Youth Organization Founder Jahmal Cole Said CTA Should Be Free

Jahmal Cole and Darryl Holliday speaking at MPC event about CTA, segregation, and Cole's organization. Photo: Audrey Wennink/MPC
Jahmal Cole and Darryl Holliday speaking at MPC event about CTA, segregation, and Cole's organization. Photo: Audrey Wennink/MPC

“I think it should be free.”

This was Jahmal Cole’s opinion about the CTA system. A full house of over a hundred people at a meeting sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Council assented and applauded Mr. Cole’s statement. Cole is the author of Exposure Is Key: Solving Violence By Exposing Teens To Opportunities. On March 15, the native Chicagoan spoke at a meeting moderated by Darryl Holiday, editorial director and co-founder of City Bureau.

Cole is the founder of My Block, My Hood, My City, a program designed to expose youth to new experiences outside of their immediate surroundings, proving that you can do as much travelling in a huge city like Chicago as you can around the country. His program has also been instrumental in helping teenagers overcome negative forces such as poverty or low grades. Four successful kids from his program – Deontae Lewis, Dominetrius Chambers, Dimetriana Chambers and Marquell Washington – were in attendance at the event.

“Out of all the big ideas,” said Cole, “I think it should be free, and it should be extended. I used to ride the Red Line every day. Literally for like eight years I rode the Red Line. It’s like the aorta of Chicago. It changes so fast – you go from Chinatown to 47th to 63rd to 69th, 79th, 87th, 95th, I just love it. I would definitely make it extended farther than 95th street, and I would make it cheaper to ride.”

His implication was that since he was encouraging everybody to see beyond their own block, that public transit should be free so people could actually do that.

Cole, a community organizer in Chicago’s Chatham area, made headlines last month when a call for ten people to help shovel snow during a blizzard soon ballooned into 120. He is a tireless believer in the idea of a community, whether it involves taking care of your own or exploring other people’s. He is especially concerned with keeping youth busy by having them explore the city, staying active without resorting to violence. As he states: “somebody’s gotta try something to solve violence in Chicago. If you show somebody better, then they’ll do better. They’ll be less inclined towards violence. If you take them out of their comfort zone and you exposed them to different cultures, different professions, different cuisines…”

Cole first got the bug to explore different places after a Greyhound bus trip to Texas as a kid, seeing “the Chicago skyline turn into the Illinois cornfields. I was a little bit more adventurous than my brothers or my cousins. When I told my mom I wanted to go to college, she was like: ‘oh, you’re trying to be white.’ When I told my friends I was going to college, they said ‘I ain’t leavin’ the block’ – my jaw broke.”

Cole talked a lot about segregation, saying, “Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., unfortunately, so the distinction between the black, white and Hispanic communities is very visible.”

MPC, the hosts, recently co-authored a study with the Urban Institute quantifying how costly it is to have a segregated city and region. Cole continued, saying, “Segregation has created socio-economic isolation and exclusion in which minorities, specifically African-Americans, have higher vulnerability to things like poverty and crime.”

To change that situation, he said, “we need more people, young and old, to visit community areas outside of their own. When most people hear about something negative happen in another Chicago community, especially where people are a lot different from them, it might as well have happened in another country. When you actually visit communities and interact with the residents, it changes all that.”

Cole says that this way of thinking isn’t unique to Chicago. “I went to college in Nebraska. A lot of those people in Nebraska had never stepped outside of their comfort zone. My first day on campus, they came up to me and said ‘Jahmal! Here’s a cell phone! Talk to my little brother, he’s never talked to a black basketball player before! Holler at him!’ And I’m in the middle of Nebraska, I’m like: how do you want me to talk? Like ‘yo, whassup?’ I don’t even talk like that, but to those kids in Nebraska, they’re isolated, and isolation leads to narrow mindedness no matter where you live. When you live in Englewood, you can be isolated as well. I believe to be better people, we need to be more interconnected.”

Marquell Washington, a high school sophomore who is involved with Cole’s program, offers high praise for Cole’s efforts. “This program taught me how to go out and be a better person than the people who were surrounding me. Jahmal is like a mentor to me, and basically I look up to him. I saw him do it, I said, ‘okay, let me try it’.”

  • Chicago60609

    “I think it should be free,” means he thinks someone else should pay for his transportation, as nothing in this world is free.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Fares are only a small part of the RTAs revenue. The cost of maintaining a system to enforce payment is actually quite expensive too so if we weren’t so obsessed with not helping the less fortunate we would all benefit from eliminating that waste. But alas, libertarianism.

    Also, don’t be so pedantic about the word ‘free’ it just makes you seem dense and is a red herring. We all know what he’s talking about.

  • Currently the CTA has student fares (75 cents), but they are only good on school days before 8:30 PM.

    I think it would be good if we gave our kids cheaper transportation on weekends, too.

  • Yeah, we know. We’re all paying for all of the state’s “freeways”.

  • david vartanoff

    So are you ready for 24-7 parking meters on all streets? Toll booths on local streets? Turnstiles on sidewalks? Why not?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Let’s look at it from a purely economic point of view. Transit helps people access education, jobs, and preventative healthcare. If a higher percentage of current Chicago residents were well educated, employed, and healthy, that would save a lot of money for the city. Free CTA service could very well pay for itself.

  • CIAC

    “Fares are only a small part of the RTAs revenue”

    You’re right. I think It is exactly 0%. That’s because fare revenue on the CTA doesn’t go to the RTA. It goes to the CTA. On the CTA, fare and pass revenue was just over $577,000,000 in 2016 Non-operating revenues, such as taxes, was just under $810,000,000. There was another $48 million or so of operating non-fare revenue, such as advertising. Here are these numbers: By my math, fare revenue makes up more than 40% of the CTA’s budget budget. That’s not small. And I suspect you know that very well and I’d bet you purposely were attempting to mislead everyone by mentioning the RTA instead. Your could tell yourself you weren’t actually lying. Nobody discusses the RTA in passing and it isn’t something that someone would just accidentally mention. You knew exactly what you were doing.

  • CIAC

    Can you cite anything whatsoever that would show that there are a significant amount of people who are unable to access education, jobs, or preventive healthcare because of the $2.25 (or $2.50) fare? Anything at all?

    I don’t have any idea what number of people would need to be in this situation in order for people to even make strong arguments for a “free transit” policy on any kind of moral basis (whatever it is is likely to be enormously higher than the number of people of these individuals who actually exist) but there would need to be light years more than even this for anyone to think this would pay for itself. It is truly a ludicrous assumption to believe this, even more absurd than the Republicans’ suggestion that their recent tax cut is going to pay for itself. And I don’t even know what you mean by “pay for itself”. The CTA gets almost all of its operating money from fares and from a small portion (I think about 75 cents per $100 spent) of the sales tax. With fares gone, that would just leave the sales tax revenue and the small amount from advertising. The CTA doesn’t get any money from income tax or property tax revenue So if you think that “free CTA service” would pay for itself for the reasons you stated you’d have to believe every single CTA customer who now isn’t paying the $2.50 or so would on average (or be replaced by people who on average)pay an additional $350 a day in taxable merchandise because of all the effects you mention.from no longer having to pay the fare. That is a pipe-dream to say the least.

    Furthermore, I think what you are ignoring is that people who really are so poor that a $2.25 or $2.50 fare prevents them from getting education, jobs, and preventive healthcare obviously are likely to have other things going on with them that are causing this unusual situation. So simply eliminating fares not only isn’t likely to solve anything with the people in this situation who supposedly exist but is also very inefficient. There are easier and more effective ways of dealing with this problem than simply hoping that cheaper transit will get them out of poverty.

  • So do we need to begin charging people to ride elevators?

