Keeping Safe in a Big City: Chicago-style Tips & Tricks

University Life

Keeping Safe in a Big City: Chicago-style Tips & Tricks

The University of Chicago is a world-class institution of higher learning situated in the heart of a world-class city. The city is recognized as a center of global cultures, international organizations, financial institutions and fine arts; the University is recognized as a hotspot for intellectuals, artists, and entrepreneurs who work together to build a dynamic learning environment. The city serves as our community, our classroom broadly defined, our art and architectural gallery space and our playground for exploration and creativity.

As wonderful and beautiful as this dynamic modern city can be, it also suffers from some serious and well-publicized violent crime: More than 500 people were murdered in Chicago in 2012. That is a scary statistic, especially when you look at crime maps in relation to UChicago’s campus, but the reality is that almost all homicides in Chicago are gang-related. The Chicago Police Department estimates that there are approximately 70,000 gang members in Chicago (less than .05% of the population of the city) but those individuals belong to more than 850 different cliques, or gangs.[1] With so many different “crews” the violence is almost expected because every clique must always defend their territory and represent their own interests. Gangs function a lot like businesses, except their activities often have fatal outcomes for those involved.[2]

Of course, all this talk about violence doesn’t make you feel any better when you’re considering moving across the country or across the world to go to college at UChicago. Here are a few things that might quell your fears and encourage you to brave the big bad world in pursuit of arguably the best higher education around.

Staying Safe in Hyde Park

The University of Chicago has the second-largest private police force in the world, after The Vatican. The University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) works with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to patrol the streets of Hyde Park, the primary neighbor where you will be as a student. With more than 140 professionally trained officers, the UCPD works with neighborhood organizations and the City of Chicago on behalf of the University community.

The University offers several night-time transportation options for students who stay at the library, visit friends or go out for a movie in the evening. The NightRide Pilot Program runs designated routes around campus, bringing students to dormitories and apartments between 5pm and 4am Sunday through Wednesday nights and between 5pm and 6am on weekend nights. They run every 20-30 minutes and are a safe, reliable way to get around. They’re also a great way to avoid a cold commute!

If you find yourself walking home alone at night and the NightRide won’t come around again for 18 more minutes, you can call the Umbrella Service. Anyone in the UCPD coverage area (ie campus and environs) can call the UCPD at any time to request ‘coverage.’ Coverage means a UCPD officer will drive alongside you while you walk, thus protecting you from any unwanted attention. The downside to this method of safety is that Hyde Park has a lot of one-way streets, so sometimes you will have to alter your route so the police car can drive in the same direction as you need to walk. The upside is walking exactly where you need to go (door-to-door service) and feeling completely safe the whole way.

In addition to the NightRide and the Umbrella Service, UChicago has partnered with the Chicago Transportaton Authoirty (CTA) to offer UChicago students free rides on several CTA buses that run in Hyde Park. You can use these buses to get to/from campus for free during the day by showing your UChicago ID.

Lots of students use bicycles to get around. They’re quick, they’re convenient, and they are green – in other words, they’re perfect! If you have your own bike on campus, invest in a horseshoe or “U-Lock” to secure your bicycle to a bike rack. The UChciago Office of Sustainability has a bike-share program called Recycled. If you are considering a bike but are unsure if you’ll use it, joining the bike share program is a great way to test out the joys of riding around Hyde Park. Plus, you can join Dean Boyer on his famous morning commute.[3]

Staying Safe in the City

There are invariably safety concerns when you live in a big city, and with more than 2.7 million people, Chicago is no exception. I highly encourage students to leave campus and explore each of the city’s seventy-seven distinct communities. Hyde Park is served by several buses (including the 2, 3, 4, 6, 28, and 55 bus routes) , two trains (the Red Line and the Green Line) and the Metra or regional train service. Use CTA bus tracker and the CTA smartphone aps to keep updated about any delays on your journey. UChicago also employs buses to bring students to special events downtown.

The University is an excellent support mechanism for your urban exploration, but it is important to remember that a ceratin level of crime prevention and personal safety is the responsibility of the individual as well. Safety tips for Chicago are no different than safety tips for any big city.  Here are a few reminders:

  • Be aware of your surroundings and be prepared for surprises.
  • Do not let a phone conversation or that song on your iPod make you unaware of the  world around you. Keep your eyes and ears open.
  • Employ the buddy system – walk with friends if possible, especially at odd hours.
  • Plan your route – choose well-trod paths, walk with purpose and use your discretion when talking or walking with strangers.
  • If you think you are being followed, try crossing the street or changing your direction. If you are alone on a side street, walk to a bigger road.
  • If you are confronted by someone who demands money or your possessions, do not fight the request. Give the person what they ask for and keep your distance.
  • Lock the door to your home and be sure all your windows are closed when you leave the apartment or dorm.
  • Do not admit unknown persons into your building, apartment or room under any circumstances. Use the intercom and/or peephole to confirm the visitor’s identity before you open the door.
  • Consider purchasing insurance for your more valuable possessions. When I was a student, I used College Student Insurance ( It was an unbelievable plan whereby everything I owned was covered against every possible danger including accidental damage. Personal anecdote: I dropped my smartphone down a flight of concrete stairs and received a reimbursement check from CSI to replace my phone. It was truly amazing!
  • If you have a car in Chicago, keep the doors locked at all times. The UCPD recommends you invest in a wheel lock. I recommend you also invest in a start switch, kill switch or power lock so that if someone does break into your car, they will have another large hurdle to jump before they can drive it away. From personal experience, I can promise you that the extra $100 is worth it!


UChicago is an incredible intellectual institution in the heart of an amazing city that is very much worth exploring. However, it is important to remember that you are in an urban environment where real crimes do occur. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times and take logical precautions (lock doors, use your discretion with strangers, walk home with a friend etc) to keep yourself and your possessions safe.

For more information about safety at UChicago, please visit: and

[1] Wired. “Public Enemies.” By Ben Austen. October 2013. (168-176)

[2] If you are interested in how gangs work, reading Freakonomics and other texts by UChicago economist Steven Levitt is a great place to start!

[3] This lovely picture comes from UChicago’s Admissions Tumblr: