Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday February 10th, 2014, 5:31pm

Reports: Universities Lead In Transportation Strategies; Northeastern Illinois Suffers From Transit Deserts

American colleges and universities are leaders when it comes to creating new transportation models designed to reduce driving, according to a new report released by the Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund.

But while it may be easier getting around various college campuses in Illinois without a car, that is not necessarily the case in other areas of the state, shows a seperate report submitted to the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force.

The Illinois PIRG Education Fund report showed that American colleges and universities have increased their efforts to reduce the number of cars traveling to and from their campuses over the past two decades. Many higher education institutions are doing this in part to help save costs associated with parking facilities and to meet the transportation demands of young people who "often prefer communities that are served by multiple transportation options rather than depending solely on a personal car." For example, Americans in the 16 to 34 age group reduced their annual driving miles by 23 percent per person between 2001 and 2009, according to the research, which is based on the most recent data from the Federal Highway Administration.

“University and college campuses are at the forefront of encouraging new ways to get around that don’t depend on personal cars," Dev Gowda with the Illinois PIRG Education Fund said in a statement. "Public officials who want to stay ahead of the curve should be taking notes."

Additionally, reducing automobile trips agrees with the goal of many higher education institutions to become more environmentally sustainable. Scaling back traffic near campuses also helps universities and colleges to "be good neighbors," the report noted.

A number of colleges and universities provide free or discounted access to transit services, the report states. Many college students receive a Universal Transit Pass, or a U-Pass, that allows unlimited access to local transit services. U-Pass programs not only empower students to leave their cars at home, they also "supply a steady source of revenue to the local transit agency, supporting better service for everyone," the report reads. A number of colleges and universities in Chicago made the list of schools that participate in fare-free transit or U-Pass programs,  Columbia College Chicago, DePaul University and the City Colleges of Chicago, among others.

But that being said, Ted Villaire, communications director at the Active Transportation Alliance, said Chicago-area colleges and universities can do more to provide alternative transportation options for students.

“While some colleges and universities in the Chicago region do a good job of getting students out of their cars, there are still many schools that need to think more carefully about integrating biking, walking, transit and carpooling into the lives of their students," Villaire said in a statement. "It makes economic sense and it’s good for the environment.”

Meanwhile, officials with the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District touted the alternative modes transportation available to students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Mass Transit District provides "high-frequency service" on the main routes of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus, which allows for quick travel around the school as well as easy access to community destinations, said the transit district's marketing director Jan Kijowski.

The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District routes operate at 10-minute to 15-minute frequencies and connect to most campus destinations as well as downtown areas, according to Kijowski. Riders can access real-time information about the transit system on the district's website or through mobile devices via text messages and smartphone apps.

"The ready availability of transit has resulted in a significant reduction in parking demand from students despite growing enrollment," Kijowski added. "The ease of travel makes it possible for students to live in near-campus and community residential facilities as opposed to campus housing, often resulting in savings. Transit connects campus and near-campus origins with community entertainment, dining, and working destinations which provide economic benefits to the communities of Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy."

More campuses are also promoting the use of bicycles, the report found.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, has a "University Bicycle Resource Center" that offers bicyclists free tools for tune-ups and other resources. The campus has free racks and locked shelters for bikes that together can fit up to 12,000 bicycles, or enough room for 28 percent of all students. The university has plans to expand the program by 25 percent over the next four years, according to the report.

Other higher education institutions have helped fund biking and walking paths in their communities. The report specifically mentioned the University of Colorado-Boulder, which supported the expansion of bicycle and pedestrian paths in Boulder. According to the study, about 60 percent of all trips made by students at the university in 2012 were by bike or foot, which is almost a nine percentage-point increase from 1990.

Among other initiatives, some universities discount memberships for students who use carsharing and ridesharing programs.

The report calls on policy makers to learn from colleges and expand their community transportation options through local partnerships; adopt explicit initiatives to support non-driving modes of transportation; and adapt to the transportation needs of a new generation.

'Transit Deserts' In Northeastern Illinois

While it's easy to travel on various college campuses in Illinois without a car, that cannot be said for a significant portion of the Chicago region located in so-called "transit deserts," according to a recent draft report submitted to the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force.

Gov. Pat Quinn set up the task force in August in an effort to "ensure greater efficiency, accountability, coordination and transparency” among the region's transit agencies, which include the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace. The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) oversees the three transit agencies. The 15-member task force was created following the Metra scandal involving a hefty board-approved severance package to the company’s former CEO Alex Clifford.

The recent analysis by the task force's System Performance Working Group showed that four top suburban job centers in the region "lack significant transit service," including the areas of Oakbrook, Lombard and Naperville as well as the I-90 Corridor from O’Hare International Airport to Schaumburg. The five-page report noted that most jobs in the region "cannot be reached in even a 90-minute commute."

Additionally, only 32 percent of the region's neighborhoods and 29 percent of households have access to transit that can be reached in 30 minutes or less.

Meanwhile, the region will also "fall well short" of meeting the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's goal to double transit use in the region by 2040, according to the working group.

"The overall regional plan (GO TO 2040) has two goals for transit: increased ridership and job accessibility," the draft report reads. "There is currently no mechanism to manage transit and land use decisions in an integrated way to achieve these goals."

The new analysis included similar concerns as those raised in the task force's overall interim report released in October, which argued that the "structure of the current transit system has led to duplication, competition, uncoordinated service and a lack of accountability."

Planning and operations among the transit agencies are "fragmented, making it extremely difficult to effectively manage a regional approach to transit and development," the new draft report argued.

Although the agencies are doing more to coordinate with each other, the task force's working group noted that there is no comprehensive set of goals for transit in the region, and the current structure "creates operational inefficiency, redundant service, and gaps in service."

The report does not suggest getting rid of the RTA, but it does call for a "new, broader mandate" for the northeastern Illinois transit network.

Among the recommendations, the working group wants to see a plan created on how to improve mobility and transit ridership in the region as well as a more targeted use of existing state resources so that "transit goals are better integrated with land use and development." The report calls for the creation of "regional performance measures" to help achieve those goals.

In addition to the System Performance Working Group, the task force also has experts studying the transit network's governance, ethics and finance. The Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force is expected to issue its final report about overhauling the region's transit agencies to the governor and the Illinois General Assembly by March 31.

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Interestingly, Northeastern Illinois University, inside the City of Chicago on the northwest side, is a very good example of a "transportation dessert" can exist. There are only TWO bus routes (Kimball and Foster) near the school and both are several blocks distant from the school.

Northeastern offers participation in the U-Pass program, which upon payment of the fee required of all full-time students gets you transportation on the CTA (but not Pace or Metra) for an enrolled semester.  This is only available for full-time students and is a requirement for enrollment.  Many students at Northeastern are not full-time and many cannot easily use the CTA.

Divvy Bikes are supposed to be made available in 2014 for Northeastern, and also to be located at the Blue Line and Brown Line terminals.  Must of the bicycle parking at NEIU is poorly installed, wrong-sized and very limited. The bike racks are too small, too close together, or too close to adjacent walls or buildings.  Only a few are under cover and protected from the weather.

A few years ago a massive parking garage was build on campus to attract even more cars to be used to attend school.  An attempt was made by the student bicycle club to get protected bicycle parking within the garage, but were informed that bicycle parking in the garage was prohibited by contract because it would reduce revenue to the bondholders.

One of the largest universities located inside the city - and very few transportation alternatives.