Bike Michiana

resources, news, observations and ideas about bicycling in the Michiana area

Taking a Folding Bike on the South Shore and Metra Lines [South Bend to Argonne National Lab]

Posted by Henry Scott on October 24, 2008

Since acquiring a folding bike a few months ago, I’ve written about my experiences coupling it with Amtrak and Greyhound for door-to-door intermodal public transportation (here and here, respectively). This post is about my latest experience, the key components of which involved taking the bike on the South Shore commuter train from South Bend to downtown Chicago and a Metra train from Chicago to Downers Grove. It was a great trip!

As part of my professional life, I make somewhat regular trips to Argonne National Lab, which is about 30 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, and I’ve been eager to see if I could get there via public transportation.

Getting into Chicago is very easy with the South Shore, and the BNSF Metra line between Union Station and Aurora gets pretty close to ANL (there are actually three options roughly the same distance away). Unfortunately, even though good public transportation is available for most of this trip, there are three gaps that have been deal breakers for me until now:

  • The airport is about seven miles from where I live and work
  • The South Shore and Metra line I need don’t share a station; the closest they come is between the South Shore’s Van Buren stop and the Metra’s origination point at Union Station (about a mile)
  • The closest Metra stops are about seven miles from the Lab (around Downer’s Grove)

So, even though 85% of this trip is covered by public transportation, I’ve been driving the entire 100 miles (each way) for the past several years each time I make this trip. This has been driving me crazy!

As a cyclist, it has been clear to me all along that a bicycle would trivialize the connecting distances, but unfortunately, full-sized bicycles are never allowed on the South Shore, and there are time restrictions for when they are allowed on the Metra. For my most recent trip to the Lab I used my folding bike, and I’m pleased to say didn’t have any trouble whatsoever.

I biked the wonderful new downtown-airport bike route, folded the bike and carried it right on the South Shore (in its bag, my folder is about the same size as a suitcase).

I then rode the 1 mile between stations in Chicago, refolded the bike (because I was traveling during the restricted hours) and brought it on to the Metra. It was a lot of fun biking the final miles into the lab, and I arrived in a much better mood than I normally do after battling Chicago traffic when I drive.

There is one major caveat that I should mention: by using public transportation and the folding bike, the trip took more than twice was long as it does by car (4.5 hours versus 2). However, I was able to do some work, read for pleasure and sleep for much of the trip. And, over an hour of the trip consisted of riding the bike — my main hobby!

Additional Route Details

Getting to Union Station (for Metra) from South Shore is easy: the most convenient South Shore station is Van Buren St, and they are about a mile apart. By bike, it is easiest to go to Union Station on Van Buren St and to go back to the Van Buren station on Monroe due to one-way streets. When riding along Michigan St, I just use the sidewalk. Here’s a map:

There are three stops along the BNSF Metra line that are roughly the same distance from the lab: Westmont, Downers Grove, Fairview and Downers Grove, Main. Downers Grove, Fairview is the most convenient for the bike route I take, but the “express” trains don’t stop there; they only stop at Downers Grove, Main. The express trains save about 15 minutes, so if they work with my schedule, that would be my preference.

Below is the route I ride between the Main St. Downer’s Grove BNSF Metra stop and Argonne National Lab. Most of the ride is along Fairview Ave, which is decent for cycling, especially near the southern portion which even has a bike lane. I try to avoid Cass Ave as much as possible, but it is necessary to follow it at least a bit to get across I55. That section of Cass Ave is very busy, but there is a wide median in the middle of the road; by riding on that one can be completely isolated from traffic using the on and off ramps for I55 (I’ve seen other cyclists do that as well). The route shown here utilizes a large parking lot to cut over to Cass Ave as close to I55 as possible.

Epilogue:
The South Shore is a great local resource. Even though it takes over two hours, it makes Chicago seem much closer, and it eliminates the hassle and expense of bringing a car into the city. I very much look forward to exploring Chicago by bike next spring. Furthermore, the South Shore has a stop in Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore, which provides access to the Calumet and Marquette bicycle trails. If you’re a cyclist, doesn’t biking to the airport, relaxing on the train and then rolling off to your destination sound better than lugging your bike around with your car?

