Why Is the South Shore’s Bike Program Getting Limited Use? It’s the Service.

A common sight on South Shore Line bike cars: mostly empty racks. Photo: John Greenfield

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In yesterday’s Tribune, an official from the South Shore Line commuter rail system, which runs from downtown Chicago to South Bend, Indiana, said that the line’s bikes-on-board program got less use than hoped for in its first season.

“We were probably looking for more people to take advantage of it,” said John Parsons, the railroad’s director of marketing and planning. “What we learned from this is that it’s important for bicyclists to have ready information on getting from the railroad stations to points of interest.” He promised bikes-on-board would be returning next year.

While that may have been a factor, there are more obvious reasons why participation in the program was underwhelming. While the plentiful onboard bike racks work great, the logistics of the initiative make it impractical for many kinds of trips.

Cycles are only allowed on weekends, which is useless for 9-to-5 commuters. Bike cars are only available on seven out of the nine weekend train runs in each direction, which can put a crimp in day trip plans, forcing customers to depart later or come home earlier than they like.

And bikes may only be taken on or off the train at the high-level, wheelchair accessible stations. That includes almost all Chicago stations, but only four Indiana stations: Hammond, East Chicago, Dune Park, and South Bend, which obviously limits the usefulness of the program.

Parsons said weekday bike service is off the table for the foreseeable future because rush-hour trains are often packed with commuters. However, the railroad should consider allowing bikes on trains during non-peak weekday hours, as the CTA and Metra do.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 2.25.33 PM
This map shows one big reason the bikes-on-board program has seen limited use: You can’t board with a bike at most Indiana stations.

Of course, the fact that, unlike the other transit agencies, the South Shore requires bikes to be placed in special racks complicates matters. But there’s no reason bike cars couldn’t be included on lower-ridership train runs during the middle of the work day.

There’s really no excuse for not having a bike car on every weekend run. This could be accomplished at little additional cost by redistributing the racks. Currently each run that allows bikes on has a bike car with some 24 racks, even though only a fraction of the spaces get used. It would be much more useful to have a dozen racks on every weekend train.

The South Shore management says it’s unsafe for cyclists to bring their bikes up the stairs at low-level platforms. Why I’m a little suspicious of whether that’s actually true, it seems unlikely they’re going to budge on the high-level-only rule.

The good news is, the railroad has proposed building another set of tracks between Gary and Michigan City. If the federal and state funding comes through, they’ll build high-level platforms at Miller, Ogden/Portage, and Michigan City, which would open up more day-trip options. I can almost taste the Singing Sands oatmeal stout at Michigan City’s Shoreline Brewery.

Update 12/29 11:45 AM: This post previously misstated the number of weekend South Shore runs that accommodate bikes. The post has been edited with the correct number.

This post is made possible by a grant from the Illinois Bicycle Lawyers at Keating Law Offices, P.C., a Chicago, Illinois law firm committed to representing pedestrians and cyclists. The content is Streetsblog Chicago’s own, and Keating Law Offices neither endorses the content nor exercises any editorial control.

  • Kevin Crawford

    Hello John, I’m one of the advocates in NWI who have been for this program for years. I’d like to point out two things:

    1. “But there’s no reason bike cars couldn’t be included on lower-ridership train runs during the middle of the work day.” I wish that were true, but If I remember what I heard from a NICTD official at a public meeting correctly, there actually *is* a reason, and it’s that, during the weekdays, the newer-style, double-decker cars are used, and these cannot be coupled with the bike cars, which are converted older (single-deck) cars.

    2. It’s important to point out that this is a trial program – a first step. NICTD realizes there are major limitations. They plan to address weekday commuters later. They also plan to convert more stations to have high-level boarding.

    Keep in mind also that the SSL is a much smaller system than Metra. There are more constraints with scheduling and otherwise, and much of this has to do with the fact that they have to share track with the SS freight system. Considering where we were at with this issue just a year ago, I think NICTD has actually committed to doing quite a bit with this, and I’m grateful. They made major modifications to five cars to add big-time bike capacity, and that was no small expense. I would have been thrilled if they had done even three.

    For now, I’m just happy to know that the program will continue, and I believe that it will grow as is feasible.

  • Considering that systems like Caltrain, Metrolink, and Sunrail all allow people to carry bikes into the train cars no matter the platform height at the stops, it might be worth it to further pursue why boarding is only allowed at the high platform stations.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Kevin, thanks for your advocacy on this. Streetsblog’s Steven Vance was also instrumental in making this happen, since he launched a bikes-on-board petition that garnered hundreds of signatures.

    Interesting point about the rolling stock. I’m curious if there’s a particular reason double-decker cars need to be used for low-ridership runs during the middle of work days.

    Yes, we need to keep in mind that the Metra bikes-on-board has improved significantly since they originally launched it, with the agency eventually allowing bikes on rush-hour reverse commutes and eliminating most black-out days.

