A Tale of Two Shuttles: New Commuter Routes Planned for Oak Brook and Naperville

The Naperville shuttle will travel between a local church and various Loop stops. Image: Google Maps
The Naperville shuttle will travel between a local church and various Loop stops. Image: Google Maps

The Chicago Tribune recently ran a couple of stories about new suburban shuttle bus services. One will provide a connection from the Hinsdale or Elmhurst Metra stations to job sites in Oak Brook, useful for city dwellers who have to travel to the ‘burbs for work. The other shuttle, intended as an alternative to Metra’s busy BNSF route, will take suburbanites from Naperville to workplaces in downtown Chicago. They both have the potential to be useful additions to the region’s transportation mix.

As reported by Chuck Fieldman, the Regional Transit Authority and local businesses are funding the Oak Brook service, as a strategy to make employment in the western suburb, which has no direct Metra service, more attractive to millennials who don’t want to drive to work. The shuttle will make stops at workplaces along the village’s Commerce Drive, located just east of the Oak Brook Center shopping mall between Harger and Spring roads, north of 22nd Street.

The Oak Brook shuttle will travel between either the Elmhurst station or the Hinsdale stop and businesses on Cemmerce Drive. Image: Google Maps
The Oak Brook shuttle will travel between either the Elmhurst station or the Hinsdale stop and businesses on Commerce Drive. Image: Google Maps

The RTA is paying 80 percent of the cost for the first year, and businesses that will be served by the route are chipping in the remaining 20 percent. The village of Oak Brook, which is administering the program, currently has a request for proposals out for shuttle operators. The shuttle buses will each seat 12-14 people and make two or three runs each weekday from 7-9:30 a.m. and 3:30-6:30 p.m., with the possibility of expanding the program if there’s more demand. Presumably the schedule will be coordinated with the Metra schedule so that transfers will be relatively seamless.

The program will operate as a pilot, with the village having the option to cancel or modify the contract after the first year if there’s poor ridership or the shuttle company isn’t providing good service. If the initiative is extended for a second year, the businesses’ contribution would go up to half of the cost. The RTA funding ends after two years.

Streetsblog reader Cameron Puetz pointed out that one downside of the Oak Brook plan is that neither of the Metra lines it might connect to have many stops in Chicago. If the Hinsdale station, located south of Oak Brook, is chosen, it would serve the BNSF line, which terminates in Aurora. During the proposed service times, the BNSF’s only outbound urban stops are Union Station and the Western/18th Street stop in the Lower West Side community area. That limits the number of neighborhoods where the Metra/shuttle commute would be convenient for residents.

Puetz noted that if the shuttle picks up passengers from the Elmhurst station, north of Oak Brook, it would be on the UP-W route, which goes to Geneva and Elburn, whose only outbound morning stops in the city are the Ogilvie Center and the Kedzie stop in East Garfield Park. Likewise, that option would only be convenient for residents in a handful of Chicago neighborhoods. Still, it’s encouraging that Oak Brook and the RTA are trying something new to connect Chicagoans with suburban job sites, and if the service doesn’t draw sufficient ridership it can be modified or canceled.

The Naperville shuttle will serve the opposite purpose, connecting suburban dwellers with downtown Chicago workplaces. The Tribune article by Suzanne Baker features south Naperville resident Ginny Ferguson, who currently has an hour-and-45-minute commute that includes walking 15 minutes to catch a Pace bus to the Naperville station on the BNSF line, and then walking from Union Station to her office.

Ferguson complains that the train is too crowded to pull out her laptop and do work during the trip. Occasionally she’ll take Uber or Lyft to work, but that’s expensive (not to mention the negative impact on air quality and congestion.) Other Naperville commuters report that they have trouble finding car parking at the local station, or their offices aren’t walking distance from Union Station.

The interior of a luxury shuttle bus. Photo: Squire
The interior of a luxury shuttle bus. Photo: Squire

To cater to commuters like these, a new executive shuttle service called Squire is launching on February 5, featuring mini buses with comfortable leather seats and Wi-Fi. The route is geared towards people who live in the south and east parts of the suburb, with free parking available for shuttle users at a local church.

Morning service will be fairly frequent, with runs every 15-30 minutes between 6:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. The route will make stops at the Sears Tower, City Hall, the Merchandise Mart, and four other Loop locations, with the goal of minimizing walking distances for customers. Return trips will take place between 3:30 and 6 p.m.

A roundtrip on the Squire shuttle costs $19.95, with a monthly pass available for $290, which averages out to about $13 per weekday. By comparison, a monthly pass for the Naperville-Chicago Metra commute is $210.25, with parking costing $30.

Of course, unlike shuttle bus riders, Metra commuters don’t have to worry about getting stuck in traffic. (It’s also worth noting that the BNSF is the system’s least reliable route.)

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The Blackline shuttle briefly operated between Lincoln Park and the Loop. Photo: John Grenefield

It will be interesting to see if the Squire shuttle succeeds. The Tribune notes that in 2014 a company called Blackline tried to operate shuttle service using luxury buses between Lincoln Park and the Loop, but the service quickly folded, possibly because it cost twice as much as the CTA express bus alternative.

Since Squire is offering a route that doesn’t currently exist, and the BNSF is currently dealing with crowding issues due to increased development in the western suburbs, there’s not much risk of it cannibalizing Metra service. As such, hopefully it will turn out to be a useful service that draws good ridership.

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