Who Pays for the Bus Pass? A Student Government Story
by Dr Ellie Bruecker
Back in 2010, 20-year old me decided to run for student government at University of Wisconsin-Madison, hoping to work on making college more affordable. I campaigned for a seat on the university’s Student Services Finance Committee, which has control over a portion of the segregated fees that students pay along with their tuition. The issue I chose to campaign on? Students shouldn’t have to pay for the bus pass if they don’t want to use it.
UW-Madison charges students a semesterly transit fee (in 2021–22, it was $57.28) that includes a Madison Metro bus pass that allows them unlimited rides on city transit routes. Students are automatically charged, but students must pick up their bus passes in person at the Student Activity Center. The semesterly fee also covers four routes that exclusively serve campus, and these buses do not require students to swipe their passes.
Most undergraduates at UW-Madison primarily use the campus routes only. But undergraduates working or living off-campus (where cheaper housing is more likely to be found) and graduate students rely on their bus passes much more frequently than those living on-campus. Luckily, I learned pretty quickly after my election that an optional bus pass fee wasn’t the right model. I didn’t know any students who lived far enough from UW-Madison’s free bus lines that they couldn’t easily walk to a stop. But that didn’t mean these students didn’t exist. I had grown up in a rural part of Wisconsin where lack of public transit made having a car necessary. I simply assumed anyone who lived too far to walk to campus would have a car. Of course, this wasn’t the case (not to mention that I hadn’t considered the cost and hassle of parking on campus).
Once I was elected and as I expanded my circle of friends beyond the ones I’d met in the dorms, I learned that my experience getting to and around campus, while perhaps the most common one, wasn’t the only one. I came to understand how critical transportation access was for many students. Allowing some students to opt-out of the bus pass would inevitably raise the cost for others — something 20-year old me clearly hadn’t thought all the way through when I wrote “Save $ on the bus pass, vote for Ellie!” in chalk all over campus. Instead, I learned that the whole student body shares the cost, and that even if I didn’t use the bus pass I paid for, the fee I paid helped to ensure that all students had affordable access to campus and the surrounding community.
I learned many similar lessons in my student government years about how other students experienced our campus differently, and ultimately it’s what led me to pursue a career in higher education. I’ve reflected on this and other naive misconceptions I held a decade ago quite a bit during the last year working on college transit access at SHSF. And it’s also gotten me thinking about how other institutions finance and distribute transit passes. How much do passes typically cost? Who pays and how? Do students need to pick up their passes? How often are new passes distributed? Do student IDs work as passes on local transit?
As far as I’m aware, we don’t have existing comprehensive data to answer these questions. But over the next several weeks, we’ll dig into how students are paying for transit and how colleges are helping beyond physical access to a stop. Stay tuned!