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The South Shore Line Expects You to Wait Six Years for Bike Access

When NICTD policies don't make sense
This man hoped he would be allowed on the South Shore if he took the wheels off his bike. Photo: Strannik45.

Update: NICTD responded to our request for comment after publication and we will post a follow up story on Tuesday. 

Eager to bring your bike on a South Shore Line train to visit Notre Dame University, commute from Northwest Indiana to Chicago, or take a spin around the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore? You may well be able to do that – some time in 2021.

At a recent board meeting of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, the agency that runs the rail line between Chicago and South Bend, consultants recommended that the transit agency wait six years to pilot a bikes-on-board program. We're not even talking about full implementation here, but merely testing out the program on a limited basis.

In contrast, Metra's Bikes on Trains program has been around for over a decade. Granted, it took some strong-arming from then-lieutenant governor Pat Quinn to force Metra to agree to the policy change. NICTD has been studying the issue since 2013, around the time I launched a petition for bike access on the South Shore, which 731 people signed.

The recommendation to delay the Indiana line's bikes-on-trains pilot was made by staff from Quandel Consultants, a construction and engineering consulting firm, and LTK Engineering Services and The McCormick Group. Part of the reasoning behind that advice was that the South Shore could get new train cars by then, according to the Active Transportation Alliance's south suburban outreach manager Leslie Phemister, who attended the board meeting. When new cars would be in service, NICTD can begin piloting the bike program by removing half of the seats in an older car to make room for bikes. However, NICTD doesn't know if or when they may obtain new – or used – train cars.

Dedicating half the space in a rail car for bikes is a great idea. However, the plan for the pilot only calls for attaching this car to two trains per day: one morning run to Chicago and one evening train to Indiana, according to Phemister. If you miss that train, you won't be able to get home with your bike.

Phemister added that the length of the delay is absurd. "I think a [six-year] wait is a little bit of a long time," she said. In response to NICTD's foot dragging on the issue, as well as their resistance to a proposed at-grade crossing of South Shore tracks for an extension of the Burnham Greenway, Active Trans recently crowned them "The least bike-friendly commuter rail service in the nation." The advocacy group sarcastically presented the group with its "Broken Spoke Award," noting that the South Shore is the only commuter line in the nation that doesn't accept bikes.

Active Trans wants NICTD to come up with another solution for accommodating cyclists in the near future, Phemister said. This strategy should also be implemeted on off-peak trains, in addition to the rush-hour bike car.

20030504 14 South Shore Line @  Hudson Lake, IN
One of the older, single-decker South Shore train cars. Photo: David Wilson.

Phemister explained current complications in bringing bikes aboard the line's older, single-decker train cars. At stations where passengers wait at ground level, they have to enter the cars via narrow stairs and doors at the end of car, which is next-to-impossible to do while carrying a bicycle. The narrow aisle and high seat backs between the seats also makes it difficult to roll a bike through the car to the center wheelchair area.

On the other hand, the system's ADA-accessible stops, such as Chicago's Millennium Station, have raised platforms where wheelchair users enter the train via wide doors in the middle of the rail car, right by the wheelchair area. Phemister proposes marking these wheel-friendly stations on the South Shore schedule with a bike symbol and allowing cyclists to use unoccupied wheelchair spaces.

Federal law dictates that people with disabilities always have priority to use these areas, so cyclists would have to leave the rail car in the event that a person in a wheelchair boards the train. "I've been kicked off at a Metra station a couple times, and I think that's what cyclists in this area are used to doing, so to me that's not such a big deal," Phemister said.

Fortunately, not all the NICTD board members are willing to wait six years for bike access, Phemister said. Michael Repay from Lake County, Indiana, asked for an immediate option to be presented at the next board meeting, on July 31st. Mark Catanzarite of St. Joseph County also wanted to see bikes on board immediately.

In the meantime, there will be a public meeting about the South Shore's bikes-on-trains plan – where the consultants will present their full recommendations and feasibility study – on Thursday, July 16, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Indiana Dunes Visitors Center, 1215 State Road 49, Porter, Indiana.

If your schedule allows, and you're in the mood for a car-free road trip, hop a South Shore train to the Dune Park stop and show your support for getting bikes on the train sooner than later. The nature center is a half-hour walk from the station, although it would certainly be more convenient to bike there from the train.

NICTD did not respond to a request for an interview in time for publication.

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