The Beginner's Guide to Transportation in C-U
There are lots of ways to get around the Champaign-Urbana area, but it can definitely be confusing when you're new in town. So, for those of you who need a hand, this page will cover rules, laws, conventions, and tips for getting around on bikes, buses, and cars in Chambana. I'm no expert in the subject, though, so I encourage anyone who knows better to correct me or add things at will.
The page on biking in Chambana is here, and has a lot of good information: Bicycles. To condense that information into simpler terms, though, I will repeat some of the information here.
"So," you may be wondering, "I want to use my bike in Champaign and Urbana. Where do I start?" Well, first, I would recommend having a bike. If you don't have one, don't worry. We can fix that. It doesn't even have to be an expensive process. Bikes are popular around here and it isn't hard to find one. For the brave among us, there is always Craigslist Champaign-Urbana Bicycles. For those who want to browse, though, there are other options. On the cheaper end, there is The Bike Project, a bike co-op where you can get a used bike starting at around $45, even if you aren't a member. There are also multiple bike shops, such as Bikeworks, Baker's Bikes, Durst Cycle, and Champaign Cycle.
So, now you have a bike. Let's say it has a mysterious accident and now needs to be fixed. Or maybe you just want some new handlebars to match your shoes or whatever. Where do you go? Well, all of those places I just listed (sans Craigslist) will also be happy to fix your bike, for the right price. For those of you expert cyclists or do-it-yourself-ers, there are also scattered Bicycle Repair Stations around town and campus, as well as The Bike Project and Neutral Cycle Workshop, where you can attempt to fix it up yourself using their tools and workspace. On campus, you can find bike accessories (lights, tubes, etc.) at the "Itty Bitty Bike Shop" inside That's Rentertainment (video rental store). They also have a pump you can borrow. Just ask at the counter.
So, you now have a bike, it's all fixed up, and you're ready to ride. But wait– where do you ride it? Some of those sidewalks are pretty wide, but so are the streets. And you see people riding bikes on both! And there are bike lanes that mysteriously start and stop, sometimes on the sidewalk and sometimes on the street! What do you do? Well, the law says to ride on the street (unless the bike lane is on the sidewalk). Our Bicycles page has a helpful video on the subject, along with links to the what the government has to say about it. It also has a downloadable map to the bike routes around town: Champaign Urbana Area PDF Bike Map.
Don't panic too much if you aren't sure where to ride. You're not the only one. It's notoriously confusing. Until you get a feel for things, just do what feels safest to you. If the street is extremely busy and narrow and the sidewalk is extremely wide and empty, don't feel bad about hopping onto the sidewalk for a stretch. Just make sure you don't run down or startle any pedestrians– the sidewalk is technically their domain, not yours. If you're passing someone, ring your bell (if you have one) or call out something like "Passing!" or "On your left!" so they know you're there. They might not have noticed you yet, especially if they're on their phone or have earbuds in. If it gets crowded on the sidewalk, you might think about just walking your bike until things clear out.
"But wait!" you say. "I just went on a long bike ride and now I'm five miles from home and it's dark and raining! Now what? This was a terrible idea!" Well, don't worry about that. Champaign-Urbana has a world-renowned (or at least state-renowned, barring Chicagoland) bus system. "But wait!" you say again. "What does that have to with anything? I can't just leave my new, freshly repaired bike here!" That's true. You shouldn't do that. Bike theft is rampant in the area. What you can do, though, is load your bike onto the bike rack on the front of the buses and ride safely home.
Speaking of safety: Be safe. Seriously. Wear a helmet. You'll see a lot of people going without. Those people are gambling that they aren't going to have a bad fall or get hit by a bus (because, for reasons that no one will admit to me, buses seem to have right of way over everything). They're usually right. But it's better to be on the safe side. Helmets are cheap, and they protect your head. They don't slow you down, and they don't make you look silly. Wear one. There's another bad habit that many bikers develop: they think that being part-vehicle and part-pedestrian means that they get the right of way over both. That's not even a little bit true. If you're on the sidewalk, act like a pedestrian. If you're on the street, act like a car. Don't just do whatever gets you to Point B faster. Be safe.
