In the aftermath of Covid-19 lockdowns and quarantines, Chicago’s public transit systems are experiencing declining ridership, driver shortages, and unreliable routes. These challenges compound with the historical inaccessibility of public transit to underserved communities, cutting off economic and social resources to some of the most vulnerable populations in Chicagoland. During Winter Quarter 2023, the Institute of Politics (IOP), the Center for Effective Government (CEG), and UChicago students joined forces to ask the question: “How can you make Chicago’s transit systems more equitable?”
Working together, IOP and CEG organized a university-wide contest entitled “Rerouting: Public Transportation for All.” Students were challenged to draft innovative policy solutions to fix Chicago’s public transport, and then went on to compete in a tournament-style format, complete with judges, financial rewards, and the opportunity to speak one-on-one with executives in the transit space.
“Here at CEG, one of our core goals is to foster innovative solutions to help government solve public problems,” said Sadia Sindhu, Executive Director at the Center for Effective Government. “Through our collaboration with IOP to produce Rerouting: Public Transportation for All, we were excited to offer students the opportunity to engage in that mission with us. In the end, we were really impressed by the creativity and skill of the students participating in the event.”
In this challenge, competitors were asked to submit a short outline of a nonpartisan policy proposal that would work to reform transit to increase equity in Chicagoland. 18 teams provided comprehensive policy solutions, including the winners Kate Davis (AB Class of 2025), Isabelle Russo (AB 2023), and Vera Chaudhry (AB Class of 2026).
The winning pitch from this team proposed a new Bus Rapid Transit system called the “Chica-GoGo”, a system that would increase equity by decreasing household transportation spending, improving access, and promoting long-term sustainability through the means of an electric high speed bus system with dedicated lanes. This plan is complete with expense estimates and a breakdown of funding sources from local and federal agencies.
“One of the central missions of the IOP is to expose students to those who are practicing–not simply theorizing about–policy-making to address our nation’s most intransigent problems,” shared IOP Speaker Series Director Jennifer Steinhauer. “We believe these challenges, especially with a terrific partner like CEG, give students a real-time professional experience that is not widely available on campus, especially for our undergraduates.”
The cornerstone of the challenge was creating plans that were innovative and interdisciplinary. As a result, having a typical policy background wasn’t a necessity. As Steinhauer explained: “Academic experience is not always the key ingredient to be a winning thinker: often our undergraduates beat out our grad students with innovative thoughts and fresh eyes.”
During the proposal drafting process, students had the opportunity to meet with CEG practitioners, specifically fellows from the Civic Leadership Academy (CLA). Highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary solutions to transit access, advisors came from multiple industries and professional backgrounds, ranging from experts in labor relations to urban planning.
CLA fellows Audrey Wennink (CLA’20), Director of Transportation for the Metropolitan Planning Council, and Shavion Scott (CLA’20), Managing Director at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, served as judges for the first round of competition. They listened to proposal presentations from all 18 teams and evaluated them through a lens of creativity, equity, and overall practical and financial feasibility.
“It was exciting to see the students’ tremendous passion for addressing transit equity needs,” said Wennick, following the presentations. “They developed a range of creative new solutions that could be adapted for use in the Chicago region.”
Following the first round of competition, the top three teams were invited to the final, where they presented to Portia Allen-Kyle, former Senior Advisor at the Departmental Office of Civil Rights in the Office of the Secretary at the US Department of Transportation. Judged on similar criteria to the first round, “Chicago Go-Go” came out on top for its consideration of equity, financing proposal, demonstrated success from other metropolitan areas, and presentation quality.
“The project was challenging because, beyond the target goals, we could really come up with any solution we wanted,” says Chaudhry, representing the winning team. “Our process began with identifying the largest challenges to Chicago's transportation system to understand what the most pressing problems are. We then looked at what transportation authorities in Chicago are already doing to address concerns, especially in the changed transportation landscape post-pandemic, and understood what kinds of related solutions were being implemented in other cities.”
As part of their competition prize–which included a $500 per person award–the winning team went on to present their ideas to officials from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). “It was an incredible opportunity to hear feedback on our proposal, think deeply through specific questions about potential impacts of the plan, and consider new angles,” said Chaudhry.
In the 2023-24 academic year, CEG and IOP will continue their collaboration, working to engage with UChicago students on key policy issues. Specifically, CEG and IOP will host a new series in the Chicago Policy Trek initiative, where students attend breakfast, lunch and intimate guest roundtables, followed by a site visit with CEG and IOP affiliates. The four events this year include: Immigration: Migrants and Refugees (10/13); City Budgeting (11/10); Affordable Housing (2/9); and Chicago & the DNC (4/5). Follow @UChicagoCEG on social media to be alerted when registration goes live!