MTD’s next stop: restoring its service level and curbing complaints of overcrowded buses

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The Illinois Terminal in Champaign, Illinois. The terminal provides Amtrak service, and is host to public bus service (MTD) for Champaign-Urbana.

Staffing issues have led to the overcrowding of buses on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus — a problem that has been increasing in the past few months, transit officials said.

The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) has been a crucial part of the city’s transportation system, linking residents and students to various on- and off-campus destinations. Popular routes include buses running to Champaign and Savoy Walmarts, transit plaza and the Market Place mall.

A recent increase in ridership, particularly due to the university’s record enrollment, has created challenges. Stacey DeLorenzo and Sarthak Prasad from the Transportation Demand Management department in Facilities and Services said there are a few factors at play.

“MTD is seeing an increase of about 10% ridership every month for the last few months,” they said in November. “MTD is still not operating at full capacity, which has resulted in overcrowding as well as delays in the buses. This is due to a driver shortage while MTD is still recovering from the pandemic, which causes less frequent buses.”

Despite the district’s efforts, the impact of the driver shortage is clear. Justin Thompson, a university student, said he stopped riding the bus entirely because of crowded buses. 

“I stopped riding the bus because it gets really crowded, especially on rainy or snowy days,” Thompson said. “The 22N Illini northbound is always packed since it passes by major dorms and the quad. Sometimes, it is so crowded that there are no seats, and I cannot even get out at my stop because people crowd  the doors.” 

Thompson has switched to a scooter for commuting around campus. 

The 2022 Mode Choice Survey, a study conducted to understand the transportation preferences of students, indicates that 88% of students use active modes of transportation as their primary mode of transportation. 

About 45% choose to walk or roll and 31% choose to take the bus as their primary mode of transportation. However, 82% of our students chose taking the bus as one of their top three preferred modes of travel.

To address these challenges, MTD Managing Director Karl Gnadt said in November that the district has been taking initiatives to adopt innovative solutions aimed towards enhancing the overall commute and providing real-time information to passengers. 

“We were one of the first transit systems in the nation that adopted real-time bus tracking,” he said. “We push the real-time departure information out through a variety of apps, our responsive website, kiosks, QR codes, and via text messaging.”

Moreover, the university is collaborating with MTD to tackle the overcrowding issue. MTD is focused on expanding its workforce, including operators, as part of the joint effort to alleviate this pressing concern. The university’s DeLorenzo and Prasad said they are aware of the overcrowding issue in its collaboration. 

“The university is collaborating with MTD on this issue,” they said. “MTD is working to increase their workforce (including operators) to alleviate this issue.” 

The August ridership numbers increase 10% every month, surpassing pre-pandemic levels, indicating a positive shift in public transportation use. In August, there were 779,102 riders, surpassing the 708,465 recorded in August 2019. This is a significant improvement from the pandemic’s low point in August 2020, when ridership dropped to 266,497.

Gnadt said public town hall meetings play a vital role in gathering feedback. 

“We regularly hold public town hall meetings to solicit feedback from the community and from campus,” he said. “We also review all feedback that arrives electronically. 

These meetings provide a platform for the community, including students like Thompson, to express their concerns.

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