University-backed transportation options make Chicago commuting more accessible, students say


Daily file photo by Sean Su

The U-Pass program provides unlimited CTA rides for eligible college students.

Simone Garber, Reporter

Karen Rodriguez, a junior at the University of Chicago, took the CTA Orange Line daily to her high school in the South Loop. Now, thanks to her Ventra U-Pass, she said she can continue to ride the train at a discounted rate.

Over 40 universities partner with the Chicago Transit Authority to provide unlimited rides on trains and buses for full-time college students through the U-Pass program, including DePaul University, the University of Illinois Chicago and Adler University, according to the CTA website.

All Adler University students commute to its Loop campus, Student Services Coordinator Lunden Gregory said. About 500 out of its 1,700 enrolled students register for the Adler U-Pass program, according to Gregory. 

DePaul freshman Alice Ermentrout commutes to DePaul’s Lincoln Park and Loop campuses from her home in Portage Park. Having a U-Pass enables her to do more than just attend classes, she said. 

“My favorite thing (about having a U-Pass) is the ability to explore the city,” Ermentrout said. “It’s really easy if my friends want to go to a museum or do something as simple as get a pizza. It would be really hard to actually fully enjoy Chicago without having a U-Pass.”

Fatena Alhamud, a senior at UIC, took advantage of her U-Pass when traveling to campus from her Rogers Park home during her second year of college. Her round trip consisted of four buses and two trains, she said.

“My U-Pass was my best friend at the time,” Alhamud said. “We’re already traveling really long distances to get our education, so I would say that it’s a great opportunity to have (a U-Pass). I think it should be available for every student, not just college students.”

Rodriguez also said U-Passes should be extended to high schoolers commuting long distances to and from classes.

Alhamud works at UIC over winter and summer breaks, when her U-Pass benefits don’t apply. She wishes students could opt in to a year-long option, even if it costs more, she said.

Other students expressed frustration with the way U-Pass fares are included in their tuition packages. At the University of Chicago, students are unable to opt out of the program, even if they don’t ride the CTA, University of Chicago sophomore Nikola Bilaver said.

“For the vast majority of students, it’s honestly more expensive to have a U-Pass,” Bilaver said. “You’re forced to pay $300 a year. If you’re not commuting on a regular basis, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to waste that kind of money.”

Despite the program’s implementation in many Chicago universities, Northwestern undergraduate students studying on its Evanston campus are not eligible for U-Pass benefits, NU Associate Director of Parking and Transportation Services Paul Merkey said.

(NU) piloted an undergraduate U-Pass program during winter and spring quarters of 2022,” Merkey said. “However, due to low participation, it was decided that the program did not make sense to continue.”

As an alternative to using a U-Pass, NU students can take the intercampus shuttle, which runs on weekdays, into Chicago, Merkey said. They can also purchase a 30-day CTA pass for $75, he said.

NU also offers a free Safe Ride option, which transports students throughout campus and surrounding Evanston between the hours of 7 p.m. and 3 a.m., according to its website. Safe Ride drivers average around 330 pick-ups per night in total, NU Senior Executive Director of Division Services Jim Roberts said.

While Safe Ride is intended to aid students who feel unsafe roaming after dark, its demand is currently exceeding its five-driver capacity, partly because fewer students are inclined to walk during the winter months, Roberts said. NU transportation officials are in conversation with one another about how to better support student transportation on campus, he said.

Similar conversations are taking place within transportation departments among multiple Chicago universities. Having accessible transportation options like the U-Pass program is “a matter of equity,” UIC Director of Student Affairs Technology Matthew Miller said.

“(The U-Pass program) is just another option people have to get to school or where their education is happening,” Miller said. “The fewer impactors that are between students getting to work and students (not getting to work), it’s going to be a huge deal.”

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Twitter: @simonegarber

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