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Can we board? Photo by Melissa McClarin. 

Ed. note: This op-ed was originally posted on The Chainlink by Adam “Cezar” Jenkins and is published here with his permission. Jenkins commutes on Metra from Mokena to his job as a web developer downtown. He is vice president of the Folks on Spokes bicycling club in Southland Chicago. -Steven

My family is car-lite. One car. I’ve been riding Metra for over a year to work and the city for whatnot. Something the entire time has stuck out at me.

I will preface the below with the understanding that I know it’s getting better, but that it exists at all is a problem if you support a real workable public transit system.

There’s one thing above all others that makes me want to buy a second car and use it. Inconsistency. Let’s start with what hits home with The Chainlink the most. Bikes.

I can’t trust Metra when it comes to bikes. I’m lucky to ride the Rock Island and not have a problem. The conductors are nice. This isn’t true across the board though. There’s always that idea in the back of my head that I could be denied on a conductor’s choice.

I’m ok with the rush hour restrictions. Could they be better? Not having to wait till 7:40 PM to bring a bike back home. Yes, they could. It’s not consistent though. Of course the taste brought this to mind. Bikes are not allowed on the Metra for over a week. If someone were reverse commuting and depended on their bike for the last mile? They are out of luck.

So what’s the option? The distances are too great, so you drive. You buy a car and you drive.

Next, the catering to downtown events is ridiculous. Last night I had my bag searched getting on the train after my Python user group meeting. I had an empty glass growler. One I really liked. After arguing and realizing I’m a regular they let me carry it home, but it hammered down an important point. I can’t trust taking the Metra. Unless I’m keeping close track of of whatever rules they are deciding to enforce this week.

Except in very rare cases, I can get on the CTA and expect the same rules day in and out. It’s a real transportation system.

What it seems to come down to is that Metra puts a lot of restrictions into place catering to events to make their lives easier. They could have not have searched bags. They could have just enforced rules about unruliness on the trains, just like any other day.

It seems like Metra if for exactly two groups. Commuters obviously. Then tourists. It’s not an alternative transportation system.

All that said, the seats are really comfy.

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  • http://twitter.com/AdamHerstein Adam Herstein

    Metra allows drinking beer on the trains, so I’m not sure why they would want to confiscate an empty growler.

    I do agree that their bike restrictions are ridiculous. The NCS line has a 7 hour bike blackout weekday afternoons!

    • emperorcezar

      There was no glass restriction in place. I’m of the opinion that my carry on restrictions should be the same no matter when. Behavior is what should be tightly enforced.

      If Metra is worried about glass during events, then they should be restricting the use of glass containers on the train, not searching bags. A train has plenty of conductors walking the cars to do so.

      • http://twitter.com/banoonoo Anna Schibrowsky

        The same day the author’s growler was almost confiscated, I walked up to the Naperville station and saw a police officer attacking a paper bag with his baton while the Amtrak attendant watched – from a safe distance. After ascertaining that the bag would not explode when struck with a baton, he opened it and pulled out a chilled six-pack of bottled beer. Instead of Metra dealing with a glass container situation, Amtrak and the police got to deal with a “suspicious package” situation.

        • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

          That seems like an embarrassing situation. For the officer, and for those watching.

  • Kevin M

    I’ve never had my bag searched on Metra, FWIW.

    Last summer I took my bike on the BNSF line to Downers Grove. It was Jazz Fest weekend downtown, and this was the first year that Metra was *not* banning bicycles on trains over this festival’s weekend. I had no trouble taking the train out with my bike, but when I attempted to board an inbound later that afternoon, the conductor denied me and said that it was a blackout weekend due to Jazz Fest. I pleaded with him to check his information, that I was sure he was wrong, and that I’d just taken my bike on a train earlier that same day. He confidently shook his head and smiled as he left me stranded at the station. Fortunately, the next train (1 hour later) accepted me with no hesitation. This was a most frustrating experience with Metra.

    • http://twitter.com/#!/Justinhaugens Justin Haugens

      This is when we must take as much information from the situation as we can, conductor, train number, route and time….

      Passenger Services(312) 322-6777

      Weekdays

      8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

      Questions about schedule information and comments pertaining to service-related issues.

  • Katie McMillen

    Metra is very inconsistent with alcohol. I ride the UP-N line every day (Ravinia’s line). Alcohol is certainly allowed to get to Ravinia, but we were told one time last year that we could not bring any because there was some kind of Gospel festival downtown. It was very strange.
    Back to the main topic though, I purposely chose an apartment location close to the Metra so I would not have to bring my bike every day. There’s just no way to know whether it will be allowed on board on any given train.

    • joejoejoe

      My experience is that most cities and government agencies are wildly inconsistent when it comes to enforcing open container policies. I think as a user the standard should be adhere to the letter of the policy, not to ask for special treatment.

      Allowances for things like Ravinia or growlers for regular riders end up being about class and race and are larger problem than individual inconvenience.

      • http://www.cyclelicio.us/ Cyclelicious

        I’m a little confused – the writer complains about inconsistencies (i.e. variations from written policy), but is apparently happy the conductor let him on the train with his glass jar in spite of (the apparent?) restriction in place.

        (And they search bags on Metra?)

        • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

          They search bags during “high security” events like Taste of Chicago or NATO.
          I’d be happy, too, if the inconsistencies were often in my favor, but I’d still understand how it’s not a good way of doing business.

