Opinions in Dialogue: Is SFU’s U-Pass system fair?

Students Dev and Gurleen discuss the program’s pros and cons

The U-Pass system has been controversial over the years. PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

by Gurleen Aujla, SFU Student, Dev Petrovic, Staff Writer, Madeleine Chan, Opinions Editor

Over the years, there’s been a lot of conversation from students about the equity of SFU’s U-Pass system. Specifically about whether students who don’t want the U-Pass, and don’t meet the U-Pass exemption criteria, should have to pay for it. On the other hand, some students believe that having these harsh restrictions allow the program to fiscally function, and give students who actually need the pass an affordable transportation option. Now, when fewer students are using the pass, and students at schools like Kwantlen don’t have to pay for it without in-person classes, the topic is fresh on students’ minds.

Gurleen: Overall, I believe SFU’s U-Pass system is fair. It is one of the key services provided by the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS), the Graduate Student Society (GSS), Simon Fraser University, TransLink, and the Province of British Columbia. It is a necessary part of many students’ lives as they use it to travel to and from campus(es), get groceries, go to work, and see family or friends, to name a few uses. In addition, a 2019 referendum on the U-Pass passed with 86.78% of student respondents in favour of continuing the program until at least May 1, 2025. 

The current cost of a monthly transit pass is $98 for a 1-zone pass, $131 for 2-zones, and $177 for 3-zones. Depending on where students are commuting from, this can mean a savings of up to $538 per semester. It is certainly one of the cheapest options available for students, compared to driving, using a taxi, or a ride-sharing service. 

Dev: I agree. While the U-Pass system requires students to pay a per-term fee of $170, the alternative for students using public transportation is much less economical. Not to mention that several students pay for their tuition fees through student loans, bursaries, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid that aren’t out-of-pocket. If the U-Pass was not available to SFU students, many would be forced to take on public transportation as a personal expense. This can be an additional financial toll and stressor, considering all the external expenses that come with being a student and living through a pandemic.

I understand the frustration I’ve heard from other students who feel that it is unfair to be paying for the U-Pass when learning is currently remote. There may be less urgency for some students to have the U-Pass, but this does not exempt the fact that there are always students who are essential workers and students who rely on the U-Pass as the cheapest possible transportation option. 

Gurleen: Quite honestly, I believe it is a lifeline for many students. I can certainly understand the sentiment from students who, pre-COVID-19, drove to campus or found public transit more of a hassle than a benefit. But, in the end, it is a type of social benefit program. The universal model and strict exemption categories of the U-Pass program are what make it affordable and attainable for students. This is something that comes with being part of the student community. 

I would also add that because of the U-Pass, fewer students drive. This means less cars on the road, which has a positive impact on campus parking, traffic, and road conditions. And from what I’ve heard, parking is already a nightmare on campus.

As you mentioned, we are in a bit of a difficult situation with the current public health emergency and the majority of students studying from home. Those who have access to other forms of transportation have either reduced or completely avoided the use of their U-Pass. But, I believe the exemption criteria provided is, for the most part, fair. There was even an added exemption criterion for students taking classes remotely and living outside of Metro Vancouver due to COVID-19. This ensures that those who simply cannot use the U-Pass — not those who just don’t want to — are fairly exempt from the program. The one criticism I will add, with regards to exemption criteria, is the lack of options for individuals in a high-risk category for severe complications if diagnosed with COVID-19. 

Dev: Going off of your point of the U-Pass being a social benefit program, the program is inevitably not going to benefit every SFU student — particularly considering the current status of remote classes. But the benefits for those in need of the U-Pass outweigh the downsides for students who do not use it. Those who don’t need it can merely apply for an exemption or pay the semesterly fee.

For example, there are many places that our money goes towards besides actual tuition. One of these is the Student Activity Fee, which funds helpful student organizations like the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG) and the SFSS Food Bank Program. Just like the U-Pass, many of us may not be using these services or engaging with these student organizations, but it is a price we pay to ensure accessibility and support for all students. It is also a given aspect of attending a university and being a part of a student community, as you mentioned. 

I also believe that the added U-Pass exemption is relatively fair, although I agree that there should be further exemptions in regards to COVID-19. Nonetheless, the current exemptions are also valid for folks with documented disabilities that prevent them from being able to use public transportation. While this only applies to students registered with SFU’s Centre for Accessible Learning (CAL), I do think that these exemptions make sense, especially considering that an exemption for simply not using public transit was not even available before COVID-19. 

Gurleen: Very well put, Dev. The last thing I would add is that we, as students, need to realize how important of a customer base we are for Translink. They have negotiated these contracts with a number of post-secondary institutions all across BC, but SFU has one of the largest student populations in BC. This is something to consider when the SFSS works again with Translink to negotiate our U-Pass contract. As always, student input is necessary on services such as the U-Pass. I would encourage all students to vote in referendums and provide their input on the program as the SFSS works on behalf of and for students. 

Dev: Precisely. The SFSS is not a separate entity from the general student body and while they do negotiate matters like the U-Pass on behalf of students, their decisions are based on our needs. That being said, when there are opportunities for students to communicate their concerns on U-Pass to the SFSS, they are free to express them and are encouraged to do so. Whatever the future outcomes for the U-Pass system are, I do hope that the SFSS is not put in a negative light for the work they do for SFU students.