant amount. This shift reduces congestion on roads and in downtown/campus parking, as well as vehicle emissions, benefiting society as a whole.

  8. The uPass has been a massive success in Waterloo Region; both universities have had it for a few years now, and it has really ramped up ridership and brought on board students who hadn’t previously considered it.

    In fact, it’s made so many transit fans around here that there’s been a groundswell of support for our LRT project. Might Ottawa want to take notes?

  9. I wholly support those nine Ottawa U students who have come out with a lawsuit against their Student Union. This levy is totally unnecessary on those who don’t need it and it is very much a disincentive for people to make green choices like living close to the school, walk, or bike. Me, personally, I CHOOSE to drive a car because OC Transpo’s service SUCKS! I pay my own insurance, gas, maintenance (most of which I do myself) — I manage my money well. This is just an extra unnecessary tax, which is complete bs. Oh and forcing me to buy it is NOT gonna make me take the bus, it is just going to fuel my aversion to the whole thing. To those who think I am “helping” other people get reduced costs on a transit pass — why don’t they impose a $290 levy on transit takers to help us out with our gas, insurance, parking, etc? Just trying to show how ridiculous this is. If I had the chance to be in on this lawsuit, I would jump in on it in a second.

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