Shifting to a More Sustainable Campus

Campus Bike Center Coordinator Jacob Benjamin at work. Credit: Gabe Lareau, iSEE Communications

There was really one way I could’ve gotten to the Campus Bike Center, literally and metaphorically. Time, the environment, my sanity, and a healthy dose of potential irony were at stake. I rode my bike.

The ride was easy. The Campus Bike Center is on Gregory Drive, sandwiched in between First and Oak streets, surrounded by roads with dedicated bike lanes for (mostly) safe passage — a rare commodity in the Quad Cities, where I hail from.

At the University of Illinois, however, providing safe cycle routes has been a mainstay of campus transportation for decades, and the Campus Bike Center reflects another shift toward sustainable transportation geared to bike repair and education. After locking up my steed at the Center — bike racks were appropriately legion — I was greeted by the Coordinator, Jacob Benjamin.

Evidenced by his lubricant-stained Illini-orange shirt, Benjamin is a lifelong cyclist. He started out as a volunteer and has held his current position managing the Center’s many operations since 2016.

Campus Bike Center employees are happy to teach members how to build and/or repair bikes.

Initially, the concept was to offer a bike-sharing program for the university and larger community. “They realized pretty quickly that that model puts a lot of strain on the maintenance side of things and keeping a bike operational,” Benjamin said. “It was a better model and idea to really create a space where people can learn to keep up their own bike.” This idea evolved into The Bike Project of Urbana-Champaign, a 501(c)(3) organization and the university’s collaborator in managing the Bike Center.

Originally starting out in a poorly ventilated, unmarked campus garage, the Center transferred over to Campus Recreation from Facilities & Services in 2018 and moved in 2020 to its current air-conditioned space at 51 E Gregory Drive in Champaign. Since then, the Bike Center has cemented itself as a university staple, serving “the community, students, faculty, staff — everybody who needs a bike fixed up and wants to learn how to do it themselves,” as Benjamin puts it.

The Bike Center has continued to grow in popularity. By Benjamin’s count, the Center sees 30 to 40 people a day this time of year. A few weeks ago, Benjamin said, “we were only open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and we had around 110-115 people in over those three days. Only being open four hours a day, that’s about 10 people an hour.”

With such a large influx, it’d be nearly impossible for Benjamin, the student staff, and the Center’s volunteers to manage every repair. That’s why the Campus Bike Center is education-focused.

Learning to fix a bike or putting one together through the Center’s Build-a-Bike program is accessible for a $30 membership fee or eight hours of volunteer service. All parts are provided, courtesy of the university, community donations, as well as the haplessly forgotten, easily salvageable cornucopia of bikes and partial bikes abandoned at the end of every spring semester.

In addition to helping cyclists become self-sufficient at caring for their bikes, the Bike Center is equally committed to its community service mission.

On Friday afternoons, the Center hosts community rides. Annual traditions include the popular “Light the Night” bike light giveaway as well as the winter Kids Bike Giveaway where “upwards of 80 bikes are given to kids, free of cost,” Benjamin said.

The case for bicycles as the most sustainable transportation option is almost inarguable. No emissions result from a bike’s locomotion and the little carbon that is expended in its actual production is offset immediately after its 430th mile, according to Trek’s #GoByBike campaign. Any subsequent miles render your bicycle carbon negative. The Campus Bike Center, embodying this principle through its reuse and recycling of bicycle parts, makes it an exemplar of sustainability for campuses and communities nationwide.

The new Campus Bike Center building at 51 E. Gregory Drive, Champaign, has plenty of space.

Walking around the Center that morning, looking at all of the bikes lined up waiting to be fixed by those who will ride them, Benjamin directed my attention to a cluster of old, frameless wheels. He saw their potential as reusable, their jobs as unfinished.

That’s how the Bike Center takes sustainability a pedal stroke further. It finds value in every potentially recyclable part. It reminds us that teaching and serving others sustains sustainability. It serves as a living example of how we are capable — of fixing our bikes and much larger things.

As our time wrapped up, I took Benjamin outside to show him, in a moment of shameless pride, my green Fuji America that my dad and I built together. After talking about our various bike trips, Benjamin affirmed, almost under his breath, “Bikes can take you all over.”

Benjamin is right, literally and metaphorically. Commuting by car or on foot literally cannot compare to bike rides. But the Campus Bike Center is here to suggest a larger idea: that bikes have the ability to take us even further toward a service-oriented, more environmentally sustainable community.

— Article by Gabe Lareau, iSEE Communications Intern


The Campus Bike Center, 51 E Gregory Drive, Champaign, is open 2-6 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays and 2-5:30 p.m. Fridays.

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