Over the past few weeks a debate has been occurring in Edmonton regarding student bus passes. The University of Alberta Students’ Union, together with the Grant McEwan Community College and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology student unions have been negotiating a flat rate bus pass for students with Edmonton Transit. Currently, post-secondary students pay $50 a month for a bus pass, a slight discount from the regular adult monthly pass of $55, and somewhat less than what a student would pay if he/she used the adult single ride fare of $2.00 on a daily basis.
The University of Calgary Students’ Union recently negotiated a $50 per semester fee with Calgary Transit. The Edmonton student groups are proposing the same amount, however Edmonton Transit is insisting on $120 per semester, stating that they need to bring in the “same amount of money the system currently collects from students in monthly transit pass sales and fares.” (SEE:http://www.canada.com/edmonton/edmontonjournal/archives/story.asp?id=59875AED-B435-4C7C-B868-7A557DB6DAB2)
The debate, however, is not centred around the actual dollar amount. The problem is that this fee will be implemented as a mandatory cost tacked on to each student’s semester tuition fee. The student union is trying to get exemptions for disabled students and those living outside the transit area. However, all other students will be required to pay the $50 whether or not they use public transit. Students who live on or near campus, those who use alternate transportation such as bicycles, or those who choose to drive to school for whatever reason – will be forced to subsidize those students using public transit.
The students’ union is considering holding a referendum, and if the majority support the proposal, it will be “forced…on the entire membership, without regard for the dissenting minority,” something the Edmonton Journal argued strongly against in an August 3 editorial – calling it “unfair to students.” (SEE:http://www.canada.com/edmonton/edmontonjournal/archives/story.asp?id=4111671F-8C83-44E2-A971-6308CED16636)
As a non-transit user I sympathize with those students who prefer not to take the bus. Edmonton Transit is not a particularly user-friendly system. Rather than encouraging ridership through improved service, our transit system seems to operate on the idea that citizens should be forced to use public transit. When I have a choice of a 40-minute bus ride downtown to work as opposed to a 15 minute drive, I may still be tempted to use transit and save myself the parking costs. Unfortunately for Edmontonians living in more distant areas of the city, the reality of a bus ride often involves several transfers and travel times closer to an hour or more. The situation is even worse if you live just outside the city limits. My daughter attempted to take a bus to work in Sherwood Park – what would take 10 minutes by car involved two transfers and an hour and a half travel time by bus!
The experience of riding the bus can be quite unusual, and not always pleasant. I’ve had occasion recently to find myself car-less and forced to rely on public transit. You stand on a packed bus hanging on to the top bar for dear life while the driver madly careens around corners. If you are a short person you are at armpit-level, squished in between some not-so-fragrant fellow passengers. You struggle to maintain your balance as the driver lays hard on the brakes at each stop, and then stagger to the door, excusing yourself as you press through the crowd towards the exit. Even if you manage to get a seat, you may end up being whacked by passengers with huge backpacks and bags as they move down the narrow aisle – and I’m guaranteed that the most disreputable-looking rider will always choose to sit next to me!
On the other hand, for many students public transit is the only viable option, and with parking being at a premium around all three campuses involved, it makes sense to negotiate a better rate for these students. But should this rate be mandatory for transit users and non-users alike? It may seem unfair, but no easy solution is apparent. Edmonton Transit is insistent on the need to recover costs, and will not agree to opting-out provisions. It could also be argued that by making public transit more accessible to the majority of students, the reduction of parking congestion would benefit everyone, especially those who choose to drive. Environmentally conscious students could also consider this a positive move that benefits everyone through reduced vehicle pollution. The U of A’s expansion plans include more parking space – at the cost of neighbourhood homes that will be expropriated and green space that will be lost. It is therefore in the interests of all Edmontonians to seek alternate solutions to the parking problem.
The students’ unions are attempting to negotiate something that will benefit the majority of their members, although seemingly unfair to the minority. The reality is that this often occurs. Student union fees fund a variety of services, and not every student takes advantage of every service. Simply because only a certain number use a particular service does not justify removing it. One of the realities of living in our democratic society is that our taxes are often used to support social programs that benefit citizens other than ourselves – a “bus tax” that all students pay in order to help only those students who need to take the bus is no different.
In this case, student union fees are not the funding source, since the fee will be added to the semester tuition costs, and in spite of the perceived benefit to the U of A, the university has not been asked to subsidize the proposal – something critics find discouraging.
For those of us fortunate enough to be attending Athabasca University, the need for a bus pass may not be an important issue, although many AU students also attend a campus and are affected. We should, however, be interested in how this plays out for other reasons. Even though mandatory bus passes may never be on the agenda, we too have a students’ union that works hard for its members and sometimes has to make decisions or support projects that may appear to benefit only some of these members. Often the benefit is not apparent initially, and a project may be years in progress before results are seen. Some projects seem like a great idea at the start yet turn out to be less valuable than expected over the long term. AUSU does share many features with campus-based unions, yet is unique in many ways, a relatively young organization with no real peer in the distance education environment. Providing improved services that meet the diverse needs of Athabasca University students is extremely challenging. It requires hard work, dedication and commitment. Fortunately we have a group of councillors who are up to the challenge.
“Life is all about change. In fact life is like riding the bus: it requires change”
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students’ Union.