        • emperorcezar

          Yea. I’m happy the inconsistency went in my favor, but the issue is that there was a change in rules at all. Something like the CTA’s rules are consistent. Each weekday I can expect the same thing.

          The issue isn’t my specific case, the issue is that I can’t depend on Metra without checking each day if the rules have changed for one thing or another.

          • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

            But as you and others have described, it’s not about checking with the rules each day (the rules are posted in advanced), it’s that Metra *staff* change the rules without notifying anyone (on the fly).

          • emperorcezar

            My original intent was about checking the rules each day. Not lee-way from the staff. The issue is that unless I know whatever rule change is in effect based on the phase of the moon, I _have_ to depend on the lee-way of the staff.

            Like I said before, if I hop on CTA, I know the rules are the same day in and out. Not day in and out except for these 7 days here, and these 3 days there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.presslak Scott Presslak

    The solution that no one has addressed before is getting a folding commuter bike, which are allowed on Metra and CTA basically all the time (even rush hours), as they fold up to the size of a small piece of luggage. They’re obviously not as useful (or as efficient) as a traditional bike, but if it’s only for the proverbial “last mile”, eh, good enough.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      That solution requires some people to get a new bicycle, which might not be in the cards at the moment.

      • http://www.facebook.com/scott.presslak Scott Presslak

        The other option is to re-evaluate whether a traveler really needs their bike on the other end of the trip at all. For instance, if you used a bike for the first/last mile to/from the suburban Metra station and you were headed downtown, is it that unreasonable to lock up your bike at the suburban station and use the CTA once you got to the terminal? While there are no direct connections between the ‘L’ and Metra downtown, each Metra terminal has an ‘L’ station within two or three blocks.
        Or, was Pace an option to get to and from the suburban station? (A lot of times it isn’t, but it’s worth looking into.)
        As a frequent Metra and CTA commuter, I can attest that the trains can get pretty crowded even during off-peak service, and a bike that takes up the equivalent of three folding seats on Metra or the whole vestibule on the CTA doesn’t help capacity issues.
        While public transit does need to make more strides to be more bicycle-friendly, there are still certain logistical issues that need to be taken into account due to the size and shape of a bicycle within a train car.

        • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

          Someone else just posted their experience in response to this post. http://www.tinyfixbikegang.com/2012/07/grid-chicago-metras-inconsistency-makes-me-want-to-drive-or-how-metra-makes-puppies-cry/
          Bike sharing in the city can take care of one half, but I believe that the people most affected by this would prefer not to spend the additional money. There are other strategies to deal with that, and that’s fare coordination with some kind of discount with a Metra->CTA transfer (currently only available with Link-Up for passengers with monthly Metra passes).

        • http://twitter.com/banoonoo Anna Schibrowsky

          In the last couple months, I’ve done the reverse commute to both Harvey and Naperville.

          I ran into a staggering inconsistency on the Metra Electric District line. I had taken trains 111, 113 and 115 with no problems. On Friday, June 12, I rode the earlier 105 train, and both conductors adamantly told me bikes were not allowed on Metra trains during rush hour. (Acting like it was a personal favor, they said I could make that trip since the train was almost empty.) I asked when that had changed, since I’ve done the reverse commute on and off since 2008. They said it’s always been like that. I said I would call the Train Master to see what was up. (That number’s 312-322-8936, BTW.) They talked amongst themselves and finally looked at the printed schedule, where it clearly states four bikes are allowed on that train. Obviously, Metra conductors need better training about Metra policies. I’ve been riding long enough and am uppity enough to assert my rights, but I’m sure plenty of cyclists have been wrongfully turned away from the 105 train.

          Metra has gotten better about communicating its policies about no bikes during the Taste. In 2008, I didn’t know bikes were not allowed until I was told I’d have to take my bike off the train. I had to rush out of Union Station to find a rack and rush back in to get back on the train, sans my bike. Luckily, it was just a few blocks’ walk on the other end. Now there are signs up at Union Station a few days before the Taste.

          This year, I looked up the dates for the Taste, the Air and Water Show and Lollapalooza, and added them to my calendar so I’d know when I had to make other plans. On the Thursday and Friday of the Taste, I had to get out to Naperville, to a location 2.5 miles from the station. I took a cab in the morning and walked back in the evening. The cab ride added another $6 to $8 plus tip to a commute that was already $11.

          No, Metra’s inconsistencies don’t make me want to drive. They make me want to stay in the city and commute exclusively by bike.

          • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

            I’m keeping the “Can I bring my bike on Metra right now?” website up-to-date with blackout dates so you know the answer to that question. http://gridchicago.com/metra

    • http://twitter.com/#!/Justinhaugens Justin Haugens

      I know some have taken that route, but should it be necessary? Should an individual be pushed to purchasing another bicycle, or vehicle, because of inconsistent rules? Public transit needs as much positive support as it can get, not that riders aren’t going anywhere in Chicago.

  • Pingback: Grid Chicago: Metra’s Inconsistency Makes Me Want to Drive; or: How Metra Makes Puppies Cry | Tiny Fix

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alex-Francis-Burchard/572477797 Alex Francis Burchard

    I don’t understand why Metra restricts bikes at all? Where I’m from, in Seattle, commuter rail only runs at rush hour and bikes are more than welcome, and in fact given priority over handicapped folk. They’re also allowed all day on our “L” Equivalent, which is really nice. and there’s hooks to hang them on, rather than awkwardly standing in the doorway with them.

    • joejoejoe

      I do not support Seattle privileging multimodal trips for bicyclists over the civil right of basic access for the disