An Open Letter to Lori From South Side Youth Requesting Free Transit for CPS Students

Photo: CTA
Photo: CTA

Last week, I received an email from a student at Chicago’s Back of the Yards College Prep about her project with a few other students working on transportation equity issues in their civics class. They were interested in learning more about the Fair Fares campaign, an initiative I am working on within the Active Transportation Alliance exploring the possibility of discounted fares for low-income Chicagoans on CTA, Pace, and Metra.

Julia Gerasimenko of Active Trans and I met with the group of students this week in Back of the Yards and they discussed their work collecting survey responses from students to gauge how transit fares could be tied to truancy rates. Three of the students, Angela Saldana, Elizabeth Vargas, and Janely Sanchez also shared a letter they wrote asking Mayor Lori Lightfoot to work to provide free transit for students year-round.

It was great to see high school students engaged in an effort to improve transit in their own communities. Ultimately, they’re the experts on what transportation policies might work best for the way they live and experience the world. Below is the letter they drafted about their proposal, edited for clarity by Streetsblog Chicago. – Lynda Lopez

Dear Mayor Lori Lightfoot,

We, Angela, Elizabeth, and Janely, are students from Back of The Yards Preparatory High School. In our civics class we are required to be involved in different projects based on our chosen action plan. The three of us were intrigued by the possibility of creating social change to benefit young people in a new way. Instead of focusing on issues of pollution, or crime and gang violence, we decided to focus on improving public transportation access for students.

As it stands, students can purchase a special CTA reduced-fare Ventra card at their own schools and they are supposed to be used for reduced fare when traveling. The regular CTA train fare is $2.50, but students pay 75 cents a ride. Although this may seem fair, many students ride the bus twice a day, five days a week, which adds up to $7.50. Most young teenagers don’t have jobs, which means they usually rely on parents and guardians to add money to their Ventra cards now and then.

When that doesn’t happen, it can be really frustrating for students. For example, there have been a couple of times when Angela didn’t know that her Ventra card had no money on it or a negative balance and a bus driver wouldn’t let her on the bus. We strongly believe that is unfair only because we might not be aware of our card having a low balance, and also because Chicago residents have places to be, and letting that slide once in a while wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Making a change so that students don’t go through situations like Angela’s isn’t impossible. We propose that students be allowed to ride the CTA for free to get to different destinations, whether it’s to school or downtown. Though it may take some time to make this happen, there’s many benefits to making this change.

If more students were to use public transportation, they would be more likely to get to school on time, and it would also help reduce CO2 emissions. Getting to school in a car pollutes the air at a high rate, but using transit helps reduce the amount of miles driven, therefore reducing the amount of pollution.

Though we know that there have to be certain limits on our proposal, we would like to propose that the free CTA service be available to students on weekends and perhaps over summer, since there are a lot of school activities that go year-round.

We know that if we work towards what we want, we’ll get it. According to Streetsblog Chicago you have already promised to reduce transit fares for low-income Chicagoans, along with others CTA improvements like implementing all-door bus boarding, and therefore we’re hopeful that we can get your support for free fares for students.

We hope to make a positive change in Chicago by allowing students to travel to school for free, which would increase attendance rates and decrease tardiness, as well as reducing pollution rates.


Angela Saldana, Elizabeth Vargas, and Janely Sanchez

  • david vartanoff

    This is he same week that a Boston study of transit use showed discounted fares generated increased ridership–most of it outside rush hour so plenty of capacity.. The whole point of transit is freedom of travel possibilities

  • kastigar

    Everybody wants something free!

    Couldn’t Angela have set up her Ventra care for automatic refresh when the balance gets low? She’s in high school, couldn’t she check her balance on line?

  • Kelly Pierce

    The issue is not filling unused transit capacity during the
    summer and weekends. It is the message
    being sent to city youth. The three
    students from a selective enrollment college preparatory high school are
    demanding a government handout of free transit service rather than obtain a
    summer job that could pay for transit and many other things. They likely have
    skills that would be attractive to an employer. The United States is importing
    literally millions of seasonal workers on temporary visas because American
    youth like these three refuse to get their hands dirty at a summer job. Mayor
    Lightfoot should remain committed to workforce development and job creation. Part
    of the commitment involves fostering a positive mindset about work
    participation and discouraging freeloading.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Here’s a discussion of the potential societal benefits of universal free transit, and idea that has shown some promise in European cities.

