On the first day of Chicago Public Schools, the city offers free rides for students on buses and trains in an effort to boost attendance.
Students say it’s helpful, but they want the offer year round.
“I think students should get free rides because I don’t really know how you will expect youth who are focusing on their education and career to have constant money,” said Jennifer Nava, a senior at Kelly High School in the Brighton Park neighborhood on the Southwest Side.
It’s a big ask in a city dealing with a huge financial deficit. Just last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city faces a projected $838 million budget shortfall next year.
Still Jennifer, an outspoken teenager who keeps close tabs on city affairs, wants to remind Lightfoot that she promised to make transportation more affordable for students during her campaign.
“If time is not now, then when?” Jennifer said.
Daily rides add up
All students in the city already get a discount. They pay 75 cents for bus and train rides on school days from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and they are charged 15 cents for transfers.
But even with student discounts, it’s hard for some and it gets even more expensive for students who take multiple buses each day to go to school. Currently, about 75% of Chicago high schoolers don’t go to their neighborhood school.
Parents agree with Jennifer. Some complained recently on social media about the cost of public transportation, even with the discounts. With 180 school days, the total cost for one CPS student could be at least $270. That doesn’t count transfers.
“That’s just a set amount, not taking into consideration if this family has to pay for another student,” said Michael Roman, a senior at Back of the Yards College Prep High School.
Michael and his classmates pushed for free rides on trains and buses as part of a civic engagement class last spring. They wrote a letter to Mayor Lightfoot urging her to support free transportation for students.
It’s unclear if Lightfoot got the letter. Now, Michael says he would like to meet with the head of the Chicago Transit Authority.
“I just want to discuss it with him,” Michael said. “Maybe we can reach that middle ground.”
This isn’t the first time the students have asked for free CTA rides. In 2012, students with the Mikva Challenge, a teen advocacy group, got former Mayor Rahm Emanuel to start a pilot program giving free rides to 500 students in five schools for the first semester of the school year.
The city said the program cost $50,000 and was paid for by a local philanthropist. Data collected by the Network for College Success at the University of Chicago showed a 5% increase in attendance at the schools. The program was expanded the following school year to 11 schools, including Clemente, Richards and Juarez high schools. That expansion cost $250,000 for one year.
Finding the money
Michael understands the city is struggling financially, but he wants Lightfoot to deliver on her promise.
Experts aren’t optimistic.
“Free fares, whether it would be to students or to any other group, they do have a financial impact on the transit system, which already have severe constraints on its budget,” said Audrey Wennink, director of transportation at the Metropolitan Planning Council.
The state has drastically reduced reimbursements to the city for free and reduced fares for populations including seniors and people with disabilities, Wennink said. There’s also been decreases in ridership over the years.
Two Illinois senators introduced a bill in January to amend state law to require transportation agencies to offer free fares for high school students on school days and for veterans with disabilities. The bill didn’t make it out of committee.
Experts like Wennink say Chicago should follow the lead of cities like New York, Sacramento and Seattle and find creative ways to fund free rides, like from sales tax revenue or car registration fees.
Other ideas include increasing the fees on companies like Uber and Lyft or asking Chicago Public Schools to pony up some funds.
“Everything should be on the table,” Wennick said. “Certainly the money part is the hard part. But the benefits might outweigh the cost.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the cost of a transfer for students. The cost is 15 cents.