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Chicago should avoid future school bussing crises by making CTA free for kids

Photo: Charles Wiriawan

It's a troubling sign of the times that 73 bus drivers serving Chicago Public Schools students were so misinformed about pandemic safety that they chose to quit their jobs rather than comply with the city's vaccine mandate, leaving families scrambling for transportation options. It also leaves Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a difficult position. But hopefully she'll emphasize replacing school bus rides with CTA trips whenever possible, rather than ride-hail, which would contribute to more congestion, pollution, and crashes.

As reported by the Sun-Times' Nader Issa, the announcement of the mass resignations last Friday left roughly 2.100 CPS students, including about 900 children in special education, with only two days warning that their bus routes would not be running for the first day of classes on Monday. School officials said the private school bus companies didn't notify them until Friday that drivers were quitting over the requirement that they get vaccinated by October 15. That's despite the fact that the vaccine mandate was announced in early August.

However, the CPS was already aware that there was an overall shortage of roughly 400 drivers, reflecting the current U.S. labor shortage, the Sun-Times reported. The school district had adjusted its bus routes that serve about 14,500 students accordingly. But the loss of another 73 drivers means resources are spread too thin, with only 700 drivers remaining, roughly 500 fewer than are needed, CPS officials said.

To mitigate that, the school district is offering affected families $1,000 in travel reimbursements now and $500 a month after that until more bus drivers can be found, according to the Sun-Times. Many families will likely use the money for CTA fares. Rides for kids on the first day of school were free this year, thanks to a sponsorship from a cooking oil company. However, the normal reduced fare for CPS students is 75 cents.

Students with severe disabilities may need to take ride-hail to school instead of public transportation. Lightfoot said her people are in talks with Uber and Lyft to “see what they can do to provide resources to help our families who need alternative means of transportation to get the kids to school and get them there safely,” the Sun-Times reported." No plans have been finalized, she said. Possible complications include the fact the ride-hail companies aren't requiring their drivers to be vaccinated, and the firms don't allow minors to ride without an adult.

Uber and Lyft may be the only practical option for many children with disabilities. However, the city should also look into whether Pace paratransit might be a more affordable and sustainable option for getting these kids to school safely and conveniently.

As for able-bodied CPS students, the city should encourage the use of public transportation instead of Uber and Lyft. If many of these 2,100 affected children switch their commutes from school buses to ride-hail vehicles, that would be quite a rush-hour traffic generator, and totally counterproductive for traffic safety.

We should also be rethinking Chicago's general policy of charging kids to take public transit to school. On August 15 San Francisco launched a Free Muni for Youth initiative, allowing children under 18 of all income levels to ride Muni, the transit system for the city and county of San Francisco, for the next 12 months for no charge.

San Francisco previously rolled out free Muni for low-income youth aged 5-18, and special education and English Learner students under 22 also got free rides. Expanding the program to over 100,000 more kids who didn’t previously qualify was made possible by San Francisco Mayor London Breed allocating $2 million for the pilot in the city’s 2022 budget.

Lightfoot should follow Breed's example by investing money from the Chicago budget to make transit free for all school kids. Not only would that make CPS less dependent on private school bus companies, but by encouraging families to send their children to school by transit rather than driving them there, we'd also get a safer, healthier, and more efficient city.

Read the Sun-Times article here.

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