Bicycle accidents on the University of Illinois campus have become more frequent in the past few years, prompting a mass email last fall reminding the community bike riders to follow the rules of the road.
South of Green Street, Sixth Street operates as a one-way thoroughfare, directing traffic southbound. However, last semester saw a significant uptick in incidents involving individuals traveling against the designated flow.
“That was a big problem area for us this semester,” Patrick Wade, the University of Illinois police department spokesperson, said.
Similarly, John Street, near Green Street, has presented challenges due to its eastward one-way design. On both streets, bike riders can be observed disobeying stop signs routinely.
While Sixth Street and John Street have emerged as notable concerns last fall, Green Street also shows up frequently in the accident data.
Since fall 2021, a total of 17 accidents have been reported, with four occurring on Green Street. Notably, the number has increased in the past few academic years.
Data shows there were three reported accidents per school year until 2021-22 when the number reached five. In just the first few months of the current school year, seven accidents have been reported as of Nov. 8.
In Oct. 2022, the police department assumed primary jurisdiction of a densely populated off-campus section in campustown that was previously served by the Champaign Police Department. Wade said this transition led to an 86% increase in all reports, including bicycle accidents.
The University of Illinois Police Department has issued 58 warnings to cyclists since fall 2020. Green Street, a hub for student activity, is the location of 20 of these warnings.
Wade said Green Street’s prevalence in accident and citation data doesn’t necessarily imply it is inherently more dangerous than other areas. Instead, he said it reflects the sheer volume of traffic — comprising cars, pedestrians, and bicycles — creating a higher likelihood of traffic violations and conflicts.
New transportation tech challenges law enforcement
Sean Quinn, a material science student at the University of Illinois, recently found himself in a near miss with an electric skateboarder while walking to class. He said he was walking a familiar way to class when a speedy skateboarder nearly collided with him.
“I was running late, I checked, and there was someone like, really close, going really fast on the electric skateboard,” Quinn said. “So I immediately stopped. But I don’t think that they thought that I was going to look and stop in time. So they just proceeded to bail from their electric skateboard.”
The law is not as well-defined for skateboards as that for traditional bicycles. The lack of clear legislation regarding electric skateboards creates a gray area for law enforcement.
“This is one of those cases where state law has not kept up with technology,” Wade said.
Efforts to ensure safety on the University of Illinois campus go beyond law enforcement alone, Wade said. He highlighted the department’s comprehensive strategy, which revolves around three tenets: education, enforcement and engineering.
Wade said that enforcement is the “low-hanging fruit” for the police department.
“Our goal is not to go out and ticket everyone we can,” he said.
The police department experimented with mass emails, a strategy that yielded positive results, Wade said. In an Oct. 6 mass email from Interim Police Chief Matt Ballinger, students, faculty and staff were reminded about the rules of the road.
“The Division of Public Safety has received numerous communications about bicycles and scooters traveling the wrong way on one-way streets, pedestrians disobeying signals or walking in the street, and motorists driving aggressively or not allowing at least three feet of space while passing bicyclists,” Ballinger wrote. “These traffic violations have directly resulted in several accidents since the beginning of this semester, with a number of those resulting in serious injury.”
It has been trial and error for the department, as it tries a variety of approaches to educate cyclists and drivers alike.
“We tried the mass mail this last semester, and we did get a lot of response to that,” Wade said.
In 2021, the department launched its Community Outreach and Support Team. While this team covers various topics beyond traffic safety, it has become an essential vehicle for disseminating information. The team has actively included faculty and staff in their presentations, acknowledging their significant presence on campus roads.
Regarding education, Quinn said he is not aware of any initiatives on campus, even with the recent mass mail.
However, with the emergence of VeoRides and electric skateboards, both education and enforcement have become a perplexing challenge, Wade said.
“I think, especially with the prevalence of the VeoRide bikes on campus now … we have a lot of people who are just now entering this mode of transportation,” Wade said.
Quinn, who has to walk across the campus to get to class, cutting across multiple highly trafficked areas, isn’t surprised.
“People who are rushing to get to class will be extra reckless with that kind of thing,” he said. “And especially on Green Street. When bikers are on the street, they’re supposed to stop at stoplights and follow those traffic laws, it’s sort of inconsistent, whether they do or not.”
The influx of new cyclists, many of whom may not have extensive prior biking experience, adds a layer of complexity to the situation. It also underscores the urgency for educational initiatives to enhance awareness and promote safe biking practices across the diverse campus environment, Wade said.
Wade said enforcing the law becomes more complex because, within a matter of seconds, cyclists can traverse from Urbana into the university’s jurisdiction and then into Champaign.