Toronto postsecondary students could soon enjoy the benefits of discounted public transit that students in other major Canadian cities already have.
Last week, the Toronto Transit Commission unanimously voted in favour of researching a Universal Transit Pass (U-Pass) that would allow Toronto postsecondary students unlimited access to public transit during the academic year as part of their tuition.
U-Pass isn't a new idea. Several other Canadian cities already have U-Pass programs, such as Calgary, Waterloo, Ottawa and Halifax, among others.
"Students are one of the most financially vulnerable demographics and a program like this would definitely help out a lot of students who have an expensive commute," said Daniel Lis, vice-president of education at the Ryerson Students' Union.
The initiative was spurred by a Dec. 11 meeting between TTC representatives and student union leaders from U-Commute, a joint campaign on behalf of student unions from the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, George Brown College and the Ontario College of Art and Design University.
The campaign is the brainchild of Anne Boucher, vice-president external of the University of Toronto Students' Union. Ms. Boucher collaborated with the other unions on an online survey designed to gauge student interest in U-Pass.
Word about the questionnaire spread across campuses in late August and triggered responses from more than 16,000 students; about 95 per cent were in favour.
The program must meet the financial needs of both the students and the TTC, Mr. Lis said, but the TTC already sees some upside.
"It will be a benefit given we'd have certainty around revenue," Brad Ross, the TTC's executive director for corporate communications, said in an e-mail response.
The TTC debated a similar program with eight Toronto postsecondary schools between 2001 and 2008. Negotiations came up short after various student governments insisted on an op-out clause that would allow students to pay a tuition fee that was exempt from the cost of a U-Pass.
The alternative was the introduction of the current Post-Secondary Metropass in November, 2009, that sees full-time university and college students pay $116.75 for unlimited use of public transit for a month.
But that's still too expensive for students, said Ms. Boucher, especially in Ontario, which has the highest average tuition in Canada – $8,114 according to Statistics Canada.
"It goes without saying – this price is inaccessible to most of our students. The Metropass is just too expensive. A U-Pass, on the other hand, would bring that price down significantly," Ms. Boucher said.
Generally, U-Passes in other cities use a discount that's between 50 per cent to 85 per cent of the cost of an adult monthly pass. The bigger the city, the smaller the discount, according to the report that was prepared by TTC staff for board members at the meeting. Given that 60 per cent of Toronto postsecondary students take public transit daily, student commuters shouldn't expect the same discount found in smaller cities. Although no estimate has been given, Mr. Ross said the cost of a Toronto U-Pass would be less than the Post-Secondary Metropass because "the sheer number of students paying for a pass annually would allow for a cheaper monthly price."
The recommendation coincides with the recent opening of the Vaughan subway extension that was built in part to ease the commute of students travelling to York University campus. One of the immediate considerations is a protocol for what the report calls "regional fare integration" to address the fact that roughly 15 per cent of Toronto postsecondary students use other municipal transit services in addition to the TTC, such as York Regional Transit or Brampton Transit.
Research gathered by the TTC is expected to be presented to student unions and other postsecondary institutions in early 2018. If approved, Mr. Ross said a Toronto U-Pass program would take effect for September, 2018.