    Actually the real solution is not free transit but actually begin paying people to ride it. Pay enough and you can get them out of their cars even.

  • Yes for the the first two but for the sidewalks we need to pay people to use them.

  • Well duh! But free transit doesn’t go far enough. Pay people to use it! And even nothing isn’t free. We pay for nothing all the time.

  • CIAC

    If you can attempt to figure out a way to make operating a bus or a train as inexpensive as it is to operate an elevator then we can have a discussion about your analogy. Otherwise, it isn’t relevant. And I’m not sure what you mean by “real solution” Real solution to what? Do you buy Greenfield’s and Cole’s premise that there are a huge amount of people who never venture outside of the inner-city because of the $2.25 or $2.50 fare?

  • CIAC

    As usual with these things, people bring up the supposed benefits to some idea without even pretending to think about the costs. It’s basically as if the money is supposed to come out of thin air.

  • Jeremy


  • johnaustingreenfield

    Of course, I didn’t even mention many of the other categories of economic savings that would occur if more people — of all income levels — rode transit more often because it was free. (As the high ridership on New Year’s Eve, when the CTA is free, suggests, you don’t have to be low-income to view a free CTA ride as preferable to a non-free ride-share or private car trip.)

    Fewer vehicle miles traveled would mean less congestion, pollution, crashes, injuries, and fatalities. That would lead to less lost productivity and property damage, lower bills for public health and first responder services, and less wear-and-tear on roads.

    Tallinn, Estonia, is the world’s largest city to experiment with free transit. After city officials crunch the numbers, it will be interesting to see if this move paid for itself.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Everybody remembers what happened when Blago went down this road with seniors, right?

    Or do people remember when the Museum of Science and Industry was free? How everything was broken, how dirty the place was?

    Making things free rarely works out as intended, and I assume the goal is not to actually devalue public transit by assuring it spirals into a state of disrepair, followed by less and less people using it.

    Finding a way to nudge more people into choosing public transit is one thing, throwing CTA into bankruptcy is another.

    People who can afford to pay for CTA should – if anything, they should have regular, small, fare increases tied to inflation so they can stay properly funded. Unless we’re thinking CTA employees should also work for free, and the trains, energy and other essential items needed are going to be donated.

    All that said, I’d be fine with cutting the Pentagon’s budget in half and repurposing it for urban infrastructure.

  • ridonrides

    Yikes, this wasn’t the case when I was in high school! How are kids supposed to get affordable transportation to their volunteer gigs (which are mandatory for graduating CPS high school)? Even if CTA is free, people will put themselves in debt just to have the convenience of a car.

  • Just like self driven elevator tech from 50 years ago we can have 20 year old self driving tech for trains. But real solutions to economic problems start at the bottom rather than the top. Just as it was wrong to shower trillions of dollars into saving banks from the top ten years ago rather than pump trillions into the bottom to save home buyers.

    Real problems, real solutions. So yes paying people to ride transit is real. It can be done if we choose and it not only helps the economy but the environment at the same time.

    But what about all the people who would abuse the system by riding it just or the money. Yes they are a real problem too. And the evolving real solution is UBI, universal basic income.

    I get that this appears to be a paradigm shifting movement of the Overton Window but believe me it has more basis in reality than the climate destroying nuclear war threatening plutocratic oligarchic corporate driven neo-liberal / neo-conservative political economic fantasy world regime we have now.

  • The museum example brings up interesting issues. It pits poor urban under socialized under educated Chicagoans against middle class over socialized over educated tourists and suburbanites. Now granted there are programs to offer free trips and there used to even be library passes. But those things miss the random and less sophisticated.

    In any case the issue was under funding important urban institutions. The goal is to increase usage of these institutions and then promptly repair and clean them with sufficient funding. We all get that. Just like we all get that indeed a great city does provide them for free.

    That we must prioritize is a shame that we all regret. But it still is the right thing to do to make them free.

