Trading Cars for Transit Passes “in the Middle of the Corn and Soybeans”

The Champaign-Urbana managed to boost walking, biking and transit rates. Photo: Wikipedia
The Champaign-Urbana region managed to boost walking, biking, and transit rates. Photo: Wikipedia

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

If Champaign-Urbana can make it easier to leave your car at home, any place can. That’s what local planner Cynthia Hoyle tells people about the progress her region has made over the last few years.

With great intention and years of work, this region of about 200,000 has reversed the growth of driving and helped get more people biking and taking transit. Since 2000, Champaign-Urbana has seen a 15 percent increase in transit ridership and a 2 percent decrease in vehicle miles traveled. The percentage of the population biking to work is up, and the percentage driving alone is down. Champaign-Urbana tracks its progress toward these goals on a publicly available report card.

“What I tell people is that if you can do it out here in the middle of the corn and soybeans, you can do it too,” said Hoyle, a planner with Alta Planning + Design who helped lead the process. “Everyone thinks this kind of stuff just happened in places like Portland.”

Hoyle outlined a few key steps along the region’s path toward more sustainable transportation:

1. Coordinate between government agencies to create walkable development standards

Champaign-Urbana’s sustainable mobility push began with the adoption of a long-range plan in 2004. The plan was part of a collaborative effort by local municipalities, the regional planning agency, and the local transit authority.

Providing an efficient, affordable transportation system was one of the key goals. During the process, researchers found that housing was generally affordable in the region but that transportation costs were relatively high, accounting for about 19 percent of household income. Public budgets were also being strained. Officials also determined that the region couldn’t afford to keep building new infrastructure at the fringes.

As part of that process, the regional coalition established a number of goals — to reduce air pollution, increase population density, reduce bike and pedestrian deaths, preserve agricultural land, and so on — while developing an annual report card to track progress toward those goals.

Surveys revealed which factors prevented people from biking or taking transit. “People said they need certain systems in place before they’d feel comfortable switching modes,” said Hoyle. “Things like car sharing, bike infrastructure, more sidewalk connectivity. So we started doing those things.”

Hoyle credits intergovernmental collaboration with bringing car-sharing to the area ahead of most other communities the same size. Several public agencies also used federal Safe Routes to School funding to improve walkability. The region has won multiple grants to build better pedestrian infrastructure around schools.

“When you improve the infrastructure for kids, you improve it for everyone,” said Hoyle.

2. Establish frequent, reliable transit service

Campaign-Urbana's "transit intensive corridors" are planned to become progressively more populated and walkable. Image: Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District
The Champaign-Urbana region has identified “transit intensive corridors” where growth will be focused. Image: Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District

The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District has established frequent service corridors with 10 to 15 minute headways that form a network across the region. In response to public feedback, the transit agency has also extended service later into the night on a few key routes, and it has lowered the price of an annual transit pass dramatically, from $238 to $75. (Fares are a relatively small share of the agency’s revenue, and sales of the passes increased so much, the agency didn’t take a big hit from slashing the price.)

In addition, regional planners set about shaping the built environment so it supports transit use. Zoning rules along “transit intensive corridors” was adjusted to promote walkable, compact development. In one corridor, for example, the region hopes to attract 10,000 new residents and 3,000 jobs  by 2025.

3. Work on “bike-friendliness”

The League of American Bicyclists’ “bicycle-friendly” business, campus, and community rankings provide a helpful framework for local institutions to raise their cycling game. Urbana won the “Bicycle-Friendly Community” designation in 2010. Champaign won it in 2013. The University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana has also won the designation, as have a number of local businesses. Since winning the awards, Hoyle said, local communities have been following the Bike League’s recommendations to help make cycling more accessible.

“When you go through that application process for a community, it’s very extensive,” she said. “It gave them a framework and recommendations that they could move forward on.”

For example, the League suggested that the region needed better infrastructure to fill in gaps in the bike network. The cities of Champaign and Urbana took that seriously and have been working to fill those gaps, as well as improve educational efforts. Since 2009, the bike network has grown 24 percent larger while bike crashes have fallen by 17 percent.

