Campus traffic safety moving in right direction

Campus traffic safety moving in right direction

URBANA – Kelly Kean walks to most of her classes on campus, and she says she's well aware of the dangers posed by vehicles and pedestrians sharing the streets.

"I've driven around campus, and it's horrible how people dash out in front of you and they're not even paying attention," said Kean, a University of Illinois junior. She recently had to slam on her brakes while driving on campus when someone walked out in front of her car.

"He didn't notice I slammed on the brakes at all. He just kept walking and talking on the phone," she said.

Educating students about traffic safety is a priority following a Sept. 29 fatal accident, when UI freshman Sarah Channick was struck by a bus at the intersection of Sixth and Chalmers. There have been five bus-pedestrian accidents, and three fatal accidents involving pedestrians, on campus since February 2004.

The accidents have the UI, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, and the cities of Champaign and Urbana looking again at how to make the campus safer for pedestrians. So far, they plan to increase pedestrian education, make some changes in bus routes and improve training for bus drivers. Already, stop signs have been added at two intersections.

A coordinated effort to improve safety began with the Campus Area Transportation Study in 1997 – a response to the death of a UI freshman, Jason Chow, who was struck by a pickup truck while crossing Green Street at Mathews Avenue in 1995.

After Ms. Channick's death, the group studying campus traffic began meeting weekly to come up with short- and long-term recommendations. They include a study of bus routes and a study by a UI civil engineering professor of crossings at 25 intersections on campus. Plans for a new parking deck at Sixth and Chalmers are on hold until the UI can do an overall analysis of traffic and safety needs, including parking.

Bus routes studied

UI officials want to look at the number of buses and frequency of bus service on campus, with an eye toward reducing both.

"I get a lot of complaints about the buses – too many buses, the buses are going too fast. Obviously that's something that needs to be looked at," said Pam Voitik, director of UI Campus Services, which includes Campus Parking, and a member of the Technical Advisory Committee. "I think there are too many. I really don't think we need the extent of coverage we have.

"I know it's convenient if you miss the bus to wait five minutes for another one," she continued. "But can we wait 15 minutes? Can we wait 20 minutes? We need to find the appropriate balance of buses, pedestrians and bikes."

The most frequently-used bus lines are the Quad, the Pack and the Illini, said MTD Managing Director Bill Volk.

The Quad and the Pack both run past the Main Library, along Wright Street, and past Grainger Engineering Library on Springfield Avenue. Each serves a different set of dorms and runs on a four- to five-minute frequency. The Illini runs past most of the dorms, along Wright Street and to the Illini Union, on a 10-minute frequency.

"The Quad and the Pack are creatures of demand. We wouldn't run those frequencies if we didn't have the demand to do that," Volk said, adding the 60-foot articulated buses are filled to capacity with students heading to morning classes. He said an average of 6,287 people rode the Quad line and 5,539 people rode the Pack line daily on weekdays in October.

The Illini runs until 3 a.m. weekdays and 5 a.m. weekends and was originally intended to keep students safe as they traveled the campus in the evening. Volk said the 10-minute frequency is necessary as a deterrent to walking. He said an average of more than 11,000 people rode the Illini line daily in October.

Wright Street has the highest number of buses on campus, Volk said, with 60 buses per hour northbound and 25 buses per hour southbound. But, he said, accident rates on that street are down significantly because fewer cars use it now.

"There may be perceptions that we're the problem and we're terrorizing Wright Street, but the statistics don't bear that out at all," Volk said.

The two fatal bus-pedestrian accidents occurred when the bus was making a turn, so the MTD is focusing on how it can reduce the number of turns or change the locations of turns, Volk said.

One option is eliminating the turn from Chalmers onto Sixth Street, where Ms. Channick was killed, and instead having the Illini bus continue west to Fourth Street. Volk said left turns onto a one-way street at Sixth and Chalmers and Sixth and Armory are particularly challenging because drivers must look for cars coming from the right and pedestrians from both directions. Since the fatal accident, a stop sign has been installed for traffic on Sixth Street at Chalmers.

The MTD is also looking at rerouting its Loop bus to eliminate the swing through the central campus area from Green Street along Fourth, Armory and Wright streets.

Those two changes would reduce the number of buses turning at Chalmers and Sixth and Armory and Sixth by nine per hour, and it would take three buses per hour in each direction out of the area altogether.