    BUT WAIT. Free is not good enough. We need to be paying people to use museums and transit. A great city would do those things because it creates a better citizenry. A better population etc.

    And the only reasons we can’t is that we choose to prioritize wealth concentration and violent protection of that concentration instead.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I think a current look at the City and suburbs reveals more nuance – poor people are increasingly in the burbs, and there are are (and have always been) plenty of middle class Chicagoans.

    To the appeal of “free”, this is worth a read:

    On the bigger issue of wealth concentration, I don’t disagree – but Chicago is not an island unto itself. Some change needs to be made at a federal and state level, all the home rule in the world will not make Chicago a self-sustaining system. As the county, Illinois, Midwest and USA go, so will we.

  • Sally Wright McLinn

    Cole is tripping. :) If he wants free transportation he should move to EU or Africa.

  • Sally Wright McLinn

    Dear Street blog Moderator: I started to donate to your site, but I don’t give credit cards over the internet. Can you include Paypal or ApplePay to your payment/donation system?

  • CIAC

    “As the high ridership on New Year’s Eve, when the CTA is free, suggests, you don’t have to be low-income to view a free CTA ride as preferable to a non-free ride-share or private car trip.”

    There was high ridership today on the CTA during St. Patrick’s Day. What does that suggest? There’s very high ridership on the Red Line before and after Cubs games. What does that suggest? And of course, there’s extremely high ridership during rush hour. The CTA is not free during these times. Your jump to the conclusion that high ridership during New Years Eve is largely the result of free rides is simply confirmation bias. On New Years Eve, people are spending, usually, hundreds of dollars on food and drinks. After all this, I highly doubt that very many people pay much attention to whether they spend $0 or $2.50 to get home. The free rides on New Years Eve certainly does increase ridership. But its no doubt pretty marginal. Furthermore, the unique nature of these free rides causes more people to take advantage of them then if was the norm. That’s marketing 101. A restaurant, for example, that offers a one-day special where everything is 40% off will attract more business than they would if they always offered this pricing.

    ” Of course, I didn’t even mention many of the other categories of economic savings that would occur if more people — of all income levels — rode transit more often because it was free…Fewer vehicle miles traveled would mean less congestion, pollution, crashes, injuries, and fatalities. That would lead to less lost productivity and property damage, lower bills for public health and first responder services, and less wear-and-tear on roads”

    If we are going to go that far out we also need to think about the other costs, in addition to the loss of revenue, of free transit. It would cause overcrowding on the CTA’s current level of equipment and service so they’d have to buy new buses and trains and to do more maintenance of tracks to pay for this increased ridership. Furthermore, if all transit is free (including Metra and Pace) it might encourage people to travel longer distances to work. If someone can get downtown for $0 from a far-out suburb, the same price they’d pay if they lived a few blocks from work, it might encourage people to live in the suburbs instead of the city. This is bad for all the environmental things you believe in. Or conversely, people who live in the city may be more inclined to commute to an employer in the suburbs since, despite the longer distances, the commute would cost the same. This would encourage employers (or at least cause them to be less discouraged than currently) to locate in the suburbs instead of the city and this would thus cause other people to choose to live there so they can be closer to work. So it could encourage suburban development at the expense of city development.

  • Kelly Pierce

    If Jahmal wants to ride the CTA for free he can join the National
    Guard or the Army or Navy Reserves. It’s the best part time job in the world,
    and the commitment is just one weekend a month and a couple of weeks on a base
    each year. Benefits accrue to those who serve our country and are of value to
    our society. This is why CTA enables active duty military to ride for free.

  • Kelly Pierce

    You can snail mail a check to donate. It will be gladly received. From the
    donation page: Make checks payable
    to “Chicagoland Streets Project” and mail it to: Chicagoland Streets
    Project, 4510 N Beacon St. Apt 3, Chicago, IL 60640

  • David Henri

    Nothing is free. And I sure am not paying for his free ride.

