It is time for Champaign-Urbana to embrace the future of transportation, and to do it with community service in mind. In order for us to continue to reach our goals, both the cities and the University of Illinois should offer VeoRide a single vendor contract. The stipulation of that agreement would have them engage with MTD to develop a revenue-sharing model, designed to meet the needs of our growing population.
In the past year and a half, you’ve no doubt noticed that there are now turquoise bikes being used by people all across our cities. This is the work of VeoRide, a micro-mobility company based in Chicago, in partnership with the cities and the University of Illinois. The program launched on September 1st, 2018 with 100 regular bicycles and then quickly expanded to 500. On April 1st, 2019, the company introduced an e-bike, which has a mechanism to motorize the pedals and assists the user in their commute.
According to Ben Thomas, the regional director of VeoRide, who also makes his home in C-U with his family, this is a spectacular market for them to operate within.
“We’ve currently had over 390,000 rides since we launched in September of 2018,” he stated in an email interview to Smile Politely. “[Champaign-Urbana] is the second largest bike market in our company, second only to Texas A&M.”
But VeoRide, as a resource and a business model, is not as comprehensive and wide-reaching as it could be. The company was blocked from adding electric scooters to its fleet in C-U after the U of I shut it down. Speaking to the News-Gazette last year, Stacey DeLorenzo, U of I’s Coordinator for Transportation Management stated:
There’s a lot of infrastructure projects going on around campus, so we know that our transportation infrastructure is not the best… I’m not saying they never will be [allowed], but it’s just not something we want to take on at this time.
There’s just been a lot of concerns over where they’re dropped. They’re worse than the bikes seem to be. It’s just one other piece of equipment that people don’t have to take ownership for.
We understand and hear this concern, but we also do not believe this should be cause to disallow it from starting to work its way into our culture, and how people commute in C-U.
What would allow this sort of activation and innovative progress to take root and be held accountable would be to allow MTD to manage the partnership with VeoRide, and design a system that aspires to the same high level of quality and oversight that our current bus system has. We have a celebrated transit district; not just for a community our size, but as a model for all cities to study on how to provide comprehensive access and robust engagement inside of the entire community.
That success stems from a partnership that MTD took up with U of I back in the 1970s. With an agreement to add a student fee and provide a bus pass to every student attending the University while they were enrolled, our public transportation system tripled in scope, and became one of the most innovative and progressive systems nationwide, winning the award for Outstanding Achievement Award in 1986 and 1994 from the American Public Transit Association.
In an email interview with Karl Gnadt, Executive Director of MTD, he said:
MTD supports bike riding as a mobility option — and bike sharing is a key manner that bike riding can be proliferated. So we very much support the concept of bike sharing. With such a large student population in our community, bike sharing does seem to have a foothold in permanence. After all, not all students will bring their bikes to campus.
In response to a question about whether or not a company like VeoRide has had an impact on their ridership, Gnadt stated:
We have not done a study to see if bike sharing has impacted bus ridership. Our Mission Statement is: Leading the way to greater mobility. That very purposefully does not focus on bus transportation only. MTD has long viewed its role in the community as advocates for ALL forms of mobility, so even if increases in walking and bike riding eat into bus ridership – that’s okay.
And finally, when asked about the prospect of working with a single vendor ride sharing company, Gnadt admits that currently they are not set up to design and manage such a partnership: “We have not had a specific discussion about having our own fleet of bikes or scooters. While we support those alternative modes, our quirky funding model doesn’t really align to directly operate and fund non-public transit options.”
But we believe that because this mode of transportation should be treated as both a utility and a commodity, a partnership with a company like VeoRide could result in similar successes, as they’ve had with the bus system. With the right structure and long term commitment, an agreement could create a profit sharing model wherein VeoRide and MTD are rewarded for their staffing and provided infrastructure. VeoRide would manage the fleet, and MTD would provide the community based partnership to design how it could best work for the entire community, and not just those who go to school at U of I.
Additionally, e-bikes and scooters could be strategically placed in low income areas, providing our citizens access to an alternative method of transportation that might be more convenient than having to wait for a bus. Students on the U of I campus could more easily traverse what is a massive campus footprint, stretching almost 2.5 miles from EnterpriseWorks at Research Park to Beckman Institute on University Avenue. The money spent would directly impact our own not-for-profit MTD, which is primarily funded by a tax levy, so that they could continue to develop and implement better and more practical solutions for travel.
Despite our misgivings about seeing these turquoise bikes left in random and sometimes annoying places, the era of ridesharing has arrived and is here to stay. The faster we embrace it and regulate it, the sooner we will curtail any growing pains that might stem from it. In the case of ridesharing, and in particular, scooters and e-bikes, they offer practical solutions for convenient transportation, and are less damaging to the environment than automobiles with combustible engines.
Naturally, there are pitfalls to developing and integrating any sort of new and disruptive technology into a community, but we believe that between thoughtful regulation and collaborative efforts between the MTD, the cities of Champaign and Urbana, the U of I, and a single vendor ridesharing provider, we will move the community forward and help ease issues of traffic congestion and continue to eliminate harmful carbon emissions along the way.
The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.