Iowa City Takes Lead in Commuting

By Steve Gravelle, Reporter

University of Iowa employee Teresa Schmidt (right) of Marion, Iowa, laughs as she jokes with David Coughlin (left) as they settle into their seats on a UI Employee Van Pool van in the parking lot at First Presbyterian Church on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, in Marion, Iowa. An average of about 10 UI employees ride the van to and from their jobs at the university. As many as 14, its capacity, employees have ridden the van at various times of the year. (Jim Slosiarek,/The Gazette-KCRG)

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By Belinda Yeung

IOWA CITY, Iowa - You see it every morning and evening along Interstate 380: thousands of cars with only their drivers aboard.

But fewer than 70 percent of Iowa City residents fit that stereotype of the American commuter, according to new data from the Census’ American Community Survey. That’s below the state (80.5 percent) and national (76.4) average, as well other Iowa cities.

With 22,278 full-time University of Iowa employees in a relatively compact area, alternatives to driving come more naturally.

“It’s easier for people to walk and bike,” said Kristopher Ackerson, assistant transportation planner for the Johnson County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). MPOs coordinate transportation planning and distribute federal dollars for transportation projects within their metro area.

Nearly 6 percent of Iowa City’s metro population rides public transportation — six times the Cedar Rapids rate. The university provides reduced-rate transit passes for students and employees and even organizes and funds van pools for workers who commute.

A younger population may also be a factor.

“Younger people in the 20-to 40-year-old range are just driving less,” Ackerson said.

Americans decreased their annual mileage by 6 percent between 2004 and ‘11, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Among 16 to 34-year-olds, the drop was 23 percent between 2001 and ‘09.

In larger metro areas, that’s reflected in a preference for inner-city neighborhoods over suburbs. In Iowa’s less-dense cities, it mean easier walking and biking.

“The MPO does have a complete-streets policy, which means that federal funds that are awarded by the MPO to the local jurisdictions have to include walking and biking and transit as part of the design,” said Ackerson.

Ackerson said the policy is relatively rare among MPOs and is showing results: census data shows commuting by bicycle was up in the metro area over the past decade. In University Heights, bicycle commuting was up 3.9 percent, walking 6 percent.

“People are choosing those modes,” he said. “A lot of people buy houses there because they want to be able to go home for lunch.”

UI VAN POOLS

UI van pool manager Michelle Ribble said a little more than 700 people ride on 68 routes every day from as far as Davenport. The van pools help give the Iowa City metro area its 11 percent car-pool rate.

Riders pay $40 to $170 monthly depending on commute distance and the size of their van. Each pool includes a volunteer driver whose fee is waived in exchange for their services. The fee covers the vans’ fuel and maintenance — 70 percent of the program’s cost — with the university covering vehicle leases and insurance.

As a regional center, Cedar Rapids has no single dominant employer similar to the UI and the area’s share of commuters driving alone is higher than the state and national average.

Less than 1 percent of metro commuters use public transport, although that rate edges above 1 percent for Cedar Rapids proper.

Still, Cedar Rapids Transit ridership was up 7 percent last year, to just over 1.2 million, said director Brad DeBrower.

DeBrower hopes the system is in its last year operating from an improvised hub at Second Street and 12th Avenue SE. With work starting early 2013, the Ground Transportation Center should re-open by next fall.

“We’re still a temporary facility, that’s for sure,” said DeBrower. “I really don’t know if it’ll have an effect on ridership, but it will sure as heck make it more pleasant.”

‘CHOICE’ RIDERS

Adam Lindenlaub, manager of the Corridor MPO serving the Cedar Rapids metro, said such incremental changes can attract “choice” riders who also own cars.

“Now, we have a transit-dependent ridership” witnout other options, Lindenlaub said. “Trying to make it better for choice riders, some of that’s a factor of the routes, the head ways, the run times.”

And the equipment: DeBrower said 18 of the system’s 30 buses are new in the past three and half years.

“That’s a huge upgrade, replacing 20-year old-buses,” he said. “It’s a much better ride, certainly a much better image.”

Still, in Iowa City “you have a large population to use transit and they are choice rider.

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