Public Transit and University Education: A Critical Link in Retaining Graduates and Growing the Econ29-Aug-2013 Source: The Hamilton Spectator
Jeffrey Doucet is the Vice President (Finance) of the McMaster Students Union. He is a graduate of McMaster University and has lived in Hamilton for the last five years.
This fall, McMaster University is set to welcome over 5,500 first-year students. The vast majority of these students will come from places outside of Hamilton and two-thirds will live on campus in residence. The first-year experience — especially the early transition to both university and the city of Hamilton — will shape the undergraduate experience for students at McMaster.
City transit will be a determining factor in how new (and current) students form their opinions of Hamilton. It is through public transit that McMaster students will leave what is colloquially known as the "University Bubble." Only through the HSR will the majority of McMaster undergrads be able leave the Westdale/Ainslie Wood area and visit the museums, businesses, restaurants, art scene and nightlife that Hamilton has to offer.
As a first-year student, I remember walking by bus stops on campus and watching students unable to catch a bus, particularly at peak travel times, as buses were consistently full. The few times that I did manage to get on a bus, I experienced inconsistent service, overcrowded buses and poor trip planning. When it came time to choose a location to live off-campus, my peers and I exclusively looked in areas within walking distance of McMaster. I simply did not trust the HSR as an effective and reliable mode of transportation.
Flash-forward several years and I am now a graduate. Over the last four years, several improvements have been made to the delivery of transit services. Hamilton has invested in the expansion of the 51 University Line and more articulated buses have been added to help with the growing demand of ridership.
However, it is important that more be done, as the student population continues to grow, marking an increase in both ridership and student investment in the HSR. Increased transit use needs to be met with increased investment from the city. It should be noted that McMaster students, each of whom purchase an eight-month bus pass through an ancillary student fee, comprise the single largest HSR client base in the city. Improved transit is essential to not only meet with consumer demand, but will also drive students to live, work and play throughout the entire city — particularly the downtown core — outside the University Bubble.
Moreover, enhancing public transportation will drive significant economic growth to Hamilton's downtown. This is a common theme outlined in arguments for infrastructure funding for The Big Move and Light Rail Transit plans. A study conducted by the University of Ottawa estimated that the average undergraduate student living off-campus contributes over $10,000 a year to the local economy. If 100 more students were convinced public transit was reliable enough to live downtown, they would generate $1 million for landlords, business owners and service providers. Clearly these numbers add up quickly.
Students will drive increased demand for restaurant options, retail shopping, entertainment and other consumer driven industries — all important indicators of a successful downtown core. More importantly, motivating students to "pop the bubble" will connect the newest residents of our city with the larger community, building an important relationship that will ideally continue after graduation. Hamilton retains a relatively low number of McMaster graduates. Many students identify McMaster as a great university community, but never intend to live here upon graduation. Until new and upper-year students find themselves immersed in the vibrant and growing culture of Hamilton, we will struggle to retain grads — keen to buy property, earn income and start families. Improving transportation will engage students with the city now, showcasing that Hamilton is a beautiful place with a burgeoning knowledge economy, holding many opportunities for new graduates.
In the long term, students of McMaster University support the development of LRT infrastructure. However, with little movement from city council on that front, more buses, arriving on time, connecting students to the city are necessary to meet the needs of students today.
The McMaster Students Union is working with the HSR to renegotiate the student bus pass. The HSR is striving to deliver transportation meeting the needs of more than 22,000 undergraduate students, but the HSR is operating under a funding model that has been essentially frozen by city council. At a recent Welcome Day event at McMaster, Mayor Bob Bratina welcomed first-year students and indicated that he wants them to "cherish their time in Hamilton." I urge the mayor to match the investments that students have been making to the HSR and support transit expansion. It is only then the mayor can ensure McMaster students have the opportunity to cherish everything the city has to offer.