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Students aren’t getting a free ride

By James Bow

It seems like a seasonal tradition. As the leaves fall, some people complain about the investments the Region of Waterloo has made in public transportation.

Despite the fact that council voted 10-1 in favour of building a regional light rail transit system and in spite of significantly rising ridership, rising gas prices and the growing need to contain urban sprawl, public transit investment is still seen by some as a waste of their tax dollars, and an impediment on their right to drive.

This puts me into a cranky mood. I too am a taxpayer, and a car owner, but I’ve appreciated how Grand River Transit provides mobility when my car is unavailable.

I’m aware that the world I live in won’t be the same as the world my daughters live in, and to ensure that they live happily in their world, we must invest in a city where the car is a luxury to be enjoyed, rather than a necessity without which one cannot function.

But one of the odder complaints I’ve heard about public transit in the Region of Waterloo is how it somehow shows favouritism to our university and college students.

Students are getting a break to use transit, some critics argue. The LRT route favours them, not the region. They get subsidized transit passes that the rest of the region doesn’t benefit from. They’re getting a free lunch. It’s time to stop coddling students.

Actually, students receive a volume discount. The region isn’t getting poorer for having the students’ transit use paid for directly from the students’ school registration fees.

As if the full-time student population of Waterloo’s two universities doesn’t equal 46 per cent of the population of the City of Waterloo. As if these students aren’t contributing to the local economy through the money they spend, the restaurants they frequent, the groceries they buy, the jobs they create and the businesses they start after they graduate.

As if the students of our universities are incapable of driving. As the population of our two universities explodes, along with their contribution to our economy, how else will the students get from their beds to their classes to their stores and their jobs if not through public transit? Walking, cycling and car sharing only go so far.

But students today have more disposable income than ever before; they are backed by parents who are happy to pay for their children’s education.

Haven’t you noticed the quality of the student accommodations that are going up along Columbia and King? Per square foot, students are paying higher rental rates than conventional apartments these days. This is why private companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars building almost 9,000 off-campus beds for students in Waterloo Region.

So, if our students have to drive, they will — assuming they don’t go elsewhere and take their economic contributions with them.

Now imagine 25,000 additional cars on the road around the King/University intersection early on a Monday morning. What will our transit critics say about gridlock then?

Students are a major part of the community that Grand River Transit serves, but they are also a part of the wider community and should be served. And Grand River Transit is serving the wider community.

Public transit is critical to maintaining a diverse and vibrant community that avoids gridlock and maintains a strong economy. The investment we have made and must continue to make in public transportation in Waterloo Region is paying great dividends.

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James Bow is a writer and a father of two in Kitchener. You can follow him online at bowjamesbow.ca or on Twitter at @jamesbow.

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