Harper College pilots bike-share for northwest suburbs as bus service returns to campus

Koloni bikes at the Palatine Metra station. Photo: Igor Studenkov
Koloni bikes at the Palatine Metra station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

The northwest suburbs are poised to get a bike-share system of their own as Harper College, a community college based in Palatine, has teamed up with Koloni bike-share platform to launch a bike-share pilot. Meanwhile, Pace is launching a new bus route to serve the community college.

The fees are time-based – the first hour is free and each additional hour costs $2. Harper College students and faculty get discounted rates – the first two hours are free and each additional hour costs $1. They can also buy $15 annual passes that entitle them to four hours of free riding per day. Users can take bikes to any destination within Harper Community College District 215, which includes Palatine and much of the surrounding suburbs, including all of Arlington Heights, Barrington, Barrington Hills, Elk Grove Village, Inverness, Lake Barrington, Mount Prospect, North Barrington, Prospect Heights, Rolling Meadows, Schaumburg, South Barrington, Tower Lakes and Wheeling. The pilot will run through November 2022.

For the time being, the bike-share system is hampered by the fact that it only has two dedicated bike parking racks – one on campus and one at the Palatine Metra station – and each rack only accommodates five bikes. But Harper College is reaching out to other villages and government entities within its district to try to install more racks, which would make the service more practical in other parts of the district.

The bike-share pilot launches two years after the last bus to serve the Harper College campus, Pace Route 696, was suspended due to low ridership early in the COVID-19 pandemic. On August 8, Pace will launch a new Route 697, which will link the Northwest Transportation Center, a major bus transit hub in Schaumburg, and Harper College. Harper officials told Streetsblog that, while they were disappointed with Route 696’s suspension, they welcomed the Route 697 pilot, since the restored connection to the Northwest Transportation Center would help students taking the buses from further out in the district.

Harper College transit

When I attended Harper back in 2004-2006, two Pace routes served the college. The aforementioned Route 696 served much of Arlington Heights and parts of Schaumburg. Route 699 served Palatine, Schaumburg and Elk Grove Village. Both routes served their local Metra stations (downtown Arlington Heights and Palatine stations, respectively) and the Northwest Transportation Center, so riders could transfer to buses that went as far west as Elgin and as far east as Evanston.

Palatine-area bike routes. Image: Google Maps
Palatine-area bike routes. Image: Google Maps

While Palatine didn’t have bike lanes, it had a handful of bike trails and less formal bike routes. I used to bike to Harper when time and weather allowed, or simply take the bike with me on the bus.

Route 699 was discontinued on February 8, 2010, leaving Palatine students without any bus connection to Harper College. Route 604, which was launched in December 19, 2016 as part of the broader service expansion along the I-90/Jane Addams Memorial Tollway corridor, only serves a small section of northeastern Palatine, but it also expanded service in Wheeling and Buffalo Grove portions of the district.

Route 696 was among the 75 routes that were indefinitely suspended at the height of the pandemic due to low ridership to free up resources for busier routes. While a handful of routes have since been restored, Route 696 is among the majority of the suspended routes that remain out of service.

Harper Bike Pilot

Dr. Maria Coons, Harper’s vice president of strategic alliances and innovation, said that the bike-share pilot came out of the staff discussions about tackling transportation challenges facing their students. “It’s much more sustainable, and it’s green, and it’s good for wellness,” she said.

Coons added the college’s goal was to have a system anyone in the district can use. Customers do need to download the Koloni app in order to use it, and they must allow the app to access to your location. While Coons said ideally they would like users to return bikes to the racks, they won’t penalize riders for parking them elsewhere within the service are. “If it ends up somewhere else, [each bike] has the GPS, and our vendor goes and collects the bike.”

A QR code for accessing info on the bike-share program in the basket of one of the bikes. Photo: Igor Studenkov
A QR code for accessing info on the bike-share program in the basket of one of the bikes. Photo: Igor Studenkov

The pilot launched at the end of June with five bikes at the Harper College bike rack. On July 11, the Palatine Village Council unanimously approved an intergovernmental agreement allowing Koloni to put five more bikes at the bike racks east of the Metra station building. Five bikes were already parked there when I visited the station on July 16.

Coons said that Harper plans to reach out to other municipal governments, library districts and townships to try to add more bike racks. She said the bike-share program’s future beyond the pilot will hinge on how many spots they’re able to secure.

Pace Route 697

During the July 20 meeting of the Pace Board of Directors, Pace chief planner Erik Llewellyn said Route 696 already had issues before the pandemic – it was too long and meandering, the “productivity was low,’ and farebox recovery was falling short. During the pandemic, ridership dropped from 257 riders a day to 34 riders a day, making it a logical candidate for suspension.

Llewellyn said Pace plans to keep it that way. “Unfortunately, Route 696 remains suspended due to continued low demand for service on this route, lack of operator resources and previous performance issues.”

Jeff Julian, Harper College’s chief of staff, told me the community college was “disappointed in Route 696 getting discontinued during the pandemic,” even if he understood the reason. Since the college returned to in-person learning, it has been working to restore transit service.

Llewellyn said Harper College previously accounted for 15 percent of the route’s ridership. He also noted the 90 North mixed-use project at the former site of Motorola’s Schaumburg headquarters, which was previously served by also-suspended Route 611 weekday commuter shuttle, is a logical location to serve.

“With the resumption of in-person learning at Harper College and continued development of 90 North district, a new connection between Harper College and Schaumburg is desired to serve increased number of students and employees returning to the campus and the surrounding work sites, as well as new residents in the 90 North district,” Llewellyn said.

According to Llewellyn’s presentation, the route will primarily follow Algonquin Road and Meacham Road to reach the Woodfield Mall and the transportation center. The route will provide less direct service to the office towers near the Jane Addams Tollway than Route 696 did, but it will provide bus service to industrial areas and condos along the section of Algonquin Road that previously had no bus service.

Route 697. Image: Pace
Route 697. Image: Pace

Route 697’s service hours start an hour later and and end a little less than an hour earlier than Route 696. However, Llewellyn noted the service frequencies are more consistent, running once every 40 minutes as opposed to once every 30-40 minutes during rush hour and anywhere between an hour and a hour and a half the rest of the time. Moreover, Route 696’s early morning and later evening trips didn’t serve Harper.

Julian said Harper felt that Route 697 was “a good solution” because it was “more direct” than Route 696 and allows for multiple transfer opportunities.

Coons said, while the decision about Route 697’s future is ultimately Pace’s, Harpers will try to help the route succeed. “On our end, we’ll be doing everything we can with our engagement team to let [the students and residents] know about the service is provided, whether discount fares or additional routes [are available], really promoting the new route to students and community members, let them know it’s available to use.”

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