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

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

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:

[googlemaps http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?hl=en&geocode=&ie=UTF8&source=embed&s=AARTsJowuKNBqCd5915E-zb1X1-VBFdY1A&msa=0&msid=105699334044928128615.00046423a1a51ffa765a1&ll=41.878956,-87.631373&spn=0.011184,0.018239&z=15&output=embed&w=425&h=350]

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.

[googlemaps http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?hl=en&geocode=&ie=UTF8&source=embed&t=h&s=AARTsJq461tb7P3xB4MkPM9P8zLGAW8Hlw&msa=0&msid=105699334044928128615.00046422fc843a828699b&ll=41.755434,-87.992249&spn=0.089641,0.145912&z=12&output=embed&w=425&h=350]

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?