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Return of the U-Pass: This Time Bringing Students On Board

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Talk of introducing a U-Pass program at Memorial University’s campuses in St. John’s has surfaced again after a 2019 student vote saw 71% of eligible voters reject the previous U-Pass proposal.

On Thursday, October 1, the Memorial University Climate Action Coalition (CAC) hosted an online Transit Town Hall to discuss why MUN’s 2019 U-Pass vote failed and what lessons could be learned from the process. Hosted by CAC member Kerri Claire Neil, the town hall featured three panelists who’d been involved in the development of the U-Pass proposal: Liam O’Neill, MUN Students’ Union Arts Director and former Executive Director; Sarah Stoodley, MHA for Mount Scio and former Board of Regents member; and Jordan Wright, Memorial University staff member and co-chair of the Parking and Transportation Solutions Committee. The event took place online using Webex and was also streamed on Facebook Live.

MUN’s Climate Action Coalition was formed in September 2019 to pursue climate action at the university and includes Memorial students, faculty, and staff as well as interested community members. After organizing this month’s town hall, the group announced they’re forming an Action Team to renew efforts to bring a U-Pass program to Memorial. 

First Proposal Prompted by Parking Problems

Students last voted on a U-Pass proposal in February 2019. The development of that proposal was led by Memorial’s Parking and Transportation Solutions Committee, which formed in 2015 to address the challenges students face with accessing campus—challenges the new Core Science facility would soon exacerbate. The committee included staff and students, and was co-chaired by MUN employee Jordan Wright and the MUN Students’ Union (MUNSU).

“The early days of that committee, we received two consultant reports where the U-Pass was referenced as a ‘low-hanging fruit’ recommendation to address parking and transportation challenges, particularly for students,” Wright remarked during the town hall.

The title or source of these reports was not specified during the town hall, but there was a link to a 2017 Commuting and Parking Strategies report by Dillon Consulting included in the town hall’s Facebook event. According to that document, there are about 14,500 students as well as 4200 faculty and staff on the St. John’s campus—but only 3900 parking spaces, mostly reserved for faculty and staff.

“The introduction of U-Pass agreements in other communities has shown ridership increases of 50 percent to 150 percent over a 10 year period. This has the potential to significantly reduce demand for parking,” explains the report. But it goes on to point out that a U-Pass would be a long-term parking solution, not a short-term one. “Given a best case scenario, the first set of U-Passes would be given out in four years. This would not immediately address MUN’s parking issue.”

Following the consultants’ recommendations, Memorial decided to explore the U-Pass concept. MHA Sarah Stoodey was a member of the university’s Board of Regents before she was elected to the House, and sat on the Board’s transportation sub-committee when U-Pass discussions first began. In a consultation survey that received more than 2300 responses—1800 from full- or part-time students at St. John’s or Marine Institute campuses—62% of respondents indicated they’d pay $100 to $150 per semester for a U-Pass.

“The lesson I learned… was not to trust a consultation survey,” Stoodley commented during the town hall. “Thinking back, I don’t know that we would have kept going forward at the time if the consultation had come back and said, no—71% of students don’t want this. We probably would have stopped it then.”

Liam O’Neill, MUNSU representative, confirmed that students have long been aware of MUN’s parking challenges, but felt awareness of the U-Pass was low among students in 2018.

“Despite members of the student union years before having raised the issues about parking, it wasn’t really on the student union’s radar leading up to things,” O’Neill commented during the town hall. “In the Fall of 2018, it got back on our radar. But students weren’t coming to us and asking for a U-Pass. They were complaining about parking, but they weren’t putting forward a solution.”

How the 2019 U-Pass Vote Happened

From the initial formation of the Parking and Transportation Solutions Committee in 2015, discussions about the U-Pass progressed and involved multiple stakeholders.

“The options really are endless, and part of the challenge is to decide which one you’re going to try to move forward with,” Wright explained. “For those of us who were involved for a number of years, there was certainly a concern that we were going around in circles.”

