CHAMPAIGN – Outside the city's parking programs office on Tuesday, University of Illinois junior Kaela Longboard crouched behind her car to apply a parking sticker to her rear bumper, taking her time to make sure it was perfectly straight.
She's one of a thinning group of UI students and employees who park their cars on campus, and officials say that is a good thing for the city.
Craig Bassett, who lives on campus, stood near Longboard and explained why they picked up the permit: It was free for them. Bassett lives in an apartment whose landlord pays for residents' city parking permits, a perk of signing the lease.
"That's why we bought the place," Bassett said. "So we didn't have to pay $600" for parking.
Many UI students returned to campus this past week as fall classes approach, but this year's campus population likely will be keeping fewer cars than students from four years ago.
Stacy Rachel, the city's parking services supervisor, said the numbers could be explained by a number of reasons: parking prices are going up, economic troubles are forcing students to leave their cars at home or more people are opting for alternative modes of transportation.
Whatever the case, campus parking permit sales have dropped by more than 25 percent during the last four academic years and by 13 percent last year alone.
Permits sold near the UI campus in the city of Urbana have decreased, too. The city sells permits that allow residents to park in unreserved, on-street spaces during restricted hours. Those permit sales have dropped from 335 in 2006 to 223 this year in an area bound by University, Busey and Florida avenues and Wright Street.
In Champaign, the average price of a city parking permit has increased by about $178 for the nine-month lease, from $418 during the 2006-07 academic year to $596 last school year. That average will decrease during the upcoming year.
The increase reflects a pricing strategy city officials have used to move car traffic away from the core of campus and closer to the fringe, Rachel said. The University District is arranged into four parking areas, which get progressively cheaper as they get farther from the Quad.
Last year, 12 percent fewer drivers parked in the innermost area.
"I definitely attribute that to people being willing to walk a few blocks" for cheaper parking, Rachel said.
Moving car traffic to the fringe leaves more roadway open to pedestrians and bicycles, city planner T.J. Blakeman said. Fewer cars means less conflict with pedestrians and more space for customers and employees in Campustown, too.
"It's exactly what we've hoped would happen," Blakeman said.
Transportation options on campus have strengthened, Blakeman said, another reason why parking permit sales may be decreasing.
Installation of bike lanes on some roads have drawn commuters away from their cars and onto bicycles, he said. A partnership with ZipCar has given students another option to get around Champaign-Urbana, and more train and bus routes have made it easier for students who live in suburban Chicago to move between campus and their permanent homes.
"And, of course, the MTD (Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District buses) bring everything together, so you don't need a car," Blakeman said.
Nationally, more people are riding bicycles – a trend that is "inherent to college campuses," Blakeman said.
"The fact that you can commute by bike – it is an option – is a very powerful thing," Blakeman said.
Fewer permit sales means less money for the city's parking fund and less funding available to "reinvest back into the system." But Rachel said the benefits of having fewer cars on campus outweighs the loss of revenue.
Rachel said she adjusts permit prices from year to year based on the previous years' sales and occupancy across the four campus areas. Prices in two of those areas dropped this year, stayed flat in one and increased in another.
Rachel said officials will have a better idea of how occupancy numbers will adjust themselves following the rush for permits as students returned to campus last week and this week.