The past month just hasn’t been great PR for sustainability at USC. A few weeks ago, a protest by Environmental Core put the University’s lack of renewable energy infrastructure under the microscope. The event reinvigorated students’ requests to bring solar power to campus.
And on Sept. 29, associate professor Lisa Schweitzer began the first of a crusade of blog posts criticizing the University’s elimination of the employee transit subsidy program that gave employees $30 a month for transit passes. Most recently, the University announced that it would replace the program with a parking subsidy for employees on campus. Schweitzer’s response? A giant middle finger GIF, and rightfully so. The transit subsidy program was essential to supporting sustainability on a corporate level, and eliminating it is unequivocally bad policy. It sets a dangerous precedent and calls for a more comprehensive revisit to the University’s sustainability goals.
According to the University’s facts and figures page, it employs more than 19,000 faculty and staff, making the University the largest private employer in Los Angeles. Removing the subsidized transit pass means that employees now have to pay $100 a month to use public transit to get to USC — compared to a subsidized cost for parking a car. Such a tradeoff means that the University significantly incentivized 17,000 people to use cars to get to campus instead of public transit.
From a sustainability perspective, that’s a big problem. As Schweitzer explains, Transportation Services has no opportunity cost for parking garages — either they use them, or they lose them. And empty parking garages most likely incited the move away from the transit subsidy program to begin with. But better policy would use the space for housing that could produce a return on investment instead of contributing to carbon emissions and pollution — as if Los Angeles didn’t have enough of that already.
From a social justice perspective, the elimination of the subsidy program is an even bigger problem. If recent Justice for Janitors protests and last year’s Fight for 15 protests have taught students — and anyone paying attention — anything, it’s that the University has been quick to cut costs at the expense of their employees while raising historic amounts of money — a projected $6 billion, to be precise. Making the use of public transit so expensive for employees, many of whom are paid minimum wage, demonstrates that the University is out of touch with the needs of these individuals. Access to a car may be impractical for many employees, and removing transit subsidies forces them to fork over the $100 monthly cost just to get to work in the morning. And as Schweitzer points out in her blog post, minimum-wage employees in Los Angeles “exist in a hard whipsaw between housing costs, car ownership costs, transit mobility costs and stagnant wages.”
Moreover, the transit subsidy policy ignores today’s transit climate. Construction on the recent extensions of the Expo Line to Santa Monica and the Gold Line to Foothill demonstrates Los Angeles’s efforts to expand public transit to be more comprehensive and accessible. These expansions, however, come as costs to ride the Metro have risen in recent years. So for the University to revoke transit passes in the wake of improvements to public transit is particularly tone deaf to both the costs of public transit and its increased convenience.
USC should wield its power to be a leader in sustainability instead of putting profits before the good of employees and the students who will inherit the carbon-laden atmosphere long after President C. L. Max Nikias has left office. The University’s sustainability page shows that the Board of Trustees’ Campus Planning Committee last approved sustainability resolutions in 2010. One of them states, “Be it further resolved, that the University maintain active incentive programs to encourage faculty, staff, students and visitors to use transportation modes other than the single passenger automobile.” In light of such a blatant failure to live up to its expectations five years later, it’s time for the University to critically examine whether its policies have met its goals, and perhaps craft new goals to keep sustainability in mind as the University continues to expand. To do so would indicate to students, employees and the surrounding community that the University is now — more than ever — committed to crafting a legacy that will support students for centuries to come.
Sonali Seth is a sophomore majoring in political science and policy, planning and development. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Mondays.
Monday’s Daily Trojan contained an error. The column stated that employees would receive free parking on campus. Employees will receive subsidized parking. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.