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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The secret to going places

Montreal offers the best big-city transit system - and deals - for students in Canada. But schools elsewhere are wising up to the need to help them out

By Ingrid Peritz
The Globe and Mail

A $26 bus-and-Métro pass was one of the best investments Julia Barnes made in her education. The cash didn't go toward tuition or textbooks or anything linked directly to her studies at McGill University in Montreal.

But it bought her the carefree luxury of checking out restaurants in hip neighbourhoods in the city, visiting museums in the east end and roaming through francophone sections of the city where she could practise her French.

Oh, the monthly pass also got her to and from class every day. “If it weren't for the pass, I probably wouldn't have seen a lot of the city,” said the New Brunswick native, who is beginning her third year in international development studies. “It became a cultural experience.”

Montreal’s half-price student pass, along with bus and Métro service right to the door of all four city universities, helped drive the city’s public-transit service to the top spot in Canada among students in the University Report Card survey.

Students of three of Montreal’s universities - McGill, Concordia, and the University of Quebec at Montreal - gave their city's public transit the highest satisfaction rating from students across Canada. University of Montreal students were not far behind.

Montreal's monthly transit pass costs $26 for full-time students up to age 25. By comparison, university-age students in Toronto pay a whopping $98.

“In Montreal, transit is less expensive, more reliable, and better organized” than Toronto, said Casey FitzGerald, a Torontonian who is studying theatre design at Concordia University. “I'll be taking public transit every day to school. It will become very important to me.”

Public transit is a lifeline for students who do not live in residence. And it’s become crucial in cities like Montreal, where rising rents are pushing students to more distant neighbourhoods.

Cars are a luxury for most: high gas prices and heavy insurance premiums for younger drivers can make that option off-limits. Cycling is a choice when the weather co-operates - not always the case in the middle of a Canadian winter.

Poor transit can make a student’s commute to school drudgery. In the survey, respondents from the University of Windsor and the University of Moncton were among the least satisfied in the country. Their beefs: Costly passes and long waits for the bus.

“Bus service is atrocious,” summed up one unhappy student at the University of Windsor, which placed 35th among 38 universities. “The Windsor bus system is the worst in the world,” said another.

Some universities are turning to novel solutions to help students’ transport woes. A growing number are offering universal transit passes, generally known as a U-Pass. Students pay for them in their fees and then get unlimited use of their cities’ public transit. The system has an immediate payoff: Transit systems upgrade their service to meet increased demand.

Universities offering the passes, such as the University of Victoria, Guelph, McMaster and Western, got some of the highest ratings from students in the URC survey. About 10 Canadian universities have adopted the U-Pass and two more, the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, are signing on this year.

“There’s a real demand for this,” said Oana Chirila, president of UBC’s student government. The change will mean most students will shell out $20 for their monthly pass this year, compared with $63 last year. And the arrival of the passes is already having a beneficial effect at UBC, Ms. Chirila said. Demand for parking spots on campus has dropped.

“Transit for students is a big deal,” she said, “and this is a valuable service for students. Hopefully, everyone benefits.” ROBTv Workopolis