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Greater Peoria officials in 'assessment period' to address equity-based transportation issues

MurrayBakerBridge
Jeffrey Smudde
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Not everything in the Peoria area is within walking distance, especially during the brutal winter and summer months. This means owning a car or using public transportation are often necessities.

For many people, purchasing their own vehicle is not realistic.

Rising gas prices also make owning a car much more costly than in the past. This limits people on a fixed income.

Whether people need to run errands to the grocery store, visit a friend or go to needed appointments, not having a car in Peoria makes life harder.

President and CEO of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce Joshua Gunn said those who don’t have a car typically rely on CityLink, Peoria’s main public transportation service, though even with CityLink, there are still many people left out of the picture.

“It is somewhat limited to the range of the routes that one might take, and I think we still have some significant challenges in servicing certain areas of the city,” Gunn said.

Leigh Ann Brown, the CEO of Morton Economic Development Council and Executive Director of the Morton Chamber of Commerce, said over time, people have become more vehicle dependent.

Brown said it is not just a problem within Peoria city limits.

Many people commute from city-to-city in Central Illinois for work, but not having a car makes this kind of travel nearly impossible.

“A lot of people want their own vehicle, want to be in charge of their own destination and flexibility. We tried car sharing years ago when that was kind of a hot topic, and that didn’t really set pace well, and so maybe that’s something to also scoot back to,” Brown said.

The root of the problem

Having a disability or struggling financially are individual reasons that play a role in Peoria’s transportation issue, but Gunn said this is not an individual-based problem. Instead, the lack of access is an equity problem.

“One of the key gaps there is just our overdependency on automobiles. The way that our region is structured, the way that it is designed, some of the suburban sprawl that exists, some of the long distances from point A to point B, some of the food desserts that exist. There are multiple factors that contribute to this transit quagmire that we find ourselves in."
Joshua Gunn, President and CEO of Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce

“There are systemic factors that contribute to any sort of inequity, and transit inequities are no different. So, I think there are multiple systemic factors that contribute to the lack of access to affordable, safe transit that we see in our city, and we see in cities across the country. So, I think addressing it at the systemic level is the appropriate way to address it,” Gunn said.

Gunn said city leaders are in an “assessment period” where they’re learning how to improve public transportation to improve the quality of life for those who otherwise may feel stuck.

“One of the key gaps there is just our overdependency on automobiles. The way that our region is structured, the way that it is designed, some of the suburban sprawl that exists, some of the long distances from point A to point B, some of the food desserts that exist. There are multiple factors that contribute to this transit quagmire that we find ourselves in,” Gunn said.

Gunn said as city officials think about solutions, they must look at the problem through an equity lens.

“I know we have some significant challenges particularly in the South End of the city and even the East Bluff and certain different areas throughout Peoria where people might not have as much access to automobiles or might not be close enough to a safe and easily accessible bus station. So, we need to be innovative and think differently or think more equitably about transit, and I know that city leaders are focusing on that. So, I’m encouraged about the direction that we are taking,” Gunn said.

Peoria’s transportation problem takes an economic toll too. For many people, not having access to transportation is the main barrier keeping them from getting a job.

“Businesses have a bested interest in making sure that people have equitable access to transit. So, those are the things I think we should be thinking about. Transit truly has an economic imperative for our community: making sure people can get to and from not only work but also grocery stores and accessing critical services they need in the city,” Gunn said.

Gunn said the issues around transportation have to be solved with a city-by-city or a county-by-county approach. Right now, Gunn said collaboration between Morton, East Peoria, Pekin and Peoria is in the works.

“Throughout the region, we are working collaboratively. I think city leaders, elected officials in particular, have some room for improvement there, but there’s a spirit of collaboration that I think is growing. I hope to see elected officials on both sides of the river and in multiple counties work together to create a more cohesive and regional approach,” Gunn said.

Current Resources

While cities like Peoria and Morton continue to investigate the problem, there are other transportation services out there.

Support a Friend Transportation is one example. Owner Dutch King said he initially had the idea to start a transportation service in 2013 when he was incarcerated after he personally witnessed how a lack of transportation to detention facilities impacted inmates around him.

“The ones who I’ve seen getting visits, it’s like they were focused. They were having something to live for versus the ones who weren’t getting visits in incarceration, [they] tend to act out. So, causing more problems for themselves, causing more problems for their family members, because when you get in trouble, they want to deny your visits, take away your visits now,” King said.

