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 Photo by Steph & Adam 

I received a disappointing email yesterday from a colleague pointing me to this article on transit fees in the City of Ottawa (where I currently live, work, and go to school).  The article describes a recent change which makes all students 28 and older ineligible for City of Ottawa "student" transit fares.  This will mean that many graduate students, medical students, and even "mature" undergraduate students will now have to pay the regular adult fare, which ads up to an extra $240/year.  According to this article on the Ottawa Citizen website "Council approved the change as a way to save money and balance the budget".  The city expects this change to bring in a meagre $220,000, but would cost many students more than half a month's rent over the course of a year.

The financial arguments against this move are pretty obvious.  Students - be they 18 or 28 - typically have little or no income.  There is absolutely no reason why a student in their 30's should have to pay a fee that a student in their early 20's does not. Whether they are in undergrad, grad school or med school, "mature" students face the same financial challenges as younger students, often more so (for example, older students are more likely to be supporting families of their own, and less likely to receive financial support from their parents).  But let's move away from the financial cost, and look at the bigger picture. 

Frequent readers of this blog will know that commuting by public transit is associated with increased amounts of physical activity. Earlier this year I interviewed Ugo Lachapelle, whose paper in the Journal of Public Health Policy suggested that individuals who use public transit are significantly more likely to reach the recommended amounts of daily physical activity than those who do not use public transit.  From a health perspective, it's really a no-brainer - people who take public transit tend to walk more than those who don't, which should place them at a lower risk for numerous chronic diseases.  That's why we have argued repeatedly here at Obesity Panacea that promoting transit use is a simple way to promote physical activity.  Of relevance to this discussion, in his Journal of Public Health Policy paper, Mr Lachapelle reported that 

"Having an employer-sponsored transit pass had a positive relationship with meeting the physical activity recommendation" 

I would consider a student transit pass to be nearly indistinguishable from  an employer-sponsored transit pass.  These programs make transit use more affordable, resulting in both more transit use, and increased levels of physical activity.  To me, this suggests that the opposite is also likely to be true - when the transit pass is no longer sponsored (or subsidized in this case) physical activity levels are likely to decrease.  This is not to mention the numerous other benefits of transit use, including reduced pollution and less traffic for those who do drive.  By increasing the fares that some students must pay, it makes it more likely that they will A) choose to forgo a post-secondary education, or B) commute by means other than public transportation, neither of which is good for the people of Ottawa.  

Interestingly, in our interview here on Obesity Panacea, Mr Lachapelle made the rather prescient statement that:

"Furthermore, there seems to be a lack of political will to address the question of commuter-related taxation, such as transit passes."

This is where you come in.  If you live in the City of Ottawa, you can find your city councillor by clicking here, while acting mayor Michel Bellemare's website can be found here.  I strongly urge you to write to them and explain why you feel this is bad decision for the City of Ottawa and its students.  If you live outside of Ottawa, please email acting mayor Bellemare directly by clicking here, and please spread the word via twitter, facebook, etc. I am writing my own letters as we speak.  Feel free to post a copy of your letter in the comments section below to encourage others.  Transit use and post-secondary education are simple things that we should all be promoting, and this policy does the exact opposite.

In case anyone is curious, I will not personally be hurt by this fee change - I'm 25, and with any luck I'll finish my PhD shortly after my 28th birthday :)  Thanks to Stephanie Prince Ware for emailing me and many others to let us know about this issue.


Lachapelle, U., & Frank, L. (2009). Transit and Health: Mode of Transport, Employer-Sponsored Public Transit Pass Programs, and Physical Activity Journal of Public Health Policy, 30 DOI: 10.1057/jphp.2008.52

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6 Response to "City of Ottawa Hikes Transit Fees for "Mature" Students - Will Physical Activity Drop as a Result?"

  1. BdN Said,

    Yeah, that really sucks. In Montreal, it's even worse (the difference, not the total, but it begins at an earlier age): reduced fares for students stop at 25! The reduced monthly price is 37$ while the regular one is 68.50$ (and keeps rising each year). This means it costs a graduate student 822$ a year and 444$ for a "non-mature" one, a difference of 378$. Way to go...

    Posted on July 22, 2009 at 1:43 PM

  2. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    That's very interesting - the difference in Montreal is almost equivalent to a month's rent! Do you know if they have given any rationale as to why younger students are more deserving of the subsidy?

    Posted on July 22, 2009 at 1:53 PM

  3. Anonymous Said,

    If they can't afford $20 a month more, and they can't afford a car for $20 a month, won't they be walking more and be in even better health?

    Posted on July 22, 2009 at 9:35 PM

  4. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    I'm not sure that it's simply about being able to afford a car or not. If you need to commute to school, you are going to take the option that best balances cost and convenience. The most convenient option may be a car, but it often carries a large cost. Buses are much cheaper, but are less convenient. If the cost of riding the bus increases without any increase in convenience, it makes buying a car (or using a ride-share program like VRTUCAR) much more appealing from a cost vs convenience perspective. And for those who cannot afford a car, I imagine that increasing their debt load buying a car through credit will seem more appealing as the cost of bus travel increases.

    Posted on July 23, 2009 at 4:10 PM

  5. Richard Eis Said,

    They won't save $220,000 because a lot of students simply won't pay. They will find an alternative. So the benefit to the company is much smaller than they think.

    Posted on July 24, 2009 at 3:48 AM

  6. Liisa Wennervirta Said,

    Simply. Not. Fair.
    I graduated from the secondary schoool, started to work (in fact, I had already worked part-time), paid my taxes... and when I was 25, I decided that I should go and study something. Here, the student advantages in general get cut when one's 26 - tax exemptions; state pays social and health insurance to full-time students under 26; cheaper public transport in state/council owned companies... quite a lot. So, I paid my taxes and generally worked on being a good citizen to be told to shove off when I was in my second year. In theory, by 26, one could be halfway through their Ph.D. if they graduated from the high school at 19 (kids go to school at six, 9 years of primary education, 4 years for most high schools) but, well, not everybody takes this route.

    I know why the limit is 26 in my country - under the commies, one either continued the education or went to work, it was hard to get back to school later on. So, in the 50's, some smartass calculated that kids go to school at 6 years of age, with max. 2 years of delay for medical reasons. 8 years of primary education, 4 years for secondary, the longest university courses - medicine only, in fact - 6 years. That adds up to 26. Nobody was expected to study longer. Now the times have changed. Or actually 20 years ago - many people study with breaks, often they work meantime, contributing to the system instead of getting something... and then they turn 26 and they are not eligible because.
    It's the same in Italy where I live now - I only don't know how they got to those 26 years.

    Posted on September 15, 2009 at 3:35 AM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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