URBANA — Local transportation planners believe there has been a significant reduction in the number of vehicles students are bringing to the University of Illinois campus, leading to more bicycle and bus use.
The number of student parking permits sold by the UI has plunged nearly in half in the last four years; sales of city of Champaign on-street parking permits in the university district have dropped, and ridership on Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District buses has soared to record levels.
"We've been trying really hard to make this happen," said Morgan Johnston, the UI's campus transportation coordinator. "This is the result of a lot of things, including policy changes, facility changes and of course there's also the change in the national economy.
"I think the younger generation is much more in tune with the benefits of walking and riding a bike and taking transit and using Zipcars."
So far this year, the UI has sold 2,000 student parking permits, compared with 2,800 in fiscal year 2011 and 3,200 in fiscal year 2009.
Furthermore, the city of Champaign has sold 642 on-street parking permits this year, down from 743 permits at this point last year.
"The Campus Area Transportation Area Study goal was to reduce the number of vehicles in the core of the campus area and to improve pedestrian safety, and it looks like we're doing that," said Stacy Rachel, administrative services supervisor in Champaign's public works department.
As recently as four years ago Champaign was able to lease 94 percent of its parking spaces in the university district. At the current level the city has leased only 54 percent of the 1,200 available spaces there.
Both the UI and the city of Champaign have increased their campus area parking rates in recent years. Champaign now charges between $540 and $495 per space per academic year. Rates are highest along the Green Street corridor.
The UI now charges $540 for a nine-month contract ($600 for 12 months), which is up from $480 and $540 last year. In fiscal year 2009 the rates were $420 and $480.
Students also can purchase parking spaces in remote shuttle lots for $127 an academic year.
At the same time the number of leased parking spaces has decreased by almost 900 in a year, the C-U MTD has seen a significant spike in bus ridership. It has established monthly ridership records for the last four months, including about 780,000 rides last month, a 9 percent increase over August 2010.
And the use of Zipcars, a car-sharing program most prevalent on campus, has increased, according to Tom Costello, assistant managing director of the MTD. There are now 1,100 Zipcar members in Champaign-Urbana, using 11 different vehicles scattered about the community.
"Even a year and a half ago we only had about 600 members," Costello said.
Johnston said the university actively promotes transportation alternatives in student orientation materials, campus tours and by other means.
"I think we're looking to become known as a bike-friendly community, and that's impacting decisions of freshmen who are looking for a place where they can ride their bikes. They know that we are doing everything we can to make it convenient and helpful for them," she said.
Later this month the UI hopes to unveil a new network of bike paths and bike lanes on campus, and is working to install more bike racks.
"People in different departments who are responsible for individual buildings and facilities have been reaching out to me a whole lot more this year for more bike parking," Johnston said. "It's a bit of an issue because we have extremely minimal funding for it."
The change in transportation use has its drawbacks. It means less parking income, acknowledged Rachel.
"From a revenue standpoint it is challenging, but safety is our concern," she said.
For Johnston it means an entirely new safety concern.
"It's really getting into a different type of conversation about safety on campus," she said. "It's no longer about, how do we keep these cars from speeding through and hitting somebody? Now it's about complaints and concerns about interactions between pedestrians and bicycles: How do we all work together and make sure that conflicts are minimized?"
Whether the transportation changes on campus lead to fewer accidents will be determined with a two-year study set to begin later this fall, according to Rita Black, planning and community development director at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission. Another RPC study, already under way, is looking at traffic counts on campus and throughout the county.