“The ones who I’ve seen getting visits, it’s like they were focused. They were having something to live for versus the ones who weren’t getting visits in incarceration, [they] tend to act out. So, causing more problems for themselves, causing more problems for their family members, because when you get in trouble, they want to deny your visits, take away your visits now.”
Dutch King, owner of Support a Friend Transportation

King said sometimes family members and friends can’t visit detention facilities because of the lack of public transportation routes that go to these facilities or because people who want to visit inmates don’t have their own cars.

King decided to start ‘Support a Friend’ so that families and friends can still visit their loved ones who are incarcerated.

“Just to see the smile on these individual faces, whether it’s the incarcerated ones or the family members that’s going to see them. Some of them haven’t seen their family members in 10, 15, 20 years, and transportation was the cause of most of it,” King said.

King said after he created Support a Friend, he saw the need to take people to doctor’s appointments, to the grocery store and anywhere else they needed to go. King said he especially saw a need for supporting the disabled.

“There’s nowhere in the area that you can call and be like, ‘hey can somebody come pick me up now?’ There’s going to be a waiting list. You’re going to see if you’re going to get approved and by that time, I think you could’ve made it home by them. So that’s a real challenge for disabled and handicapped that’s around in this area,” King said.

King said 'Support a Friend' stands out from other forms of transportation in the Peoria area because it is personal to each customer.

“If the clients need to stop anywhere before they get home, free of charge, no problem because there probably is some things you need to take care of on the way home. That comes as a freebie because I know the needs of transportation,” King said.

The Central Illinois Agency on Aging is a nonprofit that also seeks to limit the transportation gap.

Transportation program director Robert Sea said he serves qualifying seniors though his service is not limited to only seniors.

“It’s really critical for the seniors to get to and from medical appointments they need to go to. To socialize, they need to get out and do grocery shopping or whatever they need. The transportation needs to be there,” Sea said.

Sea said he drives clients to grocery stores, employment related visits, socialization activities and other outlined locations.

Beyond seniors, the Central Illinois Agency on Aging also serves people with disabilities, and people who cannot access other forms of transportation.

Possible Solutions

In October of last year, City Link introduced the Micro Transit study to predict how micro transit would benefit Peoria.

Gunn said micro-transit in Peoria is still on the city’s radar.

“I think we’re probably several years away from sort of autonomous vehicles and those being a viable option for mass transit. I think what’s really interesting or intriguing that the city is researching right now is the concept of micro transit, which essentially would be smaller vehicles for those who might be disabled or in a place that’s a little bit off the beaten path,” Gunn said.

Peoria mayor Rita Ali and former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood also announced the possibility of a high-speed rail service that would run through Peoria.

But both these possible solutions will take time.

“It’s really hard to wait for all these big systemic changes to happen. But we are taking the appropriate steps, and in the meantime, I encourage the people who are experiencing these things to let your voice be heard and reach out to city leaders to find out if there is in fact a short-term solution that might work for you,” Gunn said.

The Morton Economic Development Council recently held a workforce pipeline solution session to look at possible solutions, according to CEO Leigh Ann Brown.

“We have certainly identified a Peoria, Pekin, Canton and other surrounding communities and trying to uncover the demand for these areas and what are the opportunities for solutions for workforce. A lot of our manufacturers in Morton are first, second and third shift. So, it’s not just daytime transportation needs. It’s around the clock,” Brown said.

Brown said like Peoria, Morton is looking at how to become less vehicle dependent and attract people to come work in Morton without having that transportation barrier.

“As businesses are thriving and trying to expand, that need continues to increase, which is a good thing, but we’re trying to better understand that so we know the different numbers that we’re trying to capture and where the different, kind of a hub and spoke model, to where we could have some pickup locations in Peoria, Canton and others and transport on a regular basis over to our community and maybe others.”
Leigh Ann Brown, CEO of Morton Economic Development Council and Executive Director of the Morton Chamber of Commerce

“As businesses are thriving and trying to expand, that need continues to increase, which is a good thing, but we’re trying to better understand that so we know the different numbers that we’re trying to capture and where the different, kind of a hub and spoke model, to where we could have some pickup locations in Peoria, Canton and others and transport on a regular basis over to our community and maybe others,” Brown said.

On top of making life better for people who struggle with traveling in the Greater Peoria Area, Brown said there will be significant economic benefits for the region.

“It’s really investing in people. Anytime you can activate your workforce and expand that and help businesses grow, it presents other opportunities for them to expand their physical building, to buy more goods and services, tax dollars increase, goods and services being purchased increase, and so it really fuels the economy,” Brown said.

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WCBU. She joined the station in 2021.