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Pace launches full-fledged Pulse Dempster service just in time for Halloween

On October 29, Pace suburban bus transit agency launched the Pulse Dempster Arterial Rapid Transit bus service – for real this time. 

Pulse Dempster bus at Union Pacific Northwest line’s downtown Des Plaines station. Photo: Igor Studenkov|

Pulse Dempster bus at Union Pacific Northwest line’s downtown Des Plaines station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

This post is sponsored by the Active Transportation Alliance

On October 29, Pace suburban bus transit agency launched the Pulse Dempster Arterial Rapid Transit bus service – for real this time. 

The service technically launched on August 13, but, as Streetsblog reported at the time, it wasn’t a full-fledged launch. The Pulses buses only ran on Sundays, and Route 250 operated the way it has been for over a decade the rest of the week. But effective October 30, Pulse Dempster started running the rest of the week.

As the name suggests, Arterial Rapid Transit buses aren’t full-fledged bus rapid transit. There are station-like stops with raised platforms, with fewer stops than regular buses, but there are no dedicated bus lanes. However, the buses do benefit from transit signal priority. Pulse Dempster is Pace’s second ART line – the first one, Pulse Milwaukee, launched in August 2019

Pulse Dempster mostly follows Pace Route 250, serving the Dempster Street corridor between Evanston and downtown Des Plaines before turning south to serve the O’Hare Multi-Modal Facility. Both Pulse Dempster and Route 250 stop at Metra's Union Pacific North line’s Davis Street station in downtown Evanston; the CTA Yellow Line's Dempster stop in Skokie, and the Union Pacific Northwest Line’s downtown Des Plaines station. At the OMMF, riders can transfer to the Airport Transit System, Metra's North Central Service Line's O’Hare Transfer station, and several intercity bus services. Pulse Dempster riders can transfer to the Pulse Milwaukee Line at the Dempster/Milwaukee station. 

A Pulse Dempster bus at the O’Hare Multi-Modal Facility. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Since I already rode Pulse Dempster on a Sunday during its August 13 debut, I thought the best comparison would be to ride it on a weekday.  October 31, Halloween Tuesday, certainly turned out to be an interesting day to do it, with weather going from snow to rain to sunshine and back to snow seemingly at the drop of a hat. Overall, while there were some minor hiccups, riders seemed more up to speed on the difference between the Pulse and Route 250 , so there was less confusion than back in August. 

The service changes

Similar to what happened with Route 270 after the Pulse Milwaukee Line launched, Pulse Dempster trips replaced most Route 250 trips. While Route 250 used to run every 15-20 minutes during rush hour, once every 20-30 minutes during off-peak hours, and have longer headways in the evenings, it now runs once every half an hour during rush hour and once every hour the rest of the day. The school trips – special trips that directly serve local high schools – operate as before. While Route 250 used to run once every 30-40 minutes on Saturdays, it will now run once every hour, similar to Sundays. 

Meanwhile, the Pulse Dempster bus now runs an average of 15-20 minutes on weekdays and Saturdays. Route 250 now stops running one hour earlier than it used to. Pulse Dempster now runs a little later than Route 250 used to – the last weekday Evanston-bound bus now leaves OMMF at 12:15 a.m. instead of 11:25 p.m. And there are now three more late night trips in both directions on Saturdays. 

Westbound Pulse Dempster downtown Des Plaines station includes a shelter with heat laps, a level boarding platform and bus tracker information. Photo: Igor Studenkov

The Pulse Dempster route has 17 stations (including the two terminals) that are located at major intersections, transfer points, or major destinations. Dee Road station services Maine East High School, Western station serves Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and the shopping plaza across the street, and Cumberland station is near the edge of Maryhill cemetery. 

The stations are still works in progress. Only some stations had been completed by August 13, and while Pace made some progress since then, there are still a few stops functioning as temporary stations until the structure is finished. Here's the current list of which stations are unfinished or unfurnished.

Both westbound and eastbound stations unfinished:

Dodge, St. Louis, Crawford, Harlem.

Westbound station unfinished:

Austin, Milwaukee, Higgins, Dempster/Skokie

Eastbound station unfurnished: 

Lee/Touhy, Waukegan

The one major difference between Pulse Dempster and Route 250 routing is that, while Route 250 buses still pull into Dempster-Skokie 'L' station park-n-ride, providing a more convenient connection to the Yellow Line and buses, Pulse Dempster buses keep going on Dempster Street. We’ve previously flagged the fact that, while there are signs at the park-n-ride pointing to the station, there is no signage for the riders disembarking at the Pulse stations. There is still no signage at the station itself, but there is now a "train stop ahead" sign on one of the old catenary beams. It's not located at the light pole closest to the Pulse station, or the one further way, but it’s more signage than there was two months ago. 

The sign on the old catenary beam. Photo: Igor Studenkov

During the August 13 Pulse Dempster Sunday service launch, Pace had transit ambassadors at several major stations to explain the changes. On October 31, I only spotted one, at OMMF, but he was hard to miss. With a belt full of schedules and a Pace-brand hat, he handed passengers the schedule and information almost as soon as we stepped off the bus. There is logic to that approach, since many people using the center are coming from a plane or an intercity bus from another city, and so they are more likely to be unfamiliar with how the Pulse lines work.

What Pace said

In the statement announcing the full-fledged launch, Pace Executive Director Melinda Metzger said the Dempster corridor has seen a 12 percent ridership increase compared to the same period last year. 

“This strong response from riders reflects the demand for faster and more frequent bus service in the area,” Metzger stated. “Our expanding Pulse service reflects Pace’s commitment toward innovation that can make public transportation more attractive in Northeastern Illinois. We know that when we build fast and reliable public transportation options, people will choose it.”

The press release touted the station platforms, which can be heated during the winter, and which allow for easier boarding of the buses. It also mentioned the heat lamps at the station shelters (a rarity for Pace), and bus tracker displays.  In my experience, the displays at Pulse Milwaukee stations haven’t always been reliable, but I didn’t see any issues on Tuesday.

Westbound Pulse Dempster downtown Des Plaines station includes a shelter with heat laps, a level boarding platform and bus tracker information. Photo: Igor Studenkov

While the press release touted the buses’ onboard Wi-Fi, it doesn’t mention that this feature has been standard on Pace buses for years. And while it mentioned USB-based chargers under the seats, in my experience, not all Pulse-branded vehicles actually have them.   

“The Pulse Dempster Line provides a vital connection to O’Hare International Airport for our north and northwest suburban neighbors,” Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Jamie L. Rhee stated. “We are thrilled to welcome this convenient and frequent public transit option, which will keep thousands of travelers, workers, and young people connected to the endless variety of journeys and opportunities available at the world's second busiest airport."

So when you get a chance, take the Pulse Dempster line for a spin – it's not so scary.

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