URBANA — New buses wrapped with University of Illinois marketing messages will soon be transporting UI employees up and down Interstate 57 between the Urbana and Chicago campuses.
The UI system is spending $900,000 on four buses to launch the shuttle service between its two largest universities.
The service, called UI RIDE, is for faculty members, students and staff members traveling on university business. It’s also open to their guests, though they will have to pay their own way.
The service, scheduled to launch Oct. 31, will offer three round trips daily between the two campuses — one departing in the early morning, one at midday and one in the late afternoon.
Buses will pick up and drop off passengers from two locations in Urbana, UI spokesman Tom Hardy said: the Levis Faculty Center and the North Campus Parking Deck.
In Chicago, they will stop at three locations: near the UI Hospital at 1740 W. Taylor St.; on the east campus at the Behavioral Science Building, 1007 W. Harrison St.; and downtown at the Illini Center, 200 S. Wacker Drive, where the Discovery Partners Institute is currently located.
UI President Tim Killeen said the idea has been under consideration for almost two years, to provide more convenient transportation for students and employees and also support growing research and teaching collaborations between the two campuses, as well as with other universities.
“A lot of that happens over advanced networks these days, but face-to-face human interaction is also very important,” said Killeen, who discussed the service with faculty leaders last week.
The ramp-up of DPI in Chicago has led to “a lot of folks attending meetings up and down 57,” he said, and that is expected to grow.
Currently, UI employees rent a university “pool car,” take a bus or train, or drive their own cars between campuses.
Killeen said the UI compared the cost of a potential shuttle system to current modes of travel. Reimbursing employees for using private cars for trips to Chicago costs well over $1 million annually, he said.
A one-way shuttle ticket for employees or students will cost $40 and a round-trip one $80. For those eligible, the expense will be charged back to their departments.
For guests, a one-way ticket will be $50.
By comparison, the round-trip cost of renting a university car is $93 for a compact and $108 for a sedan — more than a shuttle ticket for an individual, but less per person if the cost of the car is split among several people, some employees noted.
Peoria Charter currently offers 10 trips daily between Champaign and Chicago, ranging from $31 to $35 each way, according to its website. A one-way Amtrak ticket to Chicago on Friday cost $22 to $29 for value pricing and $39 for a reserved coach seat.
The UI considered contracting out for a shuttle service, but buying its own fleet gives it more control over the vehicles, Killeen said. At least one bus will be available for other uses, he said.
“We think this is the best arrangement we could come up with,” Killeen said.
The 18-seat buses will be “well-appointed so that people can work in comfort” during bus trips, he said, with onboard Wi-Fi, tables and a restroom.
The UI RIDE schedule was designed to maximize efficiency, Killeen said. The buses leave around 5:15 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and 4 p.m., so a professor in Urbana could get to an 8:30 a.m. meeting at DPI or the Chicago campus and get home in time for dinner at 7 p.m., he said.
Professors can also work on the road — answering emails, writing or talking with students or colleagues — so they don’t waste several hours driving, he said.
Beyond the convenience and productivity value, Killeen said, “it’s symbolic of a greater collaborative spirit as well.”
The new system may help the UI reduce its carbon footprint, with fewer private vehicles going up and down I-57, he said.
The service does not yet extend to the Springfield campus, but that could happen in the future, perhaps by adding a leg between Springfield and Champaign-Urbana, Killeen said.
The four buses were purchased after a bidding process. The $900,000 cost will be covered by the UI System, using nonstate funds, Hardy said.
The expectation is that the shuttle service will eventually be self-sustaining, Hardy said.
The university studied the bus system operated by Cornell University in upstate Ithaca, N.Y., connecting to its tech center in New York City, which is “quite successful,” Killeen said.
Professor Antoinette Burton, director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities in Urbana, is a strong advocate. She pushed the idea when she served as a presidential fellow in Killeen’s office and the DPI initiative was first being discussed.
She told Killeen the university needed a better transportation system between the campuses to facilitate the kinds of collaboration he envisioned for DPI and the UI system as whole.
She takes the train to Chicago whenever she has university business there, as she doesn’t love highway driving.
But the new shuttle will stop right outside her office and take her directly to the UI Chicago, rather than the train station downtown, she said.
And the early departure means she can put in a full day of work in Chicago with colleagues; with Amtrak, she can’t get there before 10 a.m.
She can also use the travel time to do work rather than “wasting time traveling. You can do that on Amtrak, too, but somehow the campus-to-campus connectivity feels really convenient and feels like progress, the 21st century,” she said.
Burton said the service should lead to more collaborations between her program and arts and humanities scholars on the other campuses.
“You can Skype, and you can talk on the phone, but knowing you can get on the bus and have a day-long meeting with your colleagues at UIC, I think it just makes all kinds of things imaginable and doable,” she said.
She also hopes it will bring more Chicago faculty members down to “the heartland.” Currently, northbound trips outnumber Chicago-to-Urbana travel by a margin of almost 16-to-1.
Killeen said the six daily bus trips will be “moving billboards” for the UI system, wrapped with ads featuring the “Altogether extraordinary” slogan, the student experience, and DPI and Illinois Innovation Network.
The UI plans an open house to show off the new buses before the service launches.