End subsidized Bus Passes

By Alex Park

Last week, The Mac Weekly reported that Macalester’s Sustainability Office had put the breaks on bus pass subsidies after having gone nineteen thousand dollars over an allotted thirty thousand dollar budget. With the college in financial straits, administrators were right to suspend the program and commit it to some budgetary review. As they evaluate the program’s financial viability, administrators should also take this time to consider its value as method for fostering greater campus sustainability.
Subsidizing bus passes was the wrong idea for the right reasons. The program was meant to encourage our use of public transportation by making it more affordable, thus reducing our overall carbon footprint as we traveled off campus. In reality, subsidies took something which Mac students did anyway and made it cheaper for us while putting a substantial and unnecessary financial burden on the college. The question is, how much, if at all, did subsidies adjust our overall carbon output? Probably very little, and probably in the wrong direction.
As noted in last week’s article, Macalester adopted the subsidy program because it was listed as part of the President’s Climate Commitment- a national program that includes many colleges and universities with entirely different carbon outputs than this one. Likewise, at PCC signatory institutions such as Arizona State University and the Los Angeles Community College District, subsidies make sense for the climate because many, if not all students commute, and discounted passes make public transportation a viable alternative to an established regime of private cars.

In contrast, Macalester students-by and large- do not have cars. Whether going to an internship or going out to a bar, the options for transportation are squarely between busses and taxis. For the minority of students willing to spend the money on a taxi to get somewhere, the savings of $0.85 per direction would not have made up for the inconvenience and exposure to the elements involved in taking the bus on a given outing. On the other hand, for students in the majority who take the bus everywhere, cheaper passes meant they could take the bus more often and for more reasons-often without a reason at all. The result was greater mobility, but not greater sustainability. One friend told me that when going short distances down Grand, having a subsidized pass meant she could take the bus instead of walking. Is that really the greener alternative we were looking for? Therefore, rather than reducing the carbon output of the student body, subsidies may have slightly increased it. And of course, all this has been done at great expense to the college, with our tuition money, in a time of financial stress and- most absurdly of all- in the name of environmental action.
Don’t get me wrong: I am all for Mac students saving money and going out more, and I am certainly for reducing our expenditure of carbon. But for the money misspent on this program, far more intelligent initiatives to reduce carbon could have gotten off the ground. A forty-nine thousand dollar allocation could have done a lot to improve the energy and heating efficiency of campus buildings, for instance, by constructing more green roofs or installing more efficient heating and cooling systems and additional motion sensors to turn off lights when not in use. Unlike bus pass subsidies, these measures have the dual benefit of saving the college both energy in the short term and money in the long run-clearly good benefits at this time.
That said, for faculty and staff who regularly commute by car, subsidies make environmental sense, and the Sustainability Office would be right to consider restructuring the program to target those people and further encourage them to choose public transportation. However, as it applied to the majority of students, the program had no positive benefits for the climate whatsoever. If the college decides to reinstate the program for non-commuting students, the funds should absolutely not come out of any budget specifically reserved for sustainability
For now, let’s take this opportunity to consider where best to dedicate our tuition dollars to bring our college towards carbon neutrality. Cheaper bus passes for all students was a nice idea with some notable benefits, but as an attempt to reduce carbon output, it was a travesty. In this time of economic and environmental crisis, Macalester has other, critically important places to direct its money in the name of sustainability.