Letter to the Editor: Huskie Safe Line fixes old problems

By Tom Phillips

As a result of collaboration with students, NIU recently launched the Huskie Safe Line service to improve service, addressing issues with the now-defunct Late Night Ride.

The Late Night Ride system was a point-to-point transportation system available to the public that used five NIU passenger vans with unrestricted geographical limitations. The intent of the public safety initiative was to provide “no questions asked” escort for students, staff and faculty during late night hours, but it eventually devolved into a “no questions asked” public transportation system for any person requesting a ride around DeKalb.

The problems with the system were addressed in the local media — especially the Northern Star — and that dissatisfaction was refreshed every few years.

NIU Police emergency dispatchers were often flooded with callers requesting a ride and telephone wait times were as long as 30 minutes. Due to the volume of requests, riders reported waiting up to two hours for pick-up. Some reported disconnected calls or rides that never arrived. Students often reported “giving up,” seeking alternative transportation or walking to their destination.

In 2012, the system answered almost 39,000 calls for service between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. on the NIU campus and around DeKalb at a cost of more than $300,000 to operate. Reported abuses created stress on the system and reduced access and reliability to our students. These problems were exasperated due to frequent use for extended trips to destinations such as the Elburn train station and late night shopping excursions to Walmart.

Together with the Student Association, Police & Public Safety collaborated with students to improve the quality of service in a fiscally responsible manner.

We conducted a student survey, held an open forum for community input and researched other Illinois universities safety escort ride systems. Survey results confirmed dissatisfaction with Late Night Ride and feedback emphasized a poor reputation due to long wait times and poor reliability. The peer institution research revealed that point-to-point late night transportation systems experienced similar complaints to Late Night Ride while systems that had fixed-route systems available only to students, staff and faculty experienced very few complaints.

The only community members that expressed concerns were a group of DeKalb residents with disabilities. As a result of their input, we are continuing to provide free rides to persons with disabilities.

The new Huskie Safe Line is a 35-location, fixed-route system using three passenger vans to serve areas in and around campus where students historically have used the point-to-point ride system. Two additional vans are on call, ready to respond to stops with an immediate need for additional seating.

Rides are available to students, staff and faculty with a valid OneCard, plus up to two guests, in accordance with the NIU Social Events Policy. Riders that forget their OneCard can present a valid ID and/or Z-ID number for verification. Drivers have discretion to allow more riders if needed, especially where a safety concern exists. The new system will be periodically assessed and benchmarked for efficiency and service.

Additional affordable options for late night transportation include DeCab Taxi, which offers $5 rides during late-night hours to anywhere in DeKalb. Local businesses such as Fatty’s, Molly’s and Drinkery offer free late-night shuttle service to customers after 9 and 10 p.m., respectively.

I believe these measures support the local economy while offering safe public transportation to the general public and encourage the university community to explore these options when traveling during the late night hours.