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Beyond Chicagoland

“Summer by Rail” Train and Bike Blogger Checks Out Chicago Infrastructure

"Summer by Rail" blogger Elena Studier on Northerly Island, a rustic park on a peninsula that used to be an air strip. Photo: Mariah Morales

National Association of Railroad Passengers intern Elena Studier is taking a 38-day-trip around the country on Amtrak with her bicycle to document the current state of the U.S. passenger rail system and its connectivity with cycling. It’s a timely journey, since we’re now living in an era when an increasing number of Americans are interested in getting around without having to rely on driving.

Her 10,000-mile trip launched on Sunday in New York City, and Chicago was her first destination – a fitting one, since our city is the railroad hub of the nation. After she arrived here on Monday, staffers from Amtrak and the Active Transportation Alliance gave her a grand tour of the highlights of our local rail, path, and parks networks on two wheels.

An Amtrak worker hands Studier her bike at Chicago's Union Station. Photo: Mariah Morales

Studier, a second-year international affairs and geography major at George Washington University in D.C., got the idea for the project, dubbed “Summer by Rail,” while brainstorming ideas for an epic journey using an Amtrak USA Rail Pass. She’s using a 45-day pass, which allows you to take a voyage around the country with up to 18 different segments for $899 ($440.50 for children 2-12). 15- and 30-day passes are also available.

After she started her internship with NARP, which advocates for improving and expanding passenger rail service, she pitched the idea of riding the Amtrak system to highlight how it connects communities and provides access to local transportation networks. The folks at NARP thought it was a great idea, so they agreed to sponsor her travels and worked with Amtrak to coordinate the trip.

Studier will be documenting her adventures on the Summer by Rail blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. From Chicago, she’ll be taking the Empire Builder to Seattle, and then heading down the West Coast to Los Angeles, east to New Orleans, and then up the East Coast to D.C., with lots of stops and side trips along the way. For example, on Tuesday she rode Amtrak’s Lincoln Service to Normal, Illinois, to check out the town’s new multi-modal transit center and bikeways.

She brought her Vilano hybrid bike “Stevie” along with her not only to facilitate touring and travel within cities and national parks, but also to showcase how Amtrak and other rail systems have become increasingly bike-friendly in recent years. She’s also helping Amtrak test out roll-on service on lines where cyclists are currently required to box their bikes.

For her trip from NYC on the Lakeshore Limited train, which doesn’t yet have roll-on service, Studier was allowed to bring her cycle to the baggage car, where a worker hung in on a vertical bike rack. It’s the same convenient amenity that Amtrak debuted earlier this month on the Chicago-to-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service and the Chicago-to-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette Service. Amtrak hopes to offer roll-on service for the Lakeshore Limited to the public in late summer or early fall.

Checking out Chicago bike publications with Active Trans' Ted Villaire (left) and Amtrak's Derrick James. Photo: Mariah Morales

When I spoke with Studier on Monday, after she disembarked in Chicago’s Union Station, she told me that one of her goals is to spread the word about how Amtrak, local rail service and biking can be combined with cycling for car-free transportation that’s convenient and fun. “One of the stories I want to tell is how you can travel a good chunk of this country by trains and then move around cities by transit and bike,” she said.

On Monday afternoon, Amtrak’s director of government affairs Derrick James and Active Trans communications director Ted Villaire took Studier on a bike tour of some of the city’s best bike lanes, paths, and green spaces. They took a spin on the 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail, including a stop at the construction site for the $60 million Navy Pier Flyover bike bridge.

From there they headed west to the Clybourn Avenue curb-protected bike lanes, stopping at the shrine to fallen cyclist Bobby Cann, whose tragic 2013 death spurred the city and state to improve safety on Clybourn. After checking out bike-friendly concrete infill on the deck of the Cortland Avenue bridge, they made their way to The 606, also known as the Bloomingdale Trail. This 2.7-mile, $95 million greenway debuted last year on a former elevated rail line, where freight trains once transported good from factories, including everything from musical instruments to Schwinn bicycles.

Pedaling on the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway, aka The 606. Photo: Mariah Morales

At Damen Avenue, where Chakaia Booker’s serpentine “Brick House 2015” sculpture was installed on the trail last year, they returned to the street network and headed back downtown via protected lanes on Milwaukee Avenue and Kinzie Street. After that, they took a cruise around the recently renovated Northerly Island Park, a rustic green space on a peninsula formerly occupied by the Miegs Field air strip.

When I talked to Studier, she sounded psyched to explore our city. “Here you have the intersection between the amazing architectural history of Chicago and the urban planning history, and how that intersects with transportation and trains,” she said. “That’s why I’m going on this trip, to learn from all the cities I’m going to visit.”

Studier added that she was particularly stoked to check out Chicago because she’s a big fan of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. The book partly focuses on urban planner Daniel Burnham’s efforts to create the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. “Burnham is a big hero of mine,” she said.

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