“So the decision was taken just before summer in 2018—and we agreed with the students’ union at the time—that during the current term of everybody around the table, we were going to bring this to a decision,” continued Wright. “In fall 2018 our effort was: we need to lock it in. We need to figure out what the proposal is going to be so that students can express themselves on this proposal.”

Over the Fall 2018 semester, the university hosted consultations on the proposal and conducted an awareness campaign to provide students with information about the program and the voting process. “It really is that balance of price point, level of service, and opt outs that you need to communicate and you need to understand as you build this program,” emphasized Wright.

Ultimately, the final proposal for the U-Pass had a cost of $139 per semester in fall and winter and $110 per semester in spring, summer, intersession, or technical session (Marine Institute). “Truly, we did modify the proposal based on the feedback,” stated Wright. “With this proposal, the challenge is locking it in… Not everybody’s going to agree with what the proposal’s going to look like.” 

Of more than 12,500 eligible voters, 6977 students voted “No” to the creation of the proposed U-Pass program at Memorial.

“Students love driving—more students than I thought,” Stoodley reflected on the outcome of the vote. “And the university community, they love driving. They love driving and parking.”

“Other things like tuition and government subsidies, none of that goes toward parking at MUN. That’s why parking gets more and more expensive, because [the Board of Regents] made a decision that no other university funds could go towards parking,” Stoodley noted. “It will get more and more expensive as parking demands increase, but the students love driving.”

“A student-first solution”

With high voter turnout and more than two-thirds of students voting against the U-Pass proposal, the results of the student vote were clear. What is less clear are the reasons why students said no. 

“We didn’t want to go through all the hassle of doing the referendum or asking everyone if they wanted a U-Pass if we didn’t think they actually wanted it,” commented Stoodley during the town hall. 

If students are frustrated by the challenges of parking on campus and a U-Pass was identified as a way to alleviate those parking problems, why didn’t students vote to implement the program?

The 2017 Commuting and Parking report states: “Current transit level of service is not sufficient to be an attractive alternative to driving, and Metrobus does not have a budget available for service improvements. A UPass program would provide Metrobus with a sustainable guaranteed revenue source to enhance service levels and improve ridership, making transit a more attractive travel choice.”

Specific service improvements were part of the proposal students considered. These included added service and reduced wait times for routes that currently service the university, a new inter-campus shuttle service, and two new park-and-ride weekday express routes from Torbay and Mount Pearl. Wright acknowledged that Metrobus has “an amazing team” who worked “extremely well… within the environment that they have and the current budget that they have, with the service that’s possible.”

Yet the outcome of the vote suggests the proposed service improvements at the proposed cost did not go far enough for students to view paying over $100 per semester for unlimited transit as a good deal. One audience member at the town hall, identified only as Evan, commented: “I’m a graduate student. We don’t work hours that are suitable to take the bus. I don’t know of any graduate student who voted yes.” (The breakdown of graduate students’ votes was 453 for yes and 516 for no.)

“You often talk about the chicken and the egg problem with what comes first—more riders, or better service?” posited O’Neill. “I think that we absolutely do need to find ways to start disincentivizing driving. But I feel like it’s problematic to do that when you’re not providing alternatives, and right now, there aren’t alternatives.”

“This was about improving accessibility and reducing parking and transit challenges for students on campus, while giving them access to the entire public transit network—and more destinations because of the service improvements—at a reduced price,” Wright reinforced. “Throughout the consultation, we heard that students were willing to pay a little bit more if the value was there and that’s what led us to the ultimate price point.”

“It was definitely something that was a student-first solution,” continued Wright. “Students being our leaders and innovators of tomorrow… we thought this was an excellent point to try to introduce a concept like you’ve seen across the country to address the challenge.”

Other Transit Opportunities Near MUN

The U-Pass conversation seems to inevitably include a broader conversation about public transit in St. John’s and the surrounding municipalities, particularly other large hubs in close proximity to the university’s campuses.

One town hall attendee, David, wanted to know specifically what efforts have been made to include groups like Eastern Health and the Confederation Building in a universal transit pass program. College of the North Atlantic is also commonly mentioned as a logical group to include in discussions about a U-Pass program.

