More changes likely for MTD

By Ryan Davis

For 33 years, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District never had a fatality. Then, in 2004, a MTD bus hit Carolyn Jeffers, graduate student, at the intersection of Gregory Drive and Goodwin Avenue. In September 2005, another bus hit Sarah Channick as she was walking through the intersection of Sixth and Chalmers streets.

Two months after Channick’s death, the Campus Area Transportation Study, a coordinated effort since 1997 to improve pedestrian safety in the University District, made 28 short-term recommendations to address concerns that mounted in the wake of those deaths.

Almost a year later, the MTD, CATS, Champaign, Urbana and the University are still working to make campus safer, and have based their recommendations off the original list of 28. Some of the recommendations have been implemented, others have not, and the original list has been expanded to include other issues geared toward making students safer.

Seven of CATS’ recommendations dealt specifically with MTD, said MTD Managing Director Bill Volk and MTD Spokesman Mike Stubbe.

“We’ve more than lived up to them,” Volk said.

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Champaign Planning Director Bruce Knight, who is also the chair of the Champaign-Urbana Urbanized Area Transportation Study, which gets reports from the campus study, said pedestrian safety has improved, but that all major streets on campus have to be changed, which is out of MTD’s jurisdiction.

“A lot of work still needs to be done,” he said.

Sweeping changes necessary

CATS recommended that the MTD consolidate bus stops to reduce conflicts between students and traffic.

“We’ve consolidated a number of stops along Lincoln Avenue,” said Volk, who added that planning is underway with University staff to consolidate bus stops on Green Street by the Illini Union as well as bus stops on Gregory Street by the Undergraduate Library, both of which were singled out by the CATS recommendations.

Other recommendations included changing routes to reduce turns, installing audible signals and strobe lights on buses, reviewing of personnel training and the installation of ‘LOOK’ signs at intersections.

Last year, MTD changed two of the campus routes to reduce the number of turns they would take, Volk said. The issue held prominence because both fatalities occurred when buses were turning, he said.

According to the MTD Safety Initiatives, 60-foot jointed buses that run the 26-Pack and 21-Quad routes were equipped with audible signals on right-turning movements in January 2006. Furthermore, the strobe lights replacing standard turn signals were installed on MTD’s entire fleet. Stubbe, who is also the district’s operations planner, said that MTD was the first transit system in the country to do so.

Rahim Benekohal, professor of Engineering and member of the CATS Technical Advisory Committee who has been looking at other large universities to see how they handle transportation and pedestrian safety on their campuses, said the University could learn from Michigan State University. He said the East Lansing, Mich., campus has coordinated its crosswalk locations with the bus stop locations so that students getting off the bus should not cross in front or behind the bus in places where the other drivers’ view of the road are blocked.

“It’s a reasonable cost,” Benekohal said. “Some bus stops are not coordinated with the crosswalks and some don’t have crosswalks.”

MTD has adopted a similar strategy by repositioning a bus stop at the intersection of Illinois Street and Goodwin Avenue, where all southbound buses on Goodwin used to stop between the crosswalks. They have now moved the bus stop location south of the crosswalks.

Benekohal said this change was a long time coming.

“I think it should be a thing we do throughout the entire campus,” he said. “Why they haven’t done it from the beginning, I don’t know.”

But Pam Voitik, director of campus services and University representative on the technical advisory committee, said the Goodwin and Illinois intersection remains a trouble spot because of the amount of traffic flowing through it as well as the number of pedestrians crossing the streets.

“(The city and the University) need to make sweeping changes to make it safer,” she said.

MTD’s training program has also been modified since the fatal accident last fall, Volk said, pointing out that the eight-week training program for all new drivers now includes additional time emphasizing turning movements and driving in congested areas. He said new drivers must have completed a minimum of 200 driving hours, 64 of which have to be within the University district, during the training. This is equivalent to five weeks of driving. In addition, MTD integrated a defensive driving course known as the “Smith System” into the training program.

A refresher program for current MTD employees has also been integrated into ongoing training efforts in the summer of 2006, Volk said. The program’s topics include defensive driving, distracted driving, blind spots, intersections and turning movements and emergency management among others, according to the safety initiatives.

Volk said the MTD voluntarily submits to a safety and training audit and has to make reports to their insurance company.

Age not a factor

Another concern that arose after the fatal incident last fall was the age and experience of MTD bus drivers, an issue that was not raised in the CATS recommendations.

“There have been some changes in training, but I think we still have a ways to go in terms of having experienced bus drivers here on campus; that’s something we’re addressing right now,” said Richard Herman, Chancellor of the University.

But an MTD survey on drivers of the 21-Quad, 26-Pack, 22-Illini and the Shuttle buses between Aug. 27 and Sept. 2 showed that 3 percent of the total hours of operation on these routes were by drivers with less than six months of service, contradicting the notion that drivers operating on the University routes tend to be less experienced.

Volk also said age should not be a determining factor during the hiring process as long as the person is above 21, the legal age to drive a bus.

“I don’t think that you can arbitrarily say that a 22-year-old is uniformly going to be a worse driver than somebody who is 28 or 38,” Volk said. “Say we have a choice of putting a 22-year-old or a 52-year-old, alright? Maturity has something to do with it but reaction time has something to do with it as well.”

The driver of the bus that hit Sarah Channick was 22 years old. The driver of the bus that hit Jeffers was 27 years old, according to the News-Gazette.

Changes outside of MTD

Volk and Stubbe said only one of the seven recommendations proposed by CATS hasn’t been implemented. The recommendation was to look into installing bus-activated “Don’t Walk” signs that would light up at certain locations when a bus approached. Volk said MTD is still evaluating the feasibility of that proposal.

Beyond the CATS proposals, Volk and Stubbe said MTD has initiated other safety precautions, including radar enforcement of a self-implemented slower speed limit. MTD has all its buses go 5 mph below the posted 25 mph speed limit.

MTD has also attempted to address concerns that there is not a University seat on the MTD board of trustees. Advisory Board of Trustee positions were established by the District’s Board of Trustees in July of 2006 for the University, the Illinois Student Senate, the city of Champaign, and the city of Urbana.

The University seat is currently filled by Voitik, the campus safety director. Voitik can sit in on meetings but cannot vote or participate in closed sessions that deal with personnel issues because she is not an official member. The county board is the only body that can appoint voting members to the board.

MTD has participated in a safety awareness program with other members of the community called the liveUP Campaign for Campus Safety. But Volk expressed disappointment that all the parties have not yet come to a consensus on how to approach the safety awareness program.

“There’s a joint responsibility in a safety program. There’s a joint responsibility in everybody getting around in a safe way,” he said.

Chancellor Herman agreed that pedestrians and drivers must share the responsibility for safety.

“We want the drivers to be more careful and we want the pedestrians to be more careful,” he said. “At the same time, we also recognize that there are moments in time, class change for instance, when the streets are truly congested and the question is ‘Are we just waiting for another accident to happen?'”

Voitik said some changes beyond the scope of MTD’s jurisdiction still need to be made, some of which have not been recommended.

“We might want to consider temporary street closures like we have on Gregory, south of the library,” she said, arguing that such a measure would minimize the amount of traffic that can be funneled into certain high-pedestrian areas.

Voitik also expressed concern about other high pedestrian areas such as the part of Green Street east of Wright Street. But she said some of the intersection issues would cost millions of dollars to fix.

“You’re dealing with a finite bucket of resources,” she said. “We’d like to implement all the recommendations, but the funds aren’t there.”

Staff Writers Erin Lindsay and Emily Sokolik contributed to this report.

A full list of MTD safety initiatives can be found by following this link.