11 Responses to “Taking a Folding Bike on the South Shore and Metra Lines [South Bend to Argonne National Lab]”

  1. David Scheidt said

    I’ll point out that there’s public transportation for the whole route. First you can take a transpo bus to the airport (faster to ride, of course). Argonne run a shuttle from the University of Chicago to the lab. It’s got a rather limited schedule, so it might not make sense to take it. But there’s a PACE bus that goes from the Westmont Metra to Argonne. I’m hopeless at bus numbers, so I don’t know which it is, or what the schedule is (it’s peak only, but it still gets fairly close, even when it doesn’t go all the way). And there are buses from Van Buren and Union stations (CTA bus 7 and 126, which work either way, plus a couple more.)

  2. Henry Scott said

    Fair points, David! I did look into using buses at one point and concluded that coordinating schedules for the whole route made it too long (two buses to get to the airport, the South Shore, walk or bus to Van Buren, another train and then another bus) and nearly impossible to coordinate with the experimental time I get at the lab. And, once at the lab I would have no way to get around. Still, your point is well-taken, and it is only fair to make it clear that a purely public transportation option is indeed available.

  3. Paul Taylor said

    Excellent report Henry. Thanks!

  4. Ken Schneider said

    Keep in mind I understand we are talking about a folding bike here and not a road bike…

    I’ve never ridden a folding bike. Can one sustain decent pace on one of these? Do they feel tipsy at all? I’ve taken my road bike on trips before, but it isn’t always practical.

    Thanks

  5. Paul Taylor said

    Ken.

    I have 4 bikes, including a folder. I have ridden the folder up to 55 miles in one day. The folding bike is quite comfortable and stable, but not as nice as a full size bike. Never the less, I frequently take it along when travelling by air or auto, as it is a no-brainer. Unlike Henry, I have never taken it on the train.

  6. Ken Schneider said

    Thanks for your comments Paul!

  7. Laura Hieronymus said

    You go Henry….I don’t know what I would do without my folding bike. She goes everywhere with me!

  8. Henry Scott said

    Ken,

    As Paul mentioned, my folder is definitely not as nice to ride as my regular bikes, but it is infinitely better than no bike at all 😉 And, being able to take with me without it being a major production is wonderful.

    I’d break it down like this: if I were to travel specifically with the intention of riding at my destination, I’d go to the trouble of bringing my regular bike, but if I’m traveling for some other reason, the folder makes it possible to take the bike along without frustration, and then it is purely an added bonus. Also, keep in mind that I went with a fairly low-end, single-speed model with limited adjustments; from what I understand, models at the higher end do a much better job of closing the comfort gap.

  9. Jeff Nixa said

    A great travelogue, Henry! The beginning of a series/commentary, perhaps? “Bike-Travels with Henry”?

    FYI- JV has heard from a fellow not happy with the South Shore limitation on full-sized bikes and he (the other fellow) is contacting South Shore about that…perhaps we can get some Coalition synergy behind that.

  10. Henry Scott said

    I wrote to NICTD (the South Shore operator) several years ago about bicycle access and was told that both the trains AND stations would need to be upgraded for such an accommodation… allegedly making it far too costly to be realistic.

    I’ve been hearing on and off again talk about improving the South Shore line since I’ve lived here, specifically in terms of the indirect route it takes in and out of the South Bend airport and the route (and two stops) it makes in Michigan City. Does anyone know the latest in this saga?

    The South Shore is a great resource, but it has such obvious potential to become even better… It seems to me that a streamlined route and bicycle access would make it a HUGE boon to the attraction of Michiana living.

  11. robertexpr said

    hey henry looks like you are a good advocate of biking. I think it is not a bad idea keeping in mind the global warming and economy. Being a strong advocate of anit Global warming and emmissions (even though i am from an industry of transportation http://www.bgiworldwide.com)i strongly feel these fun trips should be taken up seriously by everyone and atleast you will do enough good to your own health.

    thanks Robert

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