It was Labor Day weekend and many University of Illinois students were heading home for the holiday.
At the Illinois Terminal in downtown Champaign, bicycles were everywhere, chained to trees and signs and anything else that didn’t move.
“We had so many bikes, we had people locking them to all kinds of different things,” said Adam Shanks, building director for the Illinois Terminal.
That was in 2008, and it was when Shanks first noticed the spike in the number of bicyclists around town.
“The demand for bicycle racks went up a great deal pretty quickly,” he said.
The next spring the Illinois Terminal increased the number of bike rack spaces from 23 to 67, and the demand for them has remained constant, Shanks said.
The anecdotal evidence he and others have seen in the increase in bicyclists here mirrors a national trend.
The Federal Highway Administration recently released its third update since 1994 on bicycling and walking trends. Its initial study, released in 1994, set a goal of doubling the number of trips made on foot or by bicycle from 7.9 percent to 15.8 percent of all trips. And it aimed to reduce the number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed or injured in traffic accidents by 10 percent.
The number of people walking and biking for transportation has more than doubled since 1994, according to the recent report. But because of population increases, they account for 11.9 percent of all trips, not reaching the original goal.
The safety goal was met, with fatalities and injuries decreasing by more than 10 percent.
Local officials have done a couple of bike counts in the last two years. But a lack of baseline data on the number of cyclists and walkers means it’s hard to determine if bicycling and walking in the community is increasing, although anecdotal data suggests it is, said Cynthia Hoyle, a transportation planning consultant with the MTD.
“We know it’s not a comprehensive look at bicycling in the community, because it takes some resources to do a comprehensive data collection process. And in past, there was less emphasis on bicycling as a mode of transportation,” Hoyle said.
To accomplish the goals set out in the Federal Highway Administration study, federal funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects increased, from about $6 million in 1990 to more than $500 million in 2008. In 2009, the funding was $1.2 billion, much of the increase due to stimulus money. (That amount for bicycle and pedestrian projects is still just 2 percent of the federal surface transportation funds, although biking and walking account for almost 12 percent of all trips and more than 13 percent of traffic fatalities.)
One factor in getting more people to bicycle, Hoyle said, is providing infrastructure such as bike lanes.
“The research has been very clear that the majority of people will not bicycle in the roadway without designated space,” Hoyle said. “Some people don’t even want to be in a bike lane. They want an offroad path.”
Urbana now has three miles of bike lanes, with 14 more miles planned in its Bicycle Master Plan. It recently added shared lane markings to a 1-mile section of South Philo Road.
Champaign is adding bike lanes and shared lane markings to State and Randolph streets.
As more people become comfortable with bicycling and do it more often, it will also become safer, Hoyle said.
“Roadway safety is based on predictability and expectations,” Hoyle said. “If drivers of vehicles know there will be bicycles on the street, then they are more likely to notice them because they are a regular part of the road. When you rarely have a bicyclist or pedestrian, people aren’t watching for them. It’s an unexpected event.”
Encouraging cyclists to follow the rules of the road also means they’ll behave in predictable ways and they’ll be less likely to be hit by a car, she said. “That’s true of pedestrians too.”
In addition to reducing traffic congestion and energy consumption, the federal biking and walking study cited the health benefits of physical activity.
“The health community has very much focused on providing people with the ability to easily walk and bike as way to help improve fitness,” Hoyle said. “It’s about giving them the opportunity to do it and making it easy to do it.
“As people get the message and are able to incorporate this into their everyday lives, it’s better for everybody.”
Wellness Center recruiting "Walking Ambassadors"
The University of Illinois campus has some great places to walk.
And the staff at the UI’s Wellness Center is looking at how they can get more students and staff to walk more, either for exercise or to get to their next class or meeting.
The Wellness Center staff wanted to find a way to increase physical activity among those groups, said Michele Guerra, director of the Wellness Center. Walking was the activity they thought someone who is inactive would be most willing to try.
“We are on the kind of campus that lends itself to walking,” Guerra said. “It’s an opportunity to get some physical activity.”
The first step is a walkability audit of the campus, and the Wellness Center has been recruiting “Walking Ambassadors” to report on how easy or difficult it is to walk in various areas of campus. They’ve divided the campus into 12 areas and hope to have people who work, study or live in those areas do the audit there.
“We expect we’ll discover a lot of really great places to walk on the campus,” Guerra said. “We may discover there are areas on campus that are not particularly conducive to walking and there may be some things we can do about that.”
After the audit is completed -- the goal is to do it in August, before students return for the fall semester -- the Wellness Center staff will create a web-based “walking toolkit,” with descriptions of great places to walk for peace and quiet, to see art galleries on campus, to find a great restaurant, or just to get from the Beckman Institute to the library.
Guerra said they’ll also be planning walking events for the fall to encourage people to walk more.
“We definitely plan to use the audit as a launch pad,” she said.
Anyone interested in being a Walking Ambassador can contact Guerra by e-mail at mguerra[@]illinois.edu or by calling her at 244-2205.