    But the South Shore Line is about a decade late to the party on allowing bike access, so it’s hard to be patient with a program that has limited utility. It’s also annoying that they seem to be largely attributing the low usage with wayfinding issues, rather than the very limited scope of the service.

    That said, bikes-on-board worked well when I used it to visit Northern Indiana Amish country (although the Sat/Sun-only schedule and limited number of runs meant that I didn’t have a lot of time to hang out once I got there.): http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/amish-indiana-pennsylvania-dutch-bicycle-south-shore-line/Content?oid=22329547

  • eric299

    You guys always have a story. But maybe the bike racks are empty because a lot of people don’t care. I don’t see oodles of people using the CTA bus bike racks either, and those have been around years now.

    I wonder what the impact of a Republican-controlled Federal government will be on funding for projects like this.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    This is more analogist to the bikes on Metra program, which gets tons of use.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    If you want to talk about wasting federal money on pointless projects, let’s talk more about highways. The amount that this cost is a drop in the bucket compared to that.

  • eric299

    Your logic doesn’t hold a drop of water. Everybody uses highways. Very few use bicycle infrastructure, and that isn’t likely to change. I have to drive out to Evanston about once a week. I’m not going to turn a 30 minute drive into a 60-90 minute bike ride, especially since I usually bring several packages. Then there’s the fact that I would arrive sweating like a pig.

  • eric299

    I havent ridden Metra in some years but I’m dubious. Things I can see: Few ride in bike lanes, few use the CTA racks and few use the South Shore program. But you’re telling me the Metra program is a smashing success?

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    Everyone? I go weeks and weeks without using highways. Metra and CTA I use all the time. I’d ride more in my neighborhood except people treat the neighborhood I live in like a highway, even though the speed limit is definitely 30.

    Meanwhile, they designed some streets downtown for bikes and ridership shot up. It’s not coincidence. You get what you design for.

    The circle interchange is being rebuilt at the cost of millions of dollars and it will save people about 3 minutes. At least until people think it’s faster, then more people will drive and traffic will be back where it was. See the entire state of Texas for multiple example.

  • JeffParkNIMBY
  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Its quite well used, sometimes too well used and their is not always enough space to meet demand.

  • eric299

    You’ll get no argument on the Circle Interchange. I’d guess that is nothing more than another pork project.

    But you’re dancing around my main point. People do what makes their life work. I’ll tell you when I take the CTA: when I go to the Loop. It’s cheaper and just about as fast for me. But there are uncountable situations where it would be a huge inconvenience. I’m not going to do that, mostly because I don’t have time, but also because I get nothing back for the extra effort. And when it comes to bikes forget it. Maybe your life is casual enough that you can show up to business meetings a sweaty windswept mess. But I don’t have that option.

    If your proposal is that the metro area infrastructure should be entirely remade it is dubious at best. The City and State are genuinely broke and the Feds don’t look to be in the greatest shape either. And even if they were all swimming in cash I think there are probably better uses for the money, because I don’t believe most people are going to subscribe to a bicycle/transit utopia.

  • eric299

    I only know what I see Jared. All the examples I see illustrate money being spent on infrastructure used by a relatively small part of the population. And it’s money being spent at a time when our city and state governments are getting their debt ratings slashed again and again.

    And even if the Metra program is used I bet there is a drop off in the winter. There’s little hope of bikes being more than a niche in a city as cold as ours.

  • Jeremy

    So, because bicycles and CTA aren’t convenient for your lifestyle, they shouldn’t exist? Do you also want to eliminate wheelchair ramps?

  • Carter O’Brien

    You only know what you see doesn’t reconcile well with “I havent ridden Metra in some years.”

    I take the CTA pretty much every day. The bike racks are often completely full, they are definitely in use year round.

  • Daniel Joseph

    In season, 7 of 9 NICTD weekend trains to and from Chicago (73%) have a bike car which is much greater than the “roughly every other weekend train” stated in this article

  • Kelly Pierce

    These additional steps are appeasement not progression. I still question the rule allowing bikes at
    wheelchair accessible stations. If a bicyclist is fit enough to sling a bike
    frame over his shoulders and climb stairs with his bike, he should have the
    freedom to do so without the worthless nanny state telling him no. It seems Indiana transit folks don’t
    understand active cyclists.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Good catch, thanks. I’m not sure where the confusion over the number of bike runs came from, but I’ve edited the post accordingly.

  • Allan Marshall

    I also don’t get the rule of South Shore/NICTD not allowing bikes, at low level/non-accessible stations. If Amtrak allows bikes on their single level Michigan trains and other trains throughout the Midwest(i.e. Illinois, Missouri River Runner, etc., though on Hiawatha they should change the rule that bikes can only board/disembark in downtown Chicago and downtown Milwaukee), certainly the South Shore wouldn’t have any issues permitting bikes to board/disembark at low level stops. I would NOT mind one bit, carrying my bike up/down the stairs at say Beverly Shores, Michigan City-11th Street, Hudson Lake(this would really be a stop I’d LOVE to take my bike to!), etc.


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