A final note about theft: It happens. Especially around here. Many people will tell you to "buy a cheap bike and an expensive lock," just in case. Some people get extra locks or cords for their wheels, so that a thief can't just detach them from the frame and run off with them. Some people remove their bike seat and carry it inside with them so it won't get stolen. You can decide if these things are practical or not. Just be aware that any bike left unattended is in some danger, even a locked-up one. Do make sure, at the very least, that you get a sturdy lock and always lock your bike to something secure and immovable, like a bike rack or a lamppost (but probably not a parking meter, unless you have a U-lock). Always lock the frame of your bike to the immovable object, not just the wheel, although if you can manage both, it's better to do that. And if you can store your bike somewhere protected, it's better for the bike maintenance-wise and anti-theft-wise, especially in the winter.
A final final note: Lately, the police have been cracking down on bicycles. They are now issuing expensive tickets if they catch you rolling through a stoplight or stop sign, even if there are no cars there. Be careful to follow the street signs if you're in the streets, or you could get pulled over. And be sure to put some lights on your bike, if you are riding at night. Flashing white (front) and red (back) lights are recommended.
Here is the main page about the local bus system, CU-MTD: Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District. Again, though, things will be broken down into simpler instructions here.
Buses. Buses can be confusing if you haven't used them before. Or sometimes even if you have. They vary a lot from city to city. So, let's say you're new in town and want to start using the fabulous Chambana buses you've heard so much about. But you don't know how. Don't panic. It's not as hard as it may seem. For the full experience, read the paragraphs. For the straight info, sans hand-holding, check the "TLDR" steps.
Step One consists of planning your trip. Despite what you may think, this is the easy part. There is a section to the CUMTD website where they have all of the bus routes listed. Here: http://www.cumtd.com/maps-and-schedules. Let's be honest, though. Bus schedules are really hard to read and in the age of the internet, there's no real need for that particular kind of literacy. For most situations, I would recommend skipping right to the Trip Planner: http://www.cumtd.com/maps-and-schedules/trip-planner. To be perfectly honest, though (and I promise to be nothing but honest with you), the easiest way to plan your trip is Google Maps. If you go to Google Maps and select "Get Directions" and "Public Transportation" (the picture of the bus), you can just type in (or select off the map) where you're starting from and where you want to go, plus the date and time, and it will calculate the best way to get there, including how to walk to and from the bus stops and how long it will take. So, you hit up Google Maps or the Trip Planner, and now you have your route planned. Now what?
TLDR Step One : Plan your trip on Google Maps. Make note of which bus stops you want, when the bus arrives, and how long you will stay on it.
Step Two consists of finding your way to a bus stop. Preferably, the bus stop where the bus you want to take will stop. So you walk in that direction and start looking around, but you aren't sure what you're looking for. Don't worry. For some stops, it's easy. They have bus shelters, crowds of people, and neon signs calculating which buses are on their way and how fast they're arriving. Others just have bus shelters and an MTD sign. Some, though, just have a sign. And it's not always a very prominently placed sign. Look around, checking for free-standing signs or ones nailed twenty feet up telephone poles (Yep. Those exist). IMPORTANT: You should always make sure you're on the correct side of the street. Each bus stop has a double on the other side of the street, but the buses that stop there will be going opposite directions. If you aren't sure you're at the right stop, watch to see which bus is coming. They are labeled by color and number and direction of travel (Ex: 1 Yellow N will be going north, 1 Yellow S will travel the same route, but "backwards," going south).
TLDR Step Two: Find your bus stop. Sometimes, the MTD signs are hard to spot. Make sure you're on the right side of the street for the bus you want (northbound vs. southbound).
Step Three is identifying and boarding your bus. If you are still worried about whether this bus is the right bus, you can ask the drivers if they're stopping at your stop. They won't get mad. Before boarding, make sure you have your bus fare, your bus pass, or your student ID ready. Information about fares is here: http://www.cumtd.com/riding/faresandpasses. What it comes down to, though, is that it's a dollar per ride, one-way. You should have exact change if at all possible. During the day, they can make change for a five, but at night they cannot, and either way, it slows the trip down. If you don't have a bus pass and you need to switch buses to make your route, tell the driver when you pay and he can give you a transfer pass. You show that to the driver on the next bus and you don't have to pay fare again. Now, like everything, there are rules and conventions for boarding buses. Always get on the front, never the back. As you get ready to board, make sure no one is exiting the front. If they are, let them get off before you get on. Then, get on the front of the bus, pay the fare or show your pass, and find a place to sit or stand. Try not to take up more than one seat, especially if it's crowded.
