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The slower Pace of suburban transit: It can be difficult to get around the ‘burbs car-free

4:18 PM CST on February 6, 2020

The author on the 741 Pace bus.

When I lived in Chicago proper, and later New York City, I rode public transportation frequently. But last year my family recently moved back to Chicagoland to be closer to relatives, and the transit access near our current home on the south side of Wheaton, in the western suburbs, is not terrific. So household obligations, including caring for my special-needs son, mean that I usually use a private car or take Lyft for transportation in the 'burbs.

But last week my vehicle’s headlights, signals, wipers, and power locks suddenly stopped working, and it was going to take a couple of days for Wheaton's AAA car maintenance and repair facility to get the parts. Since I didn’t have my son with me or anywhere that I needed to be in a hurry, I decided to try taking public transportation from the repair shop to my home, rather than taking the path of least resistance by using Lyft. Google Maps recommended I take the 714 Pace bus, which was scheduled to arrive at Roosevelt Road and President Street, a half-block away from AAA, in five minutes. It would drop me off very close to my apartment complex. 

I trudged through the snow and poorly shoveled sidewalks to the bus stop. On the way, I asked Siri how to pay my fare and she directed me to Pace’s Fare Information page, which said a Ventra fare card is the best way to pay. Fortunately I had my Ventra card, which still had $20 on the account from before I left Chicago in 2008, when the CTA was still using the Chicago Card Plus. Even though I lived in New York City for 11 years, the CTA continued to send me all the various updates and transferred the funds every time. 

Eventually I got to the bus stop and waited. Soon a Pace bus approached, but it was “not in service.” Google Maps said the next bus was delayed another five minutes so I continued to wait. When the bus still hadn’t come, I returned to the Pace website and found the Pace bus Tracker. (I could also track the bus through the Ventra app.) When I found the 714 route, I realized that I had been waiting on the wrong side of the road. Whoops!

The Pace stop near Seven Dwarfs Restaurant. Photo: Amber Drea
The Pace stop near Seven Dwarfs Restaurant. Photo: Amber Drea

The next bus wasn’t scheduled to come for another hour. Obviously, one-hour-plus gaps in bus service do not encourage ridership. But I had my laptop with me, so I walked to the nearby diner Seven Dwarfs Restaurant, where I had eaten breakfast that morning while waiting for AAA to tell me what was wrong with my car. (The mechanic’s answer: “It’s 14 years old.”) 

Back at the diner again, I ordered a cup of coffee and worked on my laptop until it was time to return to the bus stop. Again it was delayed about five minutes. I boarded at 3:59 p.m.

I noted of the demographics of the handful of passengers on board. The men and women were a variety of ethnicities represented -- Black, white, Asian-American -- ranging in age from late 20s to about 60. No one seemed to be wealthier than lower-middle class.

The route home from the car repair shop. Image: Google Maps
The route home from the car repair shop. Image: Google Maps

The bus route went through a residential area and looped around the College of DuPage’s west campus. No additional people got on or off the bus until we arrived in the busy shopping area near my apartment complex. A couple of people got off at an intersection near a gas station, a Walgreens, a CVS, an Aldi and many other stores. 

I got off at Butterfield Road and East Loop Road near a Chick-fil-A and then walked 10 minutes or so to my apartment. The sidewalks were slightly better-maintained in that area, though there was a stretch that wasn’t shoveled. From beginning to end the ride was roughly 20 minutes, and I was home within 30. This trip would have taken me 10 minutes in a car, and of course I wouldn’t have had to wait for a bus or walk to and from the stops either, but it wasn’t bad. On the other hand, if it was colder, if I was in a rush and/or I was with my son, who has mobility challenges, I might have had a different opinion. 

My husband and I share a single car. Since trying Pace, I have looked into local transit options several times. In every instance, it would have taken more than an hour to get somewhere that would only take 15-20 minutes by car, due primarily to the long headways between buses and/or the need for a transfer.

For example, my husband works six miles away near Gundersen Drive and Schmale Road in Carol Stream, and I've been driving him to and from work every day. In an effort to reduce the amount of trips, I looked up how long it would take him to commute bus. He could walk 10 minutes to grab the 714 at East Loop Road and then transfer to the 711 at the Wheaton Metra station. The bus would then drop him off at the corner of Gundersen Road and Schmale Drive, from which he would walk 10 minutes to his office. Including the 10-minute walk from our apartment, the total trip from door to door would take a minimum of an hour and eight minutes -- if all went smoothly.

Amber's husband's work commute would take 1:08, including 10-minute walks to and from the bus stops -- if all went well. Image: Google Maps
Amber's husband's work commute would take 1:08, including 10-minute walks to and from the bus stops -- if all went well. Image: Google Maps

So I continue to serve as my husband’s chauffeur, as I need the car in order to drive my son to multiple locations, including school, therapy, and doctor appointments. I can’t even imagine having to rely on public transportation for getting him to these places, especially with his disabilities. 

We live about halfway between Metra's BNSF and Union Pacific-West lines. When I go to Chicago, which I do at least once a month to take my son to a doctor’s appointment or to socialize, I usually drive rather than take the train because it would take me twice as long and limit my options in terms of arrival and departure times. It also depends on whether I’m just going downtown, or to a different neighborhood, which might require taking an additional train or buses.

However, if my husband needs the car and I'm traveling by myself with no particular timetable, then I'll take Metra. In fact, one of the things I miss about commuting by public transportation is I could read or even take a quick nap during my commute. Eventually I may end up getting a full-time job in downtown Chicago, and if that happens, then you’ll definitely see me on the Metra using Ventra.

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