A cake for the U-Pass

Last Friday, the University of Washington threw a birthday party for its U-Pass program, which turns twenty this year.  In its inception in the early 90s, the U-Pass was one of the first university-wide transportation demand management programs of its kind, and has become a model for similar programs nationwide.  A few notable speakers attended the anniversary celebration, including Metro GM Kevin Desmond, UW Transportation Services Director Josh Kavanagh, and former Seattle city councilmember Heidi Wills.

Wills, who was president of undergraduate student body during the time of the U-Pass inception, spoke about the controversy originally incited through the program– which earned the ire of the campus libertarians and many others who objected to the idea of paying for another’s commute.  Wills’ response to the opposition was one familiar to all of us– those who don’t take transit still benefit from the people that do.  From that mantra grew one of the most successful TDM programs in the country: while the University community is 30% larger than it was in 1992, traffic volumes in the U-District today are lighter.

The most significant change that the U-Pass has undergone in recent years was last year’s decision to switch to a universal model, in which students can no longer opt-out of the program.  While earning its own share of controversy, the new funding model has decreased costs while increasing participation rates, which took a precipitous decline after the U-Pass doubled in cost in 2008.  Despite any past misgivings, the program will likely remain on this track into the foreseeable future, helping sustain the city’s transit future.

Happy birthday, U-Pass.  Here’s to another twenty years.

20 Replies to “U-Pass Turns Twenty”

  1. My memory is playing tricks on me, as I thought I had a U Pass when I was a UW student, through Spring 1991. I also recall Heidi Wills as student body president. Was there a different, voluntary program before 1992?

  2. For a while I had a student at the UW. My kid lived within walking/bicycling distance of campus, so for us the UW pass was just another tax added onto the tuition. The only benefit of it was that my kid on rare occasions used it to ride the bus downtown. As a cost benefit was just another expense. And if we have to tax students to fund our local transit system that’s a sign we have underfunded it.

    1. Up until recently the U-Pass wasn’t mandatory, he could have sent the sticker back and gotten a refund.

      1. I bought it because I wanted my kid to think of the bus as just another way to get around, and have no qualms about coming up with cash for the fare. And it worked too. Now a bus trip around town is second nature, and they have chosen to not buy a car. Bicycle and bus seems to do 95% of the need for transportation. I’m just say’in some kids are much more cash strapped and are in debt to go to college. Which means they’ve bought a bus pass on a 30+ year student loan.

      2. A “fee” is a “tax.” Even the ones I personally support. I’ve said enough on that.
        Many universities these days have transportation fees/charges, I helped institute one at a community college and attend another university in the State of Washington that has one. As anyone who’s ever been to a college/university knows, there’s a myriad of fees and services that students are charged for things they might never use but others do (although it seems charges for transit seem to draw the most uproar from angry people). And if a students situation changes and they need said service, then it’s available to them.

      1. The OT point was that there are far more egregious things we have to pay for from our taxes than a heavily-rebated transit pass, and some find the other things we are forced to fund far more morally offensive.

  3. As a UW student in the early – mid ’90s, UPASS was a godsend. I was new to the city and the States, and I was able to explore with my dormmates our wonderful city. Even heading up to Everett to catch our favorite band ( 2 transfers! ). One of my roommates after graduating would buy student’s UPass stickers for his UW Id so he could get the “benefits” while commuting to his new job :-)…

    Good times

  4. U-Pass remains under attack from math-challenged conservatives. It is mandatory because a majority of the student body makes use of it.

    At $76 a quarter, that comes out to just under $26 for each student per month. But the U-Pass covers fare on all the local transit agencies in King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap County, all the way up to the $4.75 ride on Sounder from Seattle to Tacoma. So, it is a $171 monthly value.

    The conservatives don’t want UW to apply its bargaining power to get students a bulk discount.

  5. It’s $76 a quarter? that’s a bit steep. At my school in Cleveland, We get UPASSes from the local transit agency (mandatory)
    but it’s only $25 a semester. Granted, the system is mostly useless for anywhere a student wants to go except for downtown and the airport, but still.

    1. The main UW campus receives quite a bit of service, including routes directly to/from the campus to various parts of the Puget Sound Region.
      And $76 per quarter for multiple agencies is nothing compared to the $190 optional per quarter TriMet pass at Portland State Univ. (reference: http://www.pdx.edu/transportation/StudentTransit)

    2. If the conservatives get what they really want here, students will be paying the “full cost” each time they board the bus, which might be more than the monthly cost of a UPass.

    3. If U-PASS hadn’t gone mandatory, the quarterly pass price would skyrocket. The current $76 is less than the $99/qtr it used to cost before the mandate.

      While I’m not benefitting from the U-PASS I paid for this quarter, that money is helping to keep cars and more parking from being built on campus, which is a good thing.

  6. UPASS sucks. Students stood up against the price hike by sending it back, so they made it mandatory…

    1. Hegemonizing UW so that only rich students can attend sucks. UPass helps make UW a little more affordable for the poor, which is only right, since it is a taxpayer-funded university.

  7. I worked on campus the the UPass idea was originated. This is all from memory, but I think the UW wanted to get city permits to build several new buildings and the city said the UW had to do something to mitigate the new traffic the new buildings would bring to the U district. The UPass was just one of several mitigation strategies.

    1. It was that the UW wanted to build more parking lots. The city balked, they instituted the U-Pass and lo & behold and they didn’t need the additional parking after all.

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