April 2, 2010

Resurrecting the U-Pass

With U-Pass, students would enjoy Chicago conveniently and cheaply

I saw a sad thing the other day. Coming back from the Loop on the #6—the CTA’s premiere South-Side-to-downtown route—I caught sight of a familiar vehicle. Its coloring was that of white paint, dirt, and salt stains—its driver seemingly disgruntled. Those clues alone were enough, even before seeing a University logo adorning the side, to know that this short bus was an obvious member of our Safe Ride fleet. Its location on Lake Shore Drive, however, meant that this particular vehicle must be the fabled “South Loop Shuttle,” a student government-created route offering late-night service between the Reynolds Club and the corner of Roosevelt Road and State Street. The fact that the bus was completely empty, save the aforementioned driver, confirmed this suspicion.

It’s sad because this route really was a good idea on paper. Unfortunately, as is the case with most other attempts by University brass to tailor transportation offerings to the needs of the common student, it was plagued by low student demand and a clumsy public-awareness campaign. It got me thinking: We really need something more flexible and easy-to-use. After dismissing the expensive, freemarket-based fantasy of providing monthly vouchers for taxi rides downtown, I reconsidered an old solution: the U-Pass.

The CTA’s U-Pass program, launched in 1988, is the current method of transportation for 42 Chicago-area colleges and universities. It provides registered students with an identification card that allows unlimited use of the CTA’s web of trains and buses, connecting virtually every area of Chicago.

In 2007, after students amassed over 700 signatures to get it on the ballot, the U-Pass was put to a non-binding referendum during the Student Government (SG) election, where it passed by nearly 200 votes (not insignificant when considering low SG voter turnout). It seemed as though the University would finally join nearly every other university in the city and provide their students with the keys to the city’s public transportation.

It didn’t happen. The issue was buried by the administration, which claimed that the costs (about $200 per student) were prohibitively high, and the service was only cost-effective if each student made 1.5 roundtrips downtown each week. And with that, the University ended the discussion. After all the debate leading up to the vote, it seems that students simply forgot to follow up on what they’d voted for.

Allow me to remind the student body why we voted for this and counter the University’s self-serving argument.

Firstly, while three trips every two weeks may seem like a figure much higher than the current practices of our undergraduate population, it’s important to remember these students have formed their daily habits in an environment sans U-Pass. That’s like asking a student without a meal plan how frequently he pays to eat at a dining hall. I posit that if everyone were given a U-Pass, the option of going downtown for dinner would become a much more viable one, as would going to the movies or visiting museums, thus significantly increasing the number of house trips, shopping excursions, and ultimately visits that each student would make to city hotspots.

I call this the “If you give a Scavie a bus pass…” theory, and I believe one of the reasons it works is because paying for the CTA is, quite frankly, a ridiculous inconvenience—a reality that stifles our students’ travel throughout the city. The current bus fare is $2.25 per ride, which really means producing three singles (CTA buses do not offer change, of course) for those paying with cash and not sporting a change purse, an oftentimes difficult proposition in an increasingly cash-less world. Good luck trying to get those wrinkly dollar bills through the machine when you have 12 people standing behind you on Randolph and State. Oh, you only have a credit card? Screw you; take a cab.

For those blessed with forethought beyond the years of a college student, your payment options (Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus) are more favorable, although plagued with problems of their own. To start, the Chicago Card, which essentially acts as a gift card refillable at CTA stations, is a completely useless offering. Not only is it inconvenient to refill for our students (the nearest CTA station is the 63rd-Cottage Grove Green Line stop), but the embedded computer chip wears out after about four months. The Gold Card, or Chicago Card Plus, is clearly the better choice of the two, and the method of choice for many U of C students. It acts as a proxy credit card, automatically deducting bus and train fares from the line of credit or debit it’s linked to. Unfortunately, it’s manufactured with the same defective computer chip, and renewal, initial purchase, or expiration of the linked credit card requires logging onto the CTA’s website, which works exactly as well as one might expect. Adding the U-Pass to our student life portfolio would eliminate all this hassle, and give students a vehicle through which they could actively engage the richly diverse city of Chicago.

Regardless of whether students travel downtown at a rate approaching “cost-effectiveness,” I still believe the U-Pass is worth it. Just as is the case with every other service provided by the University, some people will get really good use out of it, some less, and some not at all. For instance, I get better use out of Safe Ride than probably any other student in this school. It is my personal taxi service, and I happen to be of the opinion that it is the single most valuable resource the University provides. Contrast that with my use of our three major undergraduate libraries, which (now that free printing is gone) is closer to the “not at all” end of the spectrum. I’m okay with that, though. Because even though I don’t derive utility from the Reg in a manner proportionate to my shared costs, I understand that some people—like my roommate—practically sleep in it, and that it is probably in the best interest of our University community to have simple and unrestrained access to books, computers, and study areas. Suffice it to say, I feel the same way about transportation.

The fact of the matter is, as college students, we’re going to get overcharged for everything we do, anyway. From the food in Hutch, to the printing in the Reg, to that ludicrously-priced Barnes and Noble, the University of Chicago is collecting its “rake” on every service it can. I, for one, would rather give those $200 to the CTA—a struggling, yet critical service to many of the city’s lower-income residents—than to the University to hire another junior-level administrator to oversee our school’s broken transportation system.

Mr. Zimmer, just add it to my tuition. Hell, you’re going to raise it anyway. The University (along with its peers) has repeatedly demonstrated its intention to nickel-and-dime the student body with tuition increases of between 4.5–5.5 percent each year. It almost seems as though the administration knows exactly how much they can raise the total cost of attendance without making national headlines or sparking student protests (see: Berkeley hippies), and that number is mysteriously close to the one that comes out of the big black box of tuition hikes each year. So, if we’re forced to pay annual tuition increases well above inflation rates in order to get our degrees, wouldn’t it make sense that we at least get a useful service in return?

I have another question. Where did all that money go when, at the beginning of the year, the school cut the 173 and 174 bus routes? That move, which the University said would save “at least $750,000” per year, should in part fund our move to the U-Pass. In fact, at the $200-a-pop rate quoted by the University, that move could have covered the costs of putting at least 3,750 undergraduates on the U-Pass, making the full coverage required by the CTA a negligible additional expenditure away. Let’s do that. Let’s stop paying for empty shuttles to make runs downtown. Let’s stop handing out Chicago Cards to first-years during Orientation Week. Let’s stop wasting money on our University’s transportation bureaucracy. Let’s outsource. Let’s bring a valuable service to campus—one the student body already voted for.

Ms. Goff-Crews, get us the U-Pass.

— Steve Saltarelli is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.