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Should a Streetsblog reader “Surrender” to commuting from Rockford to Chicago?

We compare the strengths and weaknesses of driving, and/or riding the train or bus, from the Forest City to the Windy City.

Biking along Rockford’s riverfront trail past a sign highlighting the city’s most notable rock band, know for the song quoted in the title of this article. Photo: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by The Bike Lane.

You've got questions. We've got answers.

This afternoon Streetsblog Chicago reader Kurt P. wrote us, "Is a commute from Rockford to Chicago feasible?"

Now, as a non-Rockfordian I don't claim to be an expert on transportation matters in the largest Illinois city outside of Chicagoland proper, population 148,655, sometimes nicknamed The Screw Capital of the World. But I have made a number of car, bus, train, and/or bicycle trips there, and I once even wrote a travelogue about Rockford, so I think I have a few insights on this subject.

Assuming we're talking about a downtown Chicago job, Google Maps tells me driving from central Rockford to the Loop in order to arrive by 8:30 a.m. on a Monday would involve roughly 90 miles, taking between 1.5 and 2.5 hours. But I don't have to explain to Streetsblog readers why there are all kinds of reasons not do this.

A car trip from downtown Rockford to the Chicago Loop. Image: Google Maps

Driving on I-90 on a daily basis would greatly increase your chance of getting injured or killed in a crash. It goes without saying that you'd be wasting tons of money on gasoline, let alone expensive downtown parking. (I suppose parking at a CTA Blue Line Park & Ride station on the Far Northwest Side, like Rosemont or Cumberland, and riding the 'L' downtown could soften the blow.) You'd be contributing to Chicago's congestion and pollution problems, and climate change in general.

And, course, you'd be wasting up to five hours of your life a day sitting in a car, unable to do anything much more productive than listening to talk radio, while getting stressed out about traffic jams. That's clearly bad for your physical and mental health. The brother of a friend of mine briefly drove from his home in Rockford to Chicago regularly for contractor work, but found the experience so unpleasant he soon changed course.

A much more civilized approach would be driving from Rockford to the closest Metra commuter rail station in Harvard, IL. According to Google Maps, the roughly 30-mile trip from downtown Rockford early Monday morning would take 40-55 minutes.

The drive from downtown Rockford to the Harvard Metra station. Image: Google Maps

Leaving downtown Rockford around 5:45 a.m. (yikes, but I did an even more extreme Metra trip recently) would get you to Harvard in time to catch the 7:00 a.m. Metra Union Pacific Northwest line train to Chicago. Nowadays that costs $6.75 each way, or you could buy a monthly pass for $135, which would lower the cost of a daily round trip from $13.50 to about $6.75 total, with no need to pay for parking.

The 7:00 Metra train is pretty speedy, scheduled to drop you at the Ogilvie Transportation Center at Madison and Canal streets in Chicago's West Loop at 8:32 a.m. That leaves plenty of time to walk, ride the CTA, or take Divvy bike-share to a downtown workplace by 9 a.m.

The UP-NW trip from Harvard to downtown Chicago. Image: Google Maps

Moreover, that hour-and-a-half can be time well-spent. Metra trains are relatively clean, comfortable, and calm. They're a good place to read a book or do stuff on your computer – I've written entire Streetsblog posts while riding commuter rail.

Taking Metra most of the way to Chicago instead of driving all the way there would definitely be much better for your health, wealth, and sanity. Of course, if there was shuttle bus service from Rockford to Harvard, that would be a lot better than driving to the station, but I'm not aware of any.

One other potential option I'll throw out there is the Van Galder Bus, which leaves every 2.5 hours or so from a terminal at 7559 Walton St. on the east side of Rockford. It provides service to O'Hare Airport and a stop in the West Loop near Jackson Boulevard and Clinton Street, across from the Union Station Amtrak and Metra hub. The trip to downtown Chicago is scheduled to take between two and 2.5 hours, depending on the time of day.

Screenshot of the Van Galder website showing earlier runs from Rockford to Union Station.

The Van Galder trip is pricier than Metra at $47.65 for a round trip, $819 for a monthly pass, so it probably wouldn't be a practical option for daily commutes. On the other hand, if you're a "High Roller", or only making the trip occasionally, it's generally possible to bring an unboxed bicycle on the bus for $25, which might be handy for getting to the Rockford terminal and from Union Station. On The Chainlink social media site for Chicagoland bike riders, Matt M. recently advised, "I would email and call [Van Galder] customer service when you buy your ticket to let them know you are taking a bicycle on board the bus."

If you think this all sounds a little too complex, expensive, and/or time-consuming to make working in Chicago while living in Rockford seem like a good idea, I don't disagree. On the bright side, thanks to funding from the State of Illinois, Metra service between downtown Rockford and Union Station is slated to launch in 2027. That should make living in Furniture City while working in the City of the Big Shoulders a lot more tolerable.

A rough draft of the planned Metra route between downtown Rockford and Union Station, with stops in Belvidere, Huntley, and Elgin, and . Note that the route shown is a quick approximation, not a precise rendering, and the exact future station locations have not been determined yet. Image: John Greenfield via Google Maps

But, again, I don't have the last word on commuting between Rockford and Chicago. Current or former Rockfordians, do you have any suggestions or experiences with this topic to share? Please leave a comment below. Thanks!

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