Disagreement on speed limits

Bus drivers have reduced their speed to 20 mph on campus, and UI officials want the speed limit for everyone driving on campus streets reduced from 25 mph to 20 mph. The Champaign City Council last week rejected such a proposal, and Urbana recently removed it from a city council meeting agenda for later this month.

"It's an obstacle," Voitik said of the cities' positions. "I think it's something we should pursue. I don't know what luck we'll have."

She said UI officials are particularly concerned with Lincoln Avenue because of the number of students who cross that street between Pennsylvania Avenue and Nevada Street.

"There are so many sororities and fraternities and student housing on the east side, I don't know how we can not lower the speed limit on Lincoln Avenue," Voitik said.

"Driving 20 mph requires a conscious effort and if you're making that effort, you're more likely to be aware of your surroundings than not, and that's what we want – for people to be conscious that this is a different part of the community they are in," she continued. "There is nowhere else in the Champaign-Urbana community they will find 50,000 people on any given day riding the buses, riding bicycles, walking or driving vehicles, all vying for the same spaces."

Traffic pattern changes

The campus traffic study resulted in changes in traffic patterns on campus a few years ago in an effort to reduce the amount of traffic and slow it down.

Green Street west of Wright Street was reduced from four lanes to three, including a center turn lane. Wright Street was converted to two-way traffic from Springfield to John, and from John to Chalmers for buses, taking them off Sixth Street, and it includes a transit plaza for boarding buses. Sixth Street was narrowed to one lane with diagonal parking on the west.

The changes improved safety for pedestrians, officials say, but they may also have had some unintended consequences.

On Wright Street, "(Students) think, 'If I don't see a bus, I'm good to go.' But there are cars that come down those streets," said Lt. Skip Frost, patrol division commander for the UI police.

The UI put a lighted crosswalk on Springfield Avenue at Grainger Engineering Library in December 2002, and signs cautioning drivers to yield to pedestrians were installed at several intersections. They have slowed traffic, "but it confused everyone because pedestrians don't understand what they mean and drivers don't understand what they mean," Frost said, noting that sometimes drivers stop at the signs even if there aren't pedestrians in the crosswalk. No changes are planned until the crosswalk study is finished.

"A lot of students get here and believe when they're on a bike or Rollerblades or even on foot, they can walk out into a crosswalk and the car needs to stop," Frost said. "Those little signs are not invisible force fields that will protect you.

"I think (the changes) all had the right intention and I think it has had a positive effect on pedestrian safety," he continued. "However, we still have a long way to go."

Wired students a concern

In addition to the physical changes, officials are focusing on pedestrian education. They believe students' use of cellphones and earphones while walking around campus is making students vulnerable. Ms. Channick was talking on her cellphone when she was struck by the bus, and a student wearing headphones was hit by a bus at Wright and Chalmers in March.

"The only way to deal with it is to try to change behavior," Volk said. "I reject the notion we can't do anything about it. It is an educational issue. It's for their own protection, to pay attention.

"People are taking us to task because somehow they view that we're blaming pedestrians for the problem, and that's just not the case," Volk said. "We have to do everything in our power to prevent the types of things that have been happening from happening again. We need to go at this in a multifaceted way."

Several students agree that their peers need to be more cautious.

"Kids walk around with cellphones, iPods and everything else," said graduate student Morin Okuyiga. "I think people need to be more cautious. We have the right of way, but I'm not going to get run over by a bus just because it's my right."

"You have to know, if you're listening to music or talking on a phone, you've still got to look," said Jason York, a UI senior who was wearing headphones recently as he walked on campus. "It's just foolish not to look before you cross the street."

The UI police stepped up enforcement of traffic laws after Ms. Channick's death. Frost said police had written 450 to 500 warnings and 20 to 25 tickets as of early last week, mostly to pedestrians but also to drivers who failed to yield to pedestrians. In the upcoming weeks, the police will take a tougher stance and issue more tickets.

"The biggest thing you can do to improve your own safety is to pay attention," Frost said. "Personal responsibility is really what it comes down to."

Voitik believes the changes made so far have increased awareness among students, but the education efforts will need to continue.

"Next year we'll have a whole new set of students who haven't heard of Sarah (Channick)," Voitik said. "So the enforcement and warning tickets and education campaigns, those will all be critical things to keep in place."

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