How fares became unfair: the U-Pass discrimination timeline

Early 1990s – Vancouver-area student societies begin demand for a Universal Pass. BC Transit rejects the plan, but creates Fast Trax, a program that allows students with ID to travel across the system on a one-zone regular monthly pass. The program costs students $2 extra a month. It is a step in the right direction, but faces criticism both from Translink and students because of inequities in the system.

1999 – Vancouver Community College discuss U-Pass system with Translink, sign Memorandum of Understanding. The project dies.

2002– Aware of the success of U-Pass programs in Victoria and various American cities, Translink approaches SFU, UBC, Langara College and VCC student societies to discuss a Vancouver program. Translink rejects appeals from Douglas College and Emily Carr to be included. VCC and Langara College are also later rejected for U-Pass on the pledge that the universities will serve as a pilot program, with colleges and institutes brought on board later.

Translink also insists that each program be revenue neutral: that student fees cover the cost of incremental service. This means non-riders will subsidize the riders in each student body to protect Translink from costs. This works where a large share of students drive, walk or cycle – like SFU or UBC – but hurts schools where students already use the bus. The pattern for discrimination is set.

Autumn 2003 – The U-Pass program begins as a pilot project with nearly 60,000 UBC and SFU students approving the scheme in referenda. UBC students pay $25 a month with the university subsidizing each student $3 a month. SFU students pay $26.75 with a $2.25 subsidy. The program is an immediate smash hit.

2004 – Translink declares UBC and SFU programs an outstanding success: 86 percent of UBC students use theirs, 81 percent of SFU students. Transit is up, car-driving is down. Students agree U-Pass “expanded their choice of where to work and where to live.”

January 2005 – Translink reluctantly turns its attention to colleges and institutions, which still seek admission to the program, but refuses to conduct the research necessary to determine the true costs and benefits of a Universal Pass system. Translink says a Universal Pass would only be considered at a $35 level and then only if SFU and UBC students agree to raise their fees to that level.
Students note that expansion college by college puts the whole program at risk of failing in referenda: downtown colleges with high ridership will pay a high fee for minimal service increases, while suburban institutions will pay a low rate for service improvements that may be costly, but hard to detect given the low level of existing service. A single failed referendum triggered by the obvious unfairness of the U-Pass system could undermine the entire program.

Autumn 2005 – NPA mayoral candidate Sam Sullivan promises VCC students to fight for a Universal Pass and a general fare rollback.

October 2006 – A Translink forum on U-Pass sets out the conditions for expansion of the program to new colleges or institutions: it must be mandatory for all students and revenue neutral for Translink. The goal of the program is to “promote a transit-supportive culture among students and future graduates.”
The report finds the program generated 10 million annual U-Pass rides and supported the addition of 60 to 70 buses on U-Pass routes. Translink details the costs associated with the program, a share of which must be borne by the post-secondary schools. Because a single Universal Pass would lead to a surge in transit demand, Translink argues for a phased-in program. The combination of phased-in programs and revenue neutrality requirements effectively denies U-Pass to almost half the students in the region.

Late 2006 – Translink tells students outside the program they can only join in with a $34 Universal Pass program, as they request, if they convince their UBC and SFU counterparts to raise their passes to that level in referenda, a clear non-starter.

Based on travel surveys for the colleges, Translink estimates U-Pass plans would vary between $39 a month for Langara, Douglas and Emily Carr to a high of $50 for VCC. Because student bodies with high transit usage offer little revenue gain for Translink, they will be forced to pay the most to maintain Translink’s “revenue neutrality,” a perverse way of punishing those already riding the bus.

Oct. 31, 2006 – Vancouver City Council urges Translink directors to “honour the mayor’s promises” on transit, including “implementation of the U-Pass system for college students promised in the 10-year Outlook.”

May 8, 2007 – Translink refuses to meet with VCC, Douglas College and Emily Carr student representatives to begin negotiations for a Universal Pass. Translink declares it will only consider a Universal Pass system if students in the existing plan approve a big fee hike to keep the program “revenue neutral” for Translink.

Fall 2007 – Langara and Capilano students approve a U-Pass system in referendums, but a year later Translink remains stalled at Capilano by opposition from neighbours who don’t want more bus traffic around the North Vancouver campus. Langara students will join the program in September 2008 at a monthly fee of $38.

Dec. 19, 2007 – VCC’s interim president endorses student calls for a Universal Pass in a letter to Translink chair Malcolm Brodie, declaring that “we believe a VCC student should not pay up to three times that of a UBC of SFU student.” She indicates a $38 a month charge would be fair.

Feb. 12, 2008 – Mayor Sam Sullivan is supported by NPA colleagues, including Peter Ladner, when he rules a Vision Vancouver motion supporting the VCC students out of order.

Feb. 21, 2008 – Faced with silence from Translink, the student societies and administrations of VCC and Emily Carr write a joint letter to Translink renewing the call for a Universal Pass to support the Translink goal to “achieve lifetime ridership from students.”
Jason Gratl, a lawyer and president of the BC Civil Liberties Association tells the Georgia Straight that the discriminatory system could be a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the BC Human Rights Code.

May 29, 2008 – Student representatives of VCC and Emily Carr make a presentation to the newly-appointed Translink board, which does not record their appearance in Board minutes.
(In a later letter, Translink writes: “management is currently examining the resource issues surrounding the U-Pass program expansion and considering how to proceed. There are significant challenges to expanding the U-Pass program during this time of high demand for expanded transit services throughout the Metro Vancouver region, however, we intend to review all options and opportunities.”)
The minutes do disclose, however, approval of 25,000 free transit passes for 10 days for volunteers and participations in the World Police and Fire Games scheduled for summer 2009 in Burnaby.

July 2008 – Translink’s Transport 2040 long-range plan declares it is “built on a desire to balance the needs of a healthy economy with environmental protection, social equity and support.” Translink vows to “encourage and assist people in making sustainable travel choices.”

September 2008 – With a new school year about to begin, 65,000 post-secondary students remain outside the U-Pass program and pay two to three times as much as those enjoying U-Pass. During an eight-month school year, a VCC student will pay $589 for transit, nearly $400 more than a UBC student ($589 for a monthly one-zone pass versus $190 for UBC U-Pass.) It would take the VCC student at least two weeks of part-time work to pay the difference, money that could go for rent, food or books.