  • rohmen

    At a minimum, i fail to understand why CPS students aren’t offered something similar to a UPASS, which almost every post-graduate institution is allowed to offer students. When I was in grad school, a UPASS was something like $50 for a full semester of unlimited rides. That would seemingly be a huge savings to CPS kids—especially considering CPS offers limited busing in the first place based off the idea that kids should be using CTA.

  • david vartanoff

    fareboxes on transit are like toll gates on sidewalks. do you agree to pay cash every time you walk somewhere? would you be happy to have toll gates on ALL local streets? the “freedom” we enjoy–no need for a travel permit to leave your residence city or cross state lines–is enhanced by having sidewalks, streets, transit so we can access jobs, education, recreation, medical services, retailers… gasoline taxes do NOT cover the total cost of streets much as airline tix do not cover the massive costs of airports, the FAA air traffic controllers/radar system,

  • Gary Chicago

    This Idea was tried in 2008 for seniors to ride the CTA free , was stopped in 2011 for costing CTA too much and hurting the system and rest of the riders

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The problem with that initiative (a naked ploy by disgraced governor Rod Blagojevic to garner votes), was that it didn’t take income into account, and many Chicago seniors are quite well-to-do and don’t need their transit subsidized. There certainly could be an argument for making free transit for youth income-based, similar to the $5 Divvy for Everyone memberships, which are only available to residents making about $31K a year or less.

  • architectonic

    Child labor is certainly an interesting counter proposal. What would you suggest for middle and grade school students?

  • SloMo2020

    Let them ride scooters!


    ^^^ locks his doors when he drives through her neighborhood

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Compared to providing door to door school bus service providing free CTA rides is quite a bargain. Does CPS provide any school bus service?

  • Jackson Potter

    you are unfairly characterizing these students who are 95% low income. They are correctly suggesting this benefit as needed not just for themselves and their families but for the vast majority of CPS students who are also low-income students of color.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    No personal attacks please.

  • dmgaltieri

    YES! All school aged youth should ride for free!

  • Era Poshi

    Sir, these students are not asking for a handout of free service. They are asking for help so they can get to school. I, a teacher, have had give my students money to get to and from school because the parents couldn’t afford it. This is the reality that many of our students are facing. I’ve had students missing school for days in a row because of transportation. These kids are trying to do their best to GET to school, and get OUT of their neighborhoods. You are assuming that students who attend a selective enrollment school come from families financially stable families. I can assure you that is not the case.

  • Era Poshi

    Fantastic job on your proposal, ladies! I sense three future organizers! I hope Ms. Lightfoot takes your proposal under consideration.

  • Era Poshi

    If they can’t afford 75 cents a day, do you really think they can afford scooters? Please, be kinder.

  • Era Poshi

    The UPASS fee could be covered by financial aid if a college student cannot afford it… mine was. These kids don’t receive financial aid. That’s why they are asking for help.

  • Era Poshi

    In order for Angela to set up auto refresh when the balance gets low, Angela would need a credit card which she’s too young for, or checking account for which she would need funds which she does have.

  • CaliTeacher

    Well done on a thoughtful, useful proposal- you three are demonstrating learning in action and your civics class is clearly fostering leadership. Hands on civic engagement shows success in the classroom better than any standardized test ever could.

  • SloMo2020

    As in “Let them eat cake” … Please, be smarter.

  • Amy Schneidhorst

    Thank you for taking the initiative to lobby for much needed public transportation. I hope Ms. Lightfoot takes action on your proposal. Well done!

  • Kelly Pierce

    The proposal from the students was not for two free trips for
    those in deep poverty on CTA on school days to ensure attendance. Instead, they demand free transit for all youth during
    the summer and weekends. This includes the children from millionaire families like
    private equity investor and former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, whose daughter
    attended Walter Payton College Prep High School. A summer job could easily
    cover the transportation costs for these three students from an elite public
    high school who are highly likely to have marketable skills and capacities attractive
    to an employer. My comments pertain specifically to their proposal and their lack
    of interest in youth employment.

  • Angel

    The ride free program is in effect still but for the disabled and low income and income requirements had to be set in place and it covers Metra, Pace and CTA.

  • rohmen

    I get it, and I have no issue with them getting that help (though I’m not sure CTA will agree). My point is I just fail to understand why CTA at a minimum isn’t affording the same discounts to CPS students that it affords to almost all post-high school students in Chicago.

  • Kelly Powers-Hamp

    Totally agree! You make good points and makes a lot of sense. Shouldn’t be a difficult thing to do for the city and the benefits for students would be immense I think.

  • Sharon Schmidt

    Excellent points made by Angela, Elizabeth and Janely. I hope the mayor considers the proposal. Are there CTA hearings like the Chicago Board of Education?