  • David Henri

    John, nothing is free. Wake up. Someone is going to have to pay for it.

  • Chicago60609

    Again, it will not be “free.” Someone will be paying for it. Look at how “free” public housing worked out in Chicago over the last several decades. The nonsense people believe is truly frightening at times.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Lots of things are free. For example, the sun is shining through my window right now, and I’m not paying a dime.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Yes, but there s no real reason to limit it to military service. Another one would be to give students and trainees a free pass, as they do in Germany.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Who do you mean by “these people”? The most egregious free riders in America are car owners. Are you talking about them?

  • Anne A

    Chicago Public LIbrary still offers free passes. I’ve seen them while checking out books.

  • Anne A

    Right. When I was in high school, student fares were in effect 24/7. I used a bus to get to/from my job.

  • Chicago60609

    The sun is expending a great deal of energy to get light though your window.

  • Carter O’Brien

    But it doesn’t send us an invoice!

  • Courtney

    I often wonder why the CTA doesn’t utilize solar energy to help power the trains or at the very least power some of the tv screens, escalators, etc at the train stations.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Potentially relevant, as perhaps the funding that is earmarked for CTA could be dedicated to improving service in lower-income communities, which in general seem more reliant on the bus than the L, and thus perhaps it could be argued they are bearing negative impacts of congestion disproportionately:

  • CIAC

    I didn’t use the phrase “these people”. I said “as usual with these things, people…”. I am referring to everyone who brings up how great it would be to give things out to people like them but don’t talk, or even indicate they are thinking, about the costs of this. We see another example up above when someone argues that you should just give all museum admission away for free. He seems to have no conception of how expensive it is to operate a museum or that they normally also do important research and have educational programs. I don’t think I would agree with you that car trips involve more free riders than transit trips. The infrastructure for both forms of transportation, roads and train tracks,as well as stations are paid almost entirely from government funding. In terms of vehicles themselves, cars are paid for entirely by the individual while trains and buses are paid mostly by the government. Is for operating costs (fuel and labor, for example),n transit the users and the government usually split these costs by about half and half while car owners pay the cost completely or at least 95% of it (tolls on toll roads pay for some operating costs on them but mostly pay for the costs of new toll-roads, which is a tiny proportion of all roads). So I don’t think it could be said that car trips are more of a free-rider activity than transit trips.

  • Chicago60609

    And on the other hand, “freeway” users are subsidizing public transportation users, as Illinois legislators recently passed a state budget that diverted $300 million from the Road Fund (gas tax monies) to pay for transit.

  • Chicago60609

    If the trade off is that public transit riders, including me, have to pay the full cost for their ride, with no whining about it, then yeah, sure.

  • Chicago60609

    Wrinkles. Skin cancer. …

  • Carter O’Brien

    That bill comes due from Father Time.

  • Courtney

    I think it’s possible to make it free or at least cheaper. I assume one of the biggest expenses for the CTA is labor costs. It is possible to have driverless trains and buses. If you power the trains with solar and/or kinetic energy there’s savings in terms of electricity. The buses could even be partially or fully electric and powered by solar panels. With driverless trains or buses the CTA could potentially run trains and buses more often and later (for buses and L lines that stop running at a certain time).

  • Carter O’Brien

    I think CTA has already downsized humans from the public transit process as much as they can. Further personnel cuts would need to be balanced with the rubber-meeting-road challenges of everything from that knucklehead who has a bag in the L train door and keeps it from closing, safety/security and medical issues where people need human intervention, etc. All of those things means schedules will never flow with Swiss clockwork precision. And if people don’t feel safe riding the train then you get into that vicious cycle of declining ridership, which leads to declining frequency.

    I’m old enough to remember when there many people serious saying maybe the Brown Line (then Ravenswood) had outlived its use and should be decommissioned, like the Humboldt Park line.


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