“I definitely think there’s potential for those other locations,” Wright remarked at the town hall. “As we focused on this particular project, we looked again to the challenges we were having specific to campus and, first and foremost, for students. But we always thought this was something that, over time, we would see changes in the network. We would see changes at these other locations.”

“If somebody in the community wanted to participate or wanted to get on the bus, there was no ‘MUN bus’ specific for Memorial. It was the public transit network, and so community members could participate,” clarified Wright. “The discounted price was truly to benefit students, who we thought were… a bit more price-sensitive at that stage.”

While expanding the U-Pass program to become some type of broader “Parkway Pass” program wasn’t feasible to achieve in time for the 2019 student vote, there may be other barriers that such a program would need to overcome.

“I think part of the problem with Confederation Building and Eastern Health is they all drive, and a lot of them have families,” mused Stoodley. “I’m not sure we could convince many of them not to drive anymore.”

O’Neill, however, agrees that more conversations about transit need to happen. “I think there are many groups that would do this if they had the confidence in the system,” stated O’Neill. “They want to see a success story, which the students very well could be. But I think this is also a place where the city, as the owner of Metrobus, ought to be stepping in… the city should figure out a much more rigorous and meaningful way to develop these potential groups that could buy at a reduced cost.”

“One of the hesitations of students at the time was being the guinea pigs,” recalled O’Neill.

Another attendee suggested looking at strategies that have been used elsewhere: “In other jurisdictions… employers, public and private, are legally obligated to pay 50% of the cost of an employee transit pass for those employees that choose to get one. This helps incentivize transit usage and also allows other stakeholders to contribute to the cost of maintaining the transit system.”

In Halifax, where post-secondary students from several universities and Nova Scotia Community College campuses have access to a U-Pass program, there is a separate Employee Transit Program called the EPass. The EPass allows employers to provide their employees the option of an annual discounted bus pass purchased through payroll deductions. Dalhousie University, as one example, has provided employees with access to this program for almost a decade and offers a 25% discount on all pass types.

Taking Climate Action by Taking Transit

This time around, the revived U-Pass discussion is being led by Memorial University’s Climate Action Coalition rather than the Parking and Transportation Solutions Committee.

“Programs like the U-Pass are beneficial for our environment,” expressed town hall host Kerri Claire Neil. “To address the climate crisis, it is imperative that strategies are developed to effectively encourage people to use forms of active transportation such as public transit.”

The CAC created the Memorial University Crisis Pledge and was successful in getting it signed by senior MUN administration, student unions and worker unions with a presence at the university, and other community groups. At the time of the 2019 U-Pass vote, the CAC did not yet exist. Now, however, the group is advocating for a U-Pass program at Memorial.

In September 2019, thousands of people participated in the Global March for Climate Change that was organized in St. John’s—the same month the Climate Action Coalition was formed. Stoodley had trouble reconciling the large turnout for the climate march with the result of the U-Pass vote.

“I found it very challenging at the time because we had this vote, then a few months later there was the climate march which I participated in,” she commented. “It was like, if only everyone had voted to save the climate.”

Wright, however, believes that high attendance at the climate march and other developments at the university are a positive sign. “A lot of things change pretty quickly,” he noted during the town hall. “I do agree that it’s great to see, now that we have the foundations of a movement, we have very strong support and this is a conversation that’s continuing after the result we had.”

“We want to encourage people to use public transit. All the environmental benefits, all the benefits of parking challenges that we experience on campus—but it also unlocks the whole network,” Wright elaborated. “It’s not just about getting to and from your home and university. This is about potential for another employment opportunity, potential to visit your friends, potential to go downtown, go to a shopping centre, get a part-time job somewhere. This is about the whole public transit network, so think about that potential benefit as you weigh your transportation options.”

“There needs to be a critical mass”

Whether the U-Pass is viewed primarily as a solution for parking problems, a strategy for climate action, or both, one clear message from this month’s town hall was the need for students to be actively involved. “In order for a future project to be really successful, it would either need to be student driven or have explicit student support,” said Stoodley. “I think that’s a key thing that we missed before, last time.”

