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

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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.

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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.

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