Standing outside Terminal 2 at O’Hare International Airport, a phone in each hand, Mervyn Wright weighed the options to get to his suburban hotel.
He eventually settled on a $64 Uber ride from O’Hare to St. Charles.
“That’s it. It’s 64 bucks,” said Wright, a business strategist from Virginia, relieved that it wasn’t more expensive.
For flyers like Wright, contending with busy airports this summer and dodging airline cancellations and delays is only part of the journey. They must also get to and from the airport, navigating ride-share or taxi prices, CTA service or parking.
Amid rising living costs, travelers who choose ride-shares might be facing some sticker shock. At the start of the summer travel season, the average cost of rides between Chicago and the areas around O’Hare or Midway airports reached or tied their highest prices since the city began collecting data in 2018.
The average cost of Chicago rides to the census tract covering O’Hare broke $60 in May and June, reaching a high of $60.56 in June, city data shows. A year earlier, the average cost was $55.33.
At Midway, the average cost of Chicago rides to the airport’s census tract was $53.56 in June, the most recent month for which city data is available — about a dollar more than a year earlier, and nearly the same as the average price in July 2021.
The prices largely comes down to a labor shortage, said Joseph Schofer, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering and a transportation expert at Northwestern University. Gas prices might be playing a role but rising ride-share costs predate the gas-price leap, he said.
“The risk and the challenge and the difficulty of doing these driving jobs is such that a significant number of people have decided, ‘this doesn’t work for me,’ ” he said. “And so you have a shortage, and you have uncertainties.”
Drivers must weigh the possibility of crime, COVID-19 and the uncertainty of how much their next fare will be and when it will come, he said. And that uncertainty can translate to passengers too.
On a Friday night in June, Schofer checked his Uber app after he landed at O’Hare and the price of a trip to his north suburban home was around $85. He checked again minutes later, after getting off the plane and walking through the terminal, and the price was closer to $40, he recalled.
Schofer said he has also sometimes faced challenges getting a taxi from his home to O’Hare. Taxi drivers, too, face the same challenges as ride-share drivers, sitting at the airport and hoping their next fare makes up for the time spent waiting, he said.
Taxi prices don’t always fluctuate the same way ride-shares do. For cabs licensed by the city of Chicago, those hailed at a cab stand at the airport must activate their meter, and charge no more than the meter or meter-and-a-half, depending on the destination. City cabs hailed via an app can offer dynamic upfront pricing, including prices above the metered rate.
But some travelers are reaching their limits on what they’ll pay to get to or from the airport, whether taxi or ride-share.
“I won’t pay $50 for a ride,” said Stanley Pierre, a 29-year-old truck driver in town from Miami to pick up his truck.
“I mean, it’s supposed to be cheaper than a taxi, right?” asked Stanley, a former Uber driver. “The whole point was to make it more affordable for riders taking ride share … $50 would be a taxi ride.”
Koray Yesilli, who arrived to welcome his visiting brother and planned to take ride-share back to the city also had a limit on what he was willing to spend on a trip.
“If it was $75 to $100 from here to Lakeview, I wouldn’t pay it!” he said.
Lyft trips to the airport are making up an increasing amount of business for the company nationwide. Airport trips accounted for 10.2% of total rides in the second quarter, the highest ever share, Lyft CEO Logan Green said during an early August earnings call.
Travelers choosing other options to get to the airport might face other hurdles.
CTA’s Orange and Blue lines serve Midway and O’Hare, but the agency has faced complaints about the amount of service running and the experience of riding the trains. And travelers driving to O’Hare might sometimes find the economy parking lots full.
When economy lots are full — which is especially likely over holiday weekends — parking attendants direct drivers to the nearest available lot, and a limited number of vouchers for the main garage are distributed first come, first served, depending on space in the garage, said Kevin Bargnes, spokesman for the city’s aviation department. He encouraged drivers to check the status of parking lots online, and said reserved parking is available in some lots.
Construction has also reduced available parking in Lot D at O’Hare, near Terminal 5. Work began in June on a six-story parking garage that is expected to double the amount of parking at the terminal when it’s finished in 2024. The terminal is undergoing an overhaul that is adding new gates and passenger amenity space, among other work.
O’Hare travelers getting picked up or dropped off along the lower level roadway near terminals 1, 2 and 3 have encountered utility and pavement work, which is expected to be finished in the coming weeks with little effect on traffic during that time, Bargnes said.
Schofer doesn’t expect the challenges of getting to or from the airport will dampen demand for travel, after two years of pent-up demand.
Perhaps instead, he said, travelers will leave their homes earlier or choose to fly at times when their options for getting to or from the airport are more predictable. They might turn to ways of getting around they hadn’t previously considered, such as taking a Pace bus or shared rides.
“There’s chaos in the system,” he said. “There’s a rebound from a situation that’s really different from what we’ve experienced the last two years. And the rebound is a struggle, because people (who were driving for ride-share companies) got used to not doing the jobs they were doing before.”