O’Neill also feels that student support is key to moving forward with a U-Pass, and pushed back on the narrative that students simply love driving.

“Yes, some people love to drive their cars. But it’s also… a lot about freedom,” he explained. “Metrobus is classically either not on time or doesn’t go where you want it to go, so what are you going to do if the bus doesn’t work? You’re going to need a car. What are you going to do after midnight? What are you going to do whenever the bus is not an option?”

“If you’re going to get people to commit to a bus pass, they need to feel one of two things: either that the cost is not a barrier, or that the service will enable them to rely on it,” O’Neill stated.

Wright pointed out that it’s not uncommon for a U-Pass proposal to get voted down on the first try, and for some universities the process has taken over 20 years. “It’s a shift that takes time, cooperation, multiple years,” he remarked. “Even, as you think about it, the program that was being consulted on first in 2015 wasn’t voted on until 2019.”

“What I felt is that it was a top-down solution,” O’Neill reflected. “I think, for a U-Pass to succeed, there needs to be a critical mass of information, a critical mass of interest from the student body that has only begun to be created by this process.” One town hall audience member brought up WUSC MUN’s recent success in organizing a student vote to approve the creation of a Student Refugee Program at Memorial.

“I think the Student Refugee Program succeeded as well as it did because there were a lot of students involved in spreading the message and advocating for it,” agreed O’Neill. “We need that kind of thing for a U-Pass to succeed.”

U-Pass: A New Hope

There are more than two dozen post-secondary institutions across Canada that have U-Pass programs. Each one came into existence in its own way, but generally U-Pass programs succeed because students see them as a good deal. For example, Mount Saint Vincent University’s website highlights the low cost of the U-Pass in Halifax: “Taking just one round-trip per week during the academic year would be enough to get your money’s worth!” And when the City of Winnipeg recently released a budget that would have canceled the University of Manitoba’s U-Pass program, within weeks students advocated successfully to save their U-Pass.

Whatever comes next in the Memorial U-Pass conversation, it’s clear students need to be involved in a meaningful way. Neil stated during the town hall that “the Memorial University Climate Action Coalition is keen to implement the U-Pass in a way that accommodates the needs of students, and potentially expand it to employees both on campus and in nearby employment hubs.”

O’Neill is hopeful about the future of the U-Pass. “I try to look at it like this: yeah, we had 71% vote against it. But we had 30% of students who voted in favour,” he offered. “For anyone who participated in this process and was disappointed with the outcome, I think we can take some solace in the fact that there’s immense learning opportunities that came from it.”

“We’ve learned from this last experience,” Wright agreed. “An awful lot more people are familiar with the U-Pass than they were before.” 

He also had recommendations for the future.

“Working with the municipalities to improve surrounding and ancillary service is important. We tried to build some park-and-rides into the system, and the idea was that further investments could come in years to follow to build the networks in the communities,” he explained. “I think that a lot of our municipal partners are interested in public transit, and I think that working with them to see what can be built over time is important.”

Likewise, Stoodley provided reasons to be optimistic about improving transit in the St. John’s area. “There are a lot of federal funding programs which I’ve now learned a lot about. Those require multi-year thought and multi-year planning, but there’s a huge amount of federal government money available for things like improving transportation.”

Stoodley also mentioned that the provincial government has recently issued bus passes to income support recipients, which may be another way for Metrobus to improve the network. “We do have 10,000 more riders now than we did two months ago,” she noted. “It’ll be interesting to see what the uptake is, what that usage looks like in a few months, and whether or not the extra money that we’re investing—essentially 10,000 more passes at a reduced rate—whether that enables Metrobus to increase services.”

O’Neill reiterated the need for student support by saying, “It’s great for the Board of Regents to go out and identify—or, for their consultants to identify—that this is a relatively easy way to solve the transportation problem on campus. But I think that students need to come to that conclusion for themselves, to some extent, for them to buy in to the idea.”

Photo: screencap from “30-foot buses” video, metrobus.com.

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