  • Social_werkk

    I loved living in Champaign-Urbana. I could go weeks sometimes without driving my car. It definitely showed me how a small city could do transit SO right. I wish my hometown of North Little Rock and Little Could go do this. *sigh*

  • R.A. Stewart

    Heck, I wish my adopted hometown of Chicago could, or would, do this. Ten to 15 minute headways across the region? We can dream, I guess.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    This is all great to hear but it helps that we are talking about a college town in the middle of nowhere. Kind of focuses the transit pretty well and you have a naturally progressive populace.

    Sun Valley, Idaho where I lived for the last year has fantastic transit (Mountain Rides) and people are all pretty smitten with riding bikes for transportation too. I was pleasantly shocked to see this. You could even take a free bus to ski slopes at the Sun Valley resort!

    Also, the LAB has got to be careful to whom they give BFC status otherwise they are in real jeopardy of completely devaluing the program. They just seemed to give them away to any town that applied last year. I mean, does a town without a single bike lane and crappy bike parking deserve BFC status???

  • It’s probably worth noting that University students and staff – an enormous portion of the population – ride transit for free using their University-issued ID. This perk helped me move away from a more car-centric lifestyle in 2005. By the time I left CU 2.5 years later, my bike was my primary mode of transportation. I have yet to live in another city that was as livable by mass transit and biking – including Chicago!

  • Jake

    There’s also a thriving bike coop (http://thebikeproject.org/) and bicycle advocacy group (http://www.champaigncountybikes.org/) in C-U that has helped the “bike-friendliness”.

  • Jake
  • andrelot

    Those are all good projects, but the crucial factor here is that Champaign-Urbana is a smaller city that hosts a huge research university with big enrollment.

    This skews everything (as it does in any similar town throughout US): demographics (those odd-shaped age pyramids), income (to the unsuspecting way appearing very unequally distributed since students don’t earn much and uni. staff earns wells), political and religious trends often associated with age etc.

    What they are doing is nice, but I doubt – as many other scenarios on college towns – it could be extrapolated to similar towns and cities lacking a strong university presence.

  • Coffee Partier

    Responding to ‘andrelot’, my town has four Universities and is struggling to embrace transport beyond automobile traveling. The Mayor has a good program but the residents of Nashville have habits that are hard to break. Add to that a huge real estate industry that does not care about pedestrian and bicycle transport and you get a constant supply of housing development that caters to making residents own and drive cars for even short journeys.

  • JohnR

    Maybe, maybe not. One very good thing to point out is that many similar college cities aren’t anywhere close to this level in transportation and they could and should take these steps. That alone would be progress. As for non-college small cites taking such steps, if all the issues aren’t analogous, maybe you and yours should be the first to figure out how to turn car culture around in such an environment, andrelot. Life wouldn’t be very interesting without a challenge and a struggle.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    I just moved to Bryan/College Station in Texas (after having had an interview at UIUC as well), and I can tell you that this small metro area of about the same population and same level of university orientation is nowhere near this level of bike/transit friendliness yet. This is exactly the sort of city that can try to follow this model, and I’m sure there are plenty other similar regions that exist as well.

    Just because it won’t work for every small metro area doesn’t mean that it’s a useless model to consider.

  • Susan Jones

    Are you identifying problems so you can look for solutions, or excuses not to try?
    YES, different places have different issues, and you could have tossed in that IT IS FLAT there, which helps enable cycling and good sight lines.
    I’d suggest you check out what cities like yours have done (which is what C-U did, a challenge because there’s either one or two places in the nation like it)… and look for ways to get the momentum moving.

  • Susan Jones

    You could do more than dream.

  • Nightowl2548

    It works for students with no income, who don’t own cars, and the highly compact nature of the area around campus in the center of town where a 15 minute walk is all it takes to get most places they need. I live in downtown Champaign and work 4 miles away and would never think of abandoning my car to “bike” or take the bus. A 6 minute drive becomes an hour on the bus. Half the year the weather is much too cold for “biking” and ice on the streets all winter makes that a dangerous option. Long outdoor exertions for those not in the prime of their life also results in respiratory infections. Nope, I’m staying in my brand new Accord and leaving the time consuming nightmare of “bus ridership” to the 250 pound welfare queens.