With less OSAP and no RU-Pass, Ryerson students are struggling to afford their commutes

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A NEW STUDY BASED OUT OF RYERSON WILL LOOK AT THE NEXT STEPS FOR STUDENT TRANSIT, AALIYAH DASOO REPORTS

O n the days Mark Koev decides it’s worth the trip to campus, the fourth-year international finance and economics student gets a chance to see the sunrise during his commute. 

Driving south from Aurora, Ont., the commute takes around 50 minutes on a good day. He wakes up around 5 a.m. to get to class on time for 8 a.m. But during rush hour, bumper to bumper traffic means that Koev’s drive could take up to an hour and a half, making him question whether that sunrise is worth it. 

“Between the fact that everything’s online and the commute, I would just make the decision not to come,” he says. 

For many Ryerson students, this tight, early morning schedule is a reality. Ryerson has been part of the StudentMoveTO project since it started in 2015. Led by principal investigator and Ryerson Urban and Regional Planning professor Rakim Mitra, StudentMoveTO is the first-ever research project studying and compiling data around the travel habits of young people in the GTA. It will recognize the trends of student travel and will use the data to work on university planning with regards to solutions for commuter students.  

The study comes at an important time. After Premier Doug Ford came into power last summer and scrapped the Liberal government’s free tuition plan and cut down Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) grants in the winter, Ryerson students have less provincial funding this year. This means students have to adjust their lives to accommodate paying for one of their largest expenses: commuting.

According to a 2015 report done by StudentMoveTO, about 54 per cent of students at Ryerson use local transit to commute, and 23 per cent use regional transit. Ryerson also has the highest average commute time, at about 46 minutes, compared to other universities in Toronto. 

“With the cuts in OSAP on top of [commuting expenses], it does impact the demographics of our student population in a negative way potentially,” says Sara Diamond, the president of OCAD University, and one of the panelists at the StudentMoveTO launch event last week.

C ommuting “falls right at the top” of Koev’s budget. He says his only viable alternative to driving is the GO train. But his fees were almost $20 a day, as he was paying $9.50 each way. 

That’s what pushed Koev into buying a car. “I’m paying roughly the same amount. But what I get in return is alone time. It’s much nicer, much comfier, I don’t have people around me, no weird stuff going on,” he says with a laugh. “I am my only delay.” 

But commuting by car has its downsides too. Koev says he doesn’t have a parking pass, since his campus attendance is so sporadic, depending on how he feels and what classes he has. According to the Ryerson website, depending on the lot, a parking permit at Ryerson costs between $1,032 and $1,456 per year—and they sell out fast. 

Earlier this year, Ryerson submitted a proposal for a 41-storey building, which would be built on the spot of a 189-space parking lot on Jarvis Street. The building itself will not have spots for vehicle parking, but it will feature parking for over 1,000 bikes. Mitchell Kosny, interim director of Ryerson’s school of urban and regional planning, told The Eyeopener that the parking plan could have the aim of deterring drivers and encouraging the use of public transit. 

But Koev strayed away from a parking pass because of the cost. He would rather put all of his classes on the same days, or only attend class on the days where he has a test or presentation. To pay for the upkeep of his car, gas, parking and other normal fees that come with being a university student, Koev works multiple jobs. “I have a little money there for two and a half years of tuition and then the other half I pay out of pocket,” he says. “Including that, my OSAP was an added bonus.”

“We are a very expensive region for students,” Diamond said at the launch event. She says she and the other Ontario university presidents working on StudentMoveTO are aware of the fact that transportation in the GTA isn’t affordable. Diamond also stressed the importance of creating a system that makes it easier and cheaper for students to actually afford attending school.

A TTC Student Monthly pass costs $122.45 a month, which comes to a total $979.60 if you buy one for each month of the academic year. GO Transit fares can depend on your location, so costs may vary anywhere between $4 and $12 per trip.

With the burden of commuting costs on top of school work, Koev rarely sticks around for parts of student life outside of class. During his first year, Koev would come to every class. Nowadays, he hardly goes to his classes. He often looks at slides posted by the prof on his own time and on top of that, since he tries to pack his classes into the same few days, often ends up with back to back midterms. 