TLDR Step Three: Let people get off the bus first. Board in front. Have exact change or your pass ready. Ask for a transfer if you need one. Don't take up multiple seats.
Step Four is riding the bus. There are instructions for that, too. If you planned your trip correctly, you should know the name of your stop and approximately how long it will take to get there. There is a lit sign on the front of the bus that reads off what the next stop is. When your stop is next, pull the yellow cord running along the windows or push the red buttons on the poles. Another sign in the front should light up saying "Stop Requested," and you'll probably hear a dinging sound. If the sign doesn't light up, then the cord might be broken, and you should go up tell the driver you want him to stop (this is a rare occurrence, but not impossible). As you approach your stop, get up and make your way to the exit. Usually, you'll want to exit out the back doors. Sometimes, the driver will open them for you, but otherwise, you just need to push the gray bars, which will trigger the opening mechanism. Make sure you don't leave anything on the bus, because it's hard to find it again. Once you're off the bus, don't cross right in front of it or right behind it, or you'll cause a delay and put yourself in danger. They can't see you very well right there.
TLDR Step Four: When the sign says your stop is next, pull the yellow cord. Exit out the back. If the doors don't open, push the gray bars. Don't cross in front of or behind the bus.
That's all there is to it, really. All that text really just comes down to knowing your route, hopping on the right bus, and hopping off at the right stop. It's not so intimidating once you've done it a few times. Buses go just about everywhere in Champaign, Urbana, and the UIUC campus, so the only trick is learning which routes to take to get from Point A to Point B. These days, it isn't that hard. There are apps for that.
Now, unlike the previous sections, I'm not going to tell you how to use your car. The roads around here are the same as they are anywhere. If you're around campus, you'll have to yield to students all the time and parking is difficult, but driving in Chambana isn't significantly different from driving anywhere else.
I will, however, mention ZipCars here. Zipcars are an option for CU residents, especially those on or near campus, who might need a car occasionally, but don't want to pay to fuel, maintain, store, and park one. Members pay an annual fee and a by-the-hour rate to borrow Zipcars cars are placed strategically around campus. It's a good option for students who might want to run to the store occasionally or move in and out of a dorm or apartment.
Another thing about CU is parking. Parking is probably different here compared to where you're from. If you're from Chicago, then you'll probably find parking here cheap and plentiful. If you come from almost anywhere else, you'll probably find it expensive and inconvenient. A lot of it is based on meters, which can easily eat up all your change. If you don't have enough change with you, you might find yourself in trouble. There is a system in place, though, if you need to park frequently, where you can get a special key to use at the meters, which you load with money. It's called CashKey and keeps you from having to worry about keeping change on hand. Info is here: http://ci.champaign.il.us/departments/public-works/parking-programs/cashkey/
Had enough? Want to go back from where you came? Or maybe you just want to visit family or go on vacation or what have you. There are ways out.
Willard Airport has planes that can get you away from here. Not that many planes, but enough, if you make plans around it. Larger airports in the area are Bloomington-Normal (45 minutes drive away), Indianapolis (2 hours away), and Chicago Ohare and Midway (2 1/2 hours).
Amtrak (trains): Hop on the City of New Orleans and head North to Chicago or South to New Orleans. The Illinois Service also runs through CU, and can take you up to Chicago or down to Carbondale. http://www.amtrak.com/home
Greyhound (buses): There is a Greyhound station at 45 E. University Avenue in Champaign. If you have the option, the Express buses are much nicer than regular Greyhound buses. The Express buses run from Champaign to Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.http://www.greyhound.com/
Megabus (buses): Megabuses are speedy double-decker buses that are known to be a cheap, reliable, cheap, comfortable, and cheap way to get around, although a recent crash near Litchfield, IL has turned some local people off of this particular mode of transit. Megabuses go from Champaign to Chicago, Memphis, Birmingham, and Atlanta. You can plan a route and reserve a seat here: http://us.megabus.com/