5 Big Reasons for Changes to the U-Pass Program

In March, 95% of students voted in favour of renewing the U-Pass program at UBC. However, the U-Pass program that was being voted on this spring was not the same one as had been in place for the past 7 years. It was a completely new program, spearheaded by the Province of BC rather than Translink, and many of the particulars about how the program would work were still undetermined at the time of the vote. As the program has evolved in the months since, and more details have come out, students have reacted negatively to the differences between the new program and the old one. In most instances though, if there is any fault to be found, it doesn’t lie with UBC or the AMS.

UBC has been aggressively promoting the new U-Pass program and the “5 Big Changes” that come along with it. However, the actual reasons behind the changes have not been well-communicated, and some unfortunate comments made by AMS President Jeremy McElroy in a Ubyssey article made the AMS appear completely unsympathetic to student concerns. When pressed for the reasoning behind the changes, the U-Pass contract that had been signed by Translink, UBC and the AMS was usually cited as the reason. However, the contract itself was not made available which is why we made a Freedom of Information request to obtain the contract from Translink.

While the contract does lay out some of the program changes, it doesn’t begin to explain why those changes were written in to the contract. We’ve identified 5 Big Reasons why the new program has changed in the ways it has.

1) Provincial Sponsorship of the U-Pass Program

The creation of a province-wide U-Pass program was a campaign promise made by the BC Liberals during the last provincial election. While it took some sustained pressure from student unions to convince the province to follow through, the creation of a provincially-sponsored U-Pass program was announced by Gordon Campbell in June 2010.

Previous U-Pass contracts involved only Translink, UBC and the AMS. While each group had its own point of view and priorities, those priorities lined up for the most part. While Translink was unhappy with certain aspects, the program was worthwhile overall. With the province’s involvement and investment of $20M, Translink was able to overhaul the program to make it more to their liking. The province’s clout, especially given that universities and Translink fall underneath the province’s purview, meant that changes to the U-Pass were inevitable, with little that student unions could do about it. If schools wanted to participate in the program, they’d have to do it on Translink’s terms.

2) Equity amongst schools

While the U in U-Pass has always stood for “universal”, students at schools like Kwantlen or VCC, who wanted but did not have the U-Pass before this year might have disagreed with that descriptor. Even amongst schools which did have the old U-Pass, each school had a different price and each school negotiated its own contract directly with Translink. There wasn’t a single contract that was common to all schools in the program. The province, wanting the new program to live up to its name, wanted to ensure that all post-secondary institutions had the same program on the same terms. The terms of the program had to be negotiated to satisfy all schools, adding yet another dimension to the contract negotations. Procedures that might have worked for UBC in the past could not be continued if they didn’t work for all schools in the program.

As a result, the new contract bans subsidies, administrative fees and program sponsorship. This ensures all students at every institution pay the same price, despite the fact that UBC has been willing to subsidize the program in the past.

3) Fraud prevention

Translink has been extremely vocal about how they hate U-Pass fraud. The new U-Pass contract does not specify any particular measures taken to prevent fraud, but does allow any party (Translink, UBC, AMS) to put in place any measures it wants to ensure “program integrity” and to place any student on a blacklist if they have been found to have been abusing the U-Pass program.

They’ve made it mandatory to show valid student ID with the U-Pass. They’ve switched from 4-month passes to 1-month passes so that selling your U-Pass each month is more of a hassle than once a term and so that the resale value of each U-Pass is lower. The replacement fee for passes has increased from $26.50 (for a four-month pass) to $35 (for a one-month pass). Agree with the changes or not, they’re in place because Translink believes they will help combat fraud.

One underpublicized measure is a restriction placed on the amount of replacement U-Passes that can be issued for students who lose their pass. The number of these replacement passes cannot exceed 2% of the total U-Passes issued each month. While some people may claim this number should be higher, keep the following in mind. The replacement rate for ordinary transit users who buy monthly farecards is 0%; if they lose their pass, they’re SOL.

This policy is why the U-Pass mail-outs were stopped. In the past, a typical U-Pass mail-out resulted in a replacement rate of approximately 5% due to passes simply being lost in the mail, or students with out-of-date or incorrect addresses listed with the university. Although neither UBC or the AMS would say it, people lying about not having received it in the mail in order to get a second pass surely contributed to that number as well. Since the number of replacement passes allowed in the new agreement is less than half the historical rate of replacement passes needed when doing a mail-out, doing a mail-out would have left many students without a U-Pass. Having students pick up their U-Pass ensures delivery to the student in a way that the mail-out never could, leaving the replacement passes available for students who truly lose their pass (and, unfortunately, the liars for at least one month).

To ensure that they don’t go over their limit on replacement passes, UBC has instituted an internal policy whereby only one replacement pass will be granted to a student per 4-month school term. Again, consider that’s still one more replacement pass per term than regular farecard holders get. This won’t stop students who do not use their U-Pass from selling their pass, but it will stop the especially greedy ones who want to have their cake and eat it too.

4) Limiting UBC’s potential liability

Although eliminating the mail-out comes with obvious costs savings, there are increased administrative requirements and costs under the new program. That’s because the new program comes with much stricter accounting and reporting requirements. UBC is expected to track and categorize the fate of every U-Pass it receives from Translink. There is a big onus on UBC to ensure that passes don’t get issued to ineligible students since UBC is on the hook for any U-Passes it issues improperly or cannot account for. Eligibility lists must be updated regularly as students drop out of classes.

Much of the contract is boring legalese about performing audits in case Translink ever wants to ensure the passes are going where UBC says they’re going. It’s another reason why U-Pass pick-up is in place rather than the mail-out. Distributing passes on a monthly basis using the vending machines ensures that they can properly restrict pass distribution only to eligible students each month. It ensures to UBC that the pass makes it into the student’s hand, which could never easily be verified via the mail system.

5) Driving traffic to the UBC Bookstore UBC Central UBC Bookstore

While a few reasons for the discontinuation of the mail-out have been discussed, it’s not because it’s forbidden in the contract. UBC is given the discretion to distribute the passes in any manner they want. They have chosen to use vending machines, the same method as other schools are using. However, unlike other schools whose machines are scattered about campus, UBC has decided to put all the machines in the UBC Bookstore. While UBC has said the reasons for this are to have better security and inventory monitoring, you wouldn’t be out of line to believe the driving force behind the decision was to drive traffic there in hopes that you’ll be tempted to buy a t-shirt, snack or iPad while you’re in picking up your U-Pass 8 or 12 times per year.

Each U-Pass vending machine costs approximately $8,000. Since sponsorship or administration fees are disallowed, UBC has to pick up the tab for these. Each machine only has a useful lifetime of three years because that’s when Translink is intending to introduce the Compass card. What better way to offset the cost than by selling you other things? But the $160,000 one-time expense for vending machines is nothing compared to how much UBC is saving by eliminating the $3 subsidy. That amount, roughly $1M per year, has not been earmarked for anything in particular, but it should be. Put it towards something visible to lower fees for students, like reducing or eliminating the residence application fee (currently $50) which is money down the drain for the thousands of students who aren’t offered residence spots.

Finally, there are fears of very long line-ups to pick up U-Passes at the bookstore. That’s great for business. More time to stand around and have things catch your eye in the store. No doubt there will be line-ups but they may not be as bad as predicted. We’ll see when U-Pass pick up starts tomorrow. I was lucky enough to volunteer myself as a guinea pig and pick up my pass a few days early. Even being incompetent and having to swipe my card twice, the whole thing only took 15 seconds. Running at full capacity, 2500 students per hour should be able to pick up their passes. Watch the video below.


Comments are disallowed for this post.

  1. The U-Pass BC contract was on the KSA website during our referendum.
    I think the fraud precautions are pretty overboard, especially since the market has now fallen out of the U-Pass scalping market. They’re so ubiquitous now, with every student in the lower mainland receiving one, that all the other precautions are unnecessary. The rest is positioning for when the Compass comes in.

    Posted by John | August 24, 2011, 1:54 pm
  2. John, that would have been useful to have during our referendum, but it wasn’t made public to us at the time. Still, I originally thought that having the contract would give me most of the answers to the questions I had, but it didn’t. You have to go ask around some more to find out why the contract was written the way it was.

    Posted by Neal Yonson | August 24, 2011, 2:47 pm
  3. *95% of students who voted supported the UPass referendum. Let’s not suggest nearly all students cared (enough to vote) to keep the UPass.

    Posted by Ricardo | August 24, 2011, 5:31 pm
  4. “Again, consider that’s still one more replacement pass per term than regular farecard holders get.”

    Translink is very clear and explicit about the differences between a fare and a U-Pass. The U-Pass is not a fare on its own and it is not transferable. Monthly bus passes are the fare and are transferable, according to Translink. The U-Pass is just a proof of purchase, not a proper fare like a bus pass.

    The replacement fee has jumped from $26.50 on a $95 4-month U-Pass to $35 on a $30 1-month U-Pass. This is a huge jump and should probably get a mention in any discussion about U-Pass fraud prevention.

    Posted by Dan | August 24, 2011, 8:04 pm
  5. Dan,

    Thanks for the clarification. I hadn’t come across the distinction between the farecards and the U-Pass before.

    On the replacement fee, I’ve just added that info into the post. The contract says the university gets $10 of the $35 fee, which is not earmarked for anything in particular. However, in the previous program they got half the replacement cost so UBC’s share actually went down.

    Posted by Neal Yonson | August 24, 2011, 8:19 pm
  6. as a student and one of the 95% who did in-fact vote for the new uPass policy, i have to disagree with ricardo’s statement above. i obviously can’t speak for any other voters and neither should ricardo.

    - robert

    Posted by robert | August 31, 2011, 5:22 am
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