Taking a pit stop in Elburn, the western terminus of the UP West line. Photo: John Greenfield
[This article also appeared as a cover story in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]
I confess that I’m obsessed with pedaling the perimeters of things. For years, I led the Chicago Perimeter Ride, a hundred-mile bicycle tour of the rim of the city, stopping to admire goofy commercial architecture landmarks, from the Eyecare Indian in Westlawn, to the giant fiberglass wieners of Superdawg in Norwood Park. I’ve cycled the circumference of Lake Michigan and the state of Illinois, and I’ve got a Land of Lincoln tattoo on my left shoulder as proof of the latter. I’ve biked three sides of the continental U.S., and some day I hope to complete the circuit by cycling from Key West, Florida, to Bar Harbor, Maine.
Since my journalistic wheelhouse is local transportation issues, it recently occurred to me that I should pedal the perimeter of Chicagoland, as a way to wrap my head around our vast region, and meditate on the urban planning challenges we face. But how best to define the Chicago metro area? There are a number of different definitions of the region, with one of the broadest being the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area, originally designated by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1950. Along with Cook and the collar counties, it includes swaths of southeast Wisconsin and northwest Indiana, for a total population of 9,522,434, making this the third-largest MSA by population in the nation.
Somewhat arbitrarily, I opted to define the perimeter of the region as being a route connecting the endpoints of the Metra commuter rail system’s eleven lines. This would allow me to skip the nastier industrial sections of the Hoosier State, since Metra doesn’t serve Indiana, while justifying an excursion across the Cheddar Curtain to quirky Kenosha, Wisconsin, one of my favorite nearby cities.
The Metra-Politan Perimeter Ride route. Image: Google Maps
Bicycling between train stops would also make it easy for friends to parachute in and keep me company on sections of the four-day trek, and then catch a lift home at the end of the day from a different Metra line. Decision made, I planned out my route, dubbed The Metra-Politan Perimeter Ride, using Google Maps’ bike directions. You can view a Google Map of my itinerary here.
The last twelve months have been rough on Metra. In June of 2013, then-CEO Alex Clifford resigned and was given a jaw-dropping $871,000 severance package, which included a non-disclosure agreement. When local politicians questioned the massive payoff, a memo surfaced, indicating that Clifford was forced out of his job by Metra board members after he refused to bow to demands for patronage hiring and promotions. Some of the pressure apparently came from uber-powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Five board members resigned in the wake of the scandal and, last summer, Governor Pat Quinn responded by creating the Northeast Illinois Public Transit Task Force, to brainstorm ways to fight corruption and ensure the regional transit system is properly funded. In March, the blue-ribbon panel recommended abolishing the four boards of Metra, the CTA, Pace and the Regional Transit Authority, in favor of a new superagency to oversee the three transit agencies, similar to how things work in the New York City region.