MTD SafeRides ridership halved in past decade; University of Illinois program loses over 25,000 riders

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Ridership for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s SafeRides program has declined by nearly half what it was ten years ago. 

SafeRides, a university program offering rides to students since the 1980s, provides four call-on-demand buses that service specific routes throughout the night and early morning hours. The program is primarily paid for using students’ transportation fees, which are paid alongside tuition. This fall, the fee was $68.

Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) data, provided by MTD in an interview, shows the ridership decreased from 52,349 in the 2012-2013 school year to 25,656 in the 2022-2023 school year — a 51% decrease.

Source: Amy Snyder, MTD Chief of Staff

SafeRides run 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day of the week. To request a ride, users must download the latest MTD Connect app, which is powered by a different software service than in previous years.

MTD Chief of Staff Amy Snyder said there’s decent awareness the service exists, but there are multiple reasons for the drop in ridership, including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There were known issues and frustrations with the previous third-party app MTD was using to operate SafeRides,” Snyder said. “We replaced the app in December 2022 and launched with another third-party company. But we are still working to educate customers that there is a new app… With the continuous turnover of customers on campus (every year we get over 7,000 new customers), it is a big challenge for us to educate them about services and changes.”

Screenshot of the new MTD Connect app used for SafeRides requests in the Apple app store.

Sumer Hazeen, an advertising student at the university, said she’s an avid user of SafeRides and wholeheartedly advocates for students to use it more. 

“I just think they’re so afraid to use it, because they think it’s silly. But it’s not silly,” Hazeen said. “Like, you’re paying 15 bucks for an Uber and to get driven by some person that you don’t even know when you can get picked up by a university-hired person, who’s probably been background checked, and they are following a strict route. And they also have cameras in the safe ride too.”

But Snyder said there are requirements students have to meet to get on the bus, which can create misunderstanding about the service. She said many don’t understand how the service works at first.

“They get frustrated their first time using it because they think it’s going to act like an Uber and it’s not,” she said. “We need you to meet those requirements so we can maximize the vans that are out there on the street.”

The SafeRides web page says the ride request may be denied if the trip:

  • Travels out of the service boundaries
  • Includes more than three people
  • Duplicates fixed-route bus service
  • Is going to or from bars
  • Acts as an emergency medical transport

“SafeRides are meant to be for people whose origin and/or their destination is off a bus route,“ she said. “So, maybe in an apartment complex or they’ve been out late studying at one of the art labs that’s a little bit more off the main roads.”

The app will also show available bus routes nearby, so if the student doesn’t qualify for a safe ride, they know which bus to take instead. Once the ride is booked, the system will send you a message with the exact make and model of the vehicle, and the license plate.

“Once students download that app, it does not collect much information from you,” Snyder said. “Like Uber and Lyft, you can watch the vehicle as it approaches you, so you can stay indoors as long as possible, which is great for safety.”

Cameron Alagna, an art education student at the university, said she used SafeRides five to eight times last year. She said she found out about the program through her job.

“I expressed concern of walking home late and there was this very small flyer that my manager referred me to,” Alagna said.

However, Alagna said there was a time when her ride request was rejected due to no available rides at three in the morning. 

“Well, if I get off at 3 a.m., but there’s no one to give me a ride, then how am I even supposed to use this? Like, how is this useful to me?” she said. “I just didn’t find it useful after that because I was like, if I have to plan a ride in advance, I don’t know why it’s not advertised as such. I would say that SafeRides are super, super helpful when you’re able to get one.”

Snyder said the origin of the program came from the community.

“We think that the program originated in the mid-eighties and there was a group of students, women, who started something called ‘night rides,’” MTD Chief of Staff Amy Snyder said. “Women would drive around in vans to pick up other women.”

Snyder said the university and MTD signed a joint transportation agreement in 1989 and that’s when SafeRides started. 

“The university and MTD started talking about a universal transit agreement to help students have universal access to the service,” Snyder said. “That was something that was a key foundational element to the agreement as the university wanted a way for everyone to have additional support riding late at night.”

Hazeen said that she had used SafeRides more than 50 times. She said she usually takes them when she’s studying out late or after her night shifts at work. She said these are usually where there aren’t any buses or no buses are arriving soon.

“I just really wish everyone would use SafeRides a lot more,” she said. “These guys, they volunteer to protect you and keep you safe. They don’t bother you, they don’t do anything at all to you. They literally just want to get you from point A to point B as safely and quickly as possible.” 

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