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Beyond Chicagoland

The South Shore Line Is Adding Weekday Bike Service. Will Anyone Use It?

Photo: South Shore Line


In November South Shore Line officials lamented the fact that the commuter rail’s bike-on-board program, which debuted in April, saw limited use this year. They largely blamed the pilot project’s underwhelming results on wayfinding issues, citing the need to provide “information on getting from the railroad stations to points of interest.”

While that may have been a factor, there were several other obvious reasons why relatively few people put their bikes on trains in 2016. Cycles were only allowed on weekends, bike cars are only available on seven out of the nine runs in each direction, and there were black-out days for several special events like the Taste of Chicago. Moreover, bikes could only be taken on or off the train at the high-level, wheelchair accessible stations, which excluded most stops in Indiana.

So while the long-delayed test of bike service this year was certainly a step in the right direction, it was only practical for a narrow subset of potential bike/train commutes and excursions. As a result, the railroad estimates that about 1,000 rides were provided to cyclists during the program’s seven-month run, which works out to only about 36 trips per weekend – a rather modest number.

Earlier this month at a South Shore Line board meeting there was some good news about bikes-on-board. Railroad officials announced that in 2017 they’ll be doing more marketing of the program, eliminating some of the blackout days, and – best of all – adding weekday bike service.

But don’t get too excited about that last part. Bikes will only be allowed on the Chicago-bound train that arrives at Millennium Station at 6:55 a.m., and the Indiana-bound run that leaves the Loop at 3:57 p.m. Both of those trains make limited stops, only serving the wheelchair- and bike-friendly stations.

I’m not saying those train times are going to be completely useless. They might be helpful for some folks who work non-standard hours, and I myself might use the afternoon train to jump-start a weekend of camping at the Indiana Dunes, for example. But they’re not to be very useful for most 9-to-5-ers or day-trippers, so it's likely these runs won’t see many bikes.

While the South Shore deserves some credit for this modest expansion of the bikes-on-board program, they really should be improving their service at a faster rate. After all, they’re about a decade behind peer commuter railroads like Metra in accommodating bikes, and Metra currently allows bikes on all trains, except for rush-hour runs in the direction of peak travel.

The South Shore should also look into increasing the utility of the weekday bike service by adding bike cars on other lower-ridership runs. As Indiana bike advocate Kevin Crawford pointed out, this would be complicated by the fact that the newer double-decker rail cars are used during weekdays, and these can’t be coupled with the older-style bike cars. But perhaps the single-level cars could be used for passengers during some of these weekday runs to facilitate the addition of a bike car.

It would also be great to see the South Shore provide a bike car on every weekend run. Currently each run that allows bikes on has a bike car with some 24 racks, but it would be much more useful to have a dozen racks on every weekend train.

Another possibility for making the bike-on-board program more useful is the railroad’s proposal to build another set of tracks between Gary and Michigan City. If the federal and state funding comes through, they’ll build bike-friendly high-level platforms at Miller, Ogden/Portage, and Michigan City, which would open up more day-trip options.

So, again, a tip of the helmet to the South Shore Line management for giving weekday bike service a spin, but I’d like to see them shift this initiative into a higher gear in the near future.

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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