Diamond says that this type of curriculum concentration “deeply undermines” campus life and the quality of students’ learning experiences. She says she and the other presidents have shown great concern for “the ways that the experience of transportation impacted student concentration.” She says that it can also negatively impact other parts of student life, like being able to keep an organized schedule. Putting classes back to back in the span of two to three days can be exhausting, and result in a lack of focus, especially for arts or STEM students who spend much of their class time in labs.

Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi says, “It’s important because the more input we get from [students] the more solutions we can find. Based on that, we can find a way to make life easier for them.”

A t 5:45 a.m. on a Monday morning, Daniel Mahidashti wakes up bleary-eyed and gets ready to face the cold on his way to school. Class begins at 8 a.m. on Mondays, as well as another three days this week. He maps out the time in his head. It’ll take him about an hour to get ready. He piles on an extra few minutes for buying gas for his drive to the GO station, plus more time to find and pay for parking. After searching both the north and south parking lots at the Langstaff GO station, he finally finds a spot. He rushes to the train and boards it just before it leaves. He missed the lines to get a seat, so he’s stuck standing for the next 40 minutes straight. But he doesn’t mind—he’s just grateful he didn’t miss the train.  

When Mahidashti found out about the cuts to OSAP, he was shocked. By this time last year, he had around $2,000 for his commuting costs coming from OSAP. Mahidashti checked his RAMSS account near the start of the school year and, to his surprise, found that he still owed the university $300 after his OSAP payout. That’s the same amount as his monthly commute cost.

To make matters worse, he was also hoping to have the benefit of the RU-Pass to ease his transit costs. Over 10,000 students voted in favour of the RU-Pass last November. The universal transit pass would have cost $564 per academic year and would give students unlimited access to the TTC transit system. While the Ryerson Students’ Union advertised that the pass could expand to GO transit, a spokesperson told The Eye they had no plans to create a discounted transit pass for Ryerson students. But, in January, the provincial government announced the Student Choice Initiative, which made certain non-essential ancillary fees optional. 

“After cuts were announced and I found out we can opt out of fees, the first thing that came to my mind was the RU-Pass,” Mahidashti says. He took to Facebook comments, trying to figure out whether the transit pass would be scrapped. The province listed transit passes as a mandatory fee, but only those that had a signed agreement before Jan. 17, 2019. That means the RU-Pass, along with Sheridan College’s pass, was cancelled for the 2019-20 year.

Ryerson professor Mitra says that a straightforward solution for students right now would be a universal transit pass. “I know that with new funding structures, universal transit passes have suddenly become a big challenge, but hopefully that will get resolved over time,” he says. He adds that universal integration of fares between transit systems simply hasn’t been effective. He believes that a universal pass would bring down the cost of commuting for students “quite substantially.”

This is something that has been tried, tested and successful in other cities. In the Metro Vancouver area, post-secondary students have the option to participate in the TransLink U-Pass BC Program. According to the TransLink website, the program aims to lower fees for student life, reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gases and to provide a level of service that meets its demand. The pass is available for use on all transit services in the Metro Vancouver area. And it all costs a grand total of $41 a month—already included in students’ tuition fees.

Mahidashti used to use his own money to pay for commuting expenses, but now borrows money from his mother and reloads his Presto as he comes and goes. He is also aware of the Ryerson commuter bursary, but was told that his chances for receiving it were slim. According to the Ryerson website, the bursary aims to provide students with financial aid in emergency circumstances, but not when government financial aid is insufficient. 

The bursary form for this year is not open yet, but according to a Ryerson ServiceHub representative, there are limited funds this year, and applications usually close quickly. The representative also said that most of the eligibility goes according to distance. Mahidashti was told by an OSAP advisor to not count on receiving the bursary due to the amount of applications that come in. “I can probably get a rebate but [it’s] not very likely.” says Mahidashti.

Mahidashti ended up looking for other transit funding opportunities from the university. He asked his department about available scholarships, but was told that with his GPA and the number of applicants the department would receive, he wasn’t likely to be approved for any. His only other option was to keep working throughout the year—something that he is unable to do during the school year during his heavy class load.

He isn’t the only one who feels this way. According to the 2015 StudentMoveTO report, over 50 per cent of students surveyed work part-time during the year to pay for school.

Y ou could say that because of his commute, Koev has become somewhat of a morning person. But at the end of the day, it boils down to the value of his time. And Koev belives his time is more valuable than a class where lecture slides are available on his computer. He also doesn’t join student groups because it would mean coming to campus. “Most of the things that the school offers are negated by commuting.”

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