Smile Politely

The bus less traveled

Last Thursday’s CUMTD Airbus ride was approximately my tenth lonely ride to the small, two gate Champaign Willard Airport. At most, I’ve shared the bus to the airport with one or two other passengers, and the return bus trip home from the airport is even more likely to be a solo trip. So, I can’t help but wonder: Why? The general busing system is well-utilized; why not this route?

To be open with the reader, I’m usually not a bus rider, as I prefer a bicycle for getting around Champaign-Urbana. Riding my bike to the airport, however, is complicated by baggage, longish length, and the whims of CU weather. And so, the trip to the airport is one of the few times I prefer busing to cycling. I obviously prefer “green” transportation, but must one be an environmentalist to ride the bus to the airport? This isn’t the only benefit of riding the Airbus, is it?

First, I’m going to look at the boring, but all-important financial reasons that influence personal transportation decisions. What’s the personal cost of going to the airport? Would taking the bus save enough money to make it economically desirable? Well, for me the airport is eight miles away from my home in West Urbana. Getting dropped off at the airport is a 16-mile round trip, which at 22 miles per gallon would result in a $1.80 fuel cost (assuming $2.50 per gallon). So at this point, the fuel costs for getting dropped off at the airport are greater than the measly $1 bus fare. If we were to take into account the several thousand dollar yearly cost of owning and maintaining a personal vehicle, financial incentive to bus rather than drive increases. But, considering only direct expenses associated with a trip to the airport, the Airbus is still the clear winner for almost anyone in the central Champaign-Urbana area within walking distance of the Airbus route.

There are some taxi and van options that can move one between home and the airport, but at more than $13 per trip, that’s not on my radar as competitive. Due to extenuating circumstances, I once had to take the LEX Express van in order to get home after a business trip. The van toured the entirety of Champaign before meandering over into Urbana, and took longer than the CUMTD bus. But, curiously, there were four people on the Lex van, which is four times more than I usually see on the Airbus. With regards to the taxis in C-U, I was chatting with a recent co-passenger on the Airbus and she mentioned that she first tried to call a taxi service for the trip. The Airbus had been a backup measure. The taxi service said that they would have to pick her up at 7 a.m. (several hours early) since they were busy shuttling school children. So, I wonder if inconvenient scheduling and minimal advertising keep ridership on the Airbus down.

Lest we forget that time is money, we’ll talk about another high hurdle that the Airbus must clear in order to attract passengers. It takes longer for me to get from point A (my house) to point B (the airport) if I choose to take the Airbus; it is a ten minute walk followed by a 25 minute bus ride. It only takes 15 minutes to drive to the airport or get dropped off, although getting dropped off means a wasted 15 minute return trip for my wife. In addition, the Airbus has a limited schedule, which runs approximately every hour during the day and stops in the evening before the latest flights arrive at the airport. If I take the bus to the airport, I’ll probably spend an average of 30 minutes longer at the airport than if I drove myself or was getting picked up. Despite the fact that there is free internet and comfy places to sit and work, those thirty minutes may seem like wasted time to some making their airport transportation decision. When you convert 30 minutes of wasted time to the all important dollar, the greenbacks you saved taking the bus start to evaporate.

Perhaps another reason people don’t ride the Airbus is the perception of less predictability and control. The airport crowd is often a little different than the average university population, since plane tickets would cut significantly into beer money and thin graduate stipends. There is some university influence, since you can’t get away from that in C-U, but it is definitely watered down. The stereotypical business airport traveler is older, living in the suburbs, has an established family, and is not comfortable with the vagaries of public transit. This traveler probably never considered riding the bus. The schedule is arbitrary. What happens if I miss the bus? How do you do transfers, anyway? The bus is for poor people. With all these unknowns that seem to be minor issues to the seasoned transit veteran, the stereotypical business traveler would have trouble making the leap to a bus from personal car travel.

The last and most touchy-feely component affecting ridership on the Airbus is the cultural construct of sending off and greeting family and friends at the airport. The countless movies and shows with scenes of joyous embraces and firm handshakes have made it some sort of insult to decline a ride home from the airport. If no one picks me up from the airport, should I feel lonely and dejected while waiting for the Airbus? Isn’t the bus ride home just another part of the point A to B trip? How is the thirty minute wait for the bus different from the three hour layover in Detroit? The difference is that I’m the only one waiting for the bus at the airport. It’s lonely.

One might ask, if no one is riding the Airbus, then why does CUMTD run regular service? I certainly asked that, as I felt guilty using the Airbus as my personal limousine service. The route is subsidized by the University of Illinois. Since the University has the Institute of Aviation right next door to the airport, and is also financially tied to the airport itself, it has an obligation to provide transit options to its students, many of whom do not have cars. As it was explained to me by a CUMTD employee, subsidizing the CUMTD Airbus route was less expensive than funding an on-demand taxi service, and has the added benefit of being a community mass transit resource. This is yet another reason to love living in a University town. A route like the Airbus wouldn’t exist without the transportation needs of the student population.

What did I take away from this extended consideration of transit preferences relative to the #27 Airbus? Well, I’m still convinced that if people put more thought into their transportation choices, bus ridership would increase. Unfortunately, without a radical cultural change, I don’t foresee a big shift happening. It feels like biting the hand that feeds, but it also seems silly that the University would keep subsidizing the nearly riderless Airbus in the face of likely funding shortfalls and tuition increases. Hopefully this article will generate some good dialogue among Smile Politely readers (and beyond), and perhaps give me someone to talk to on my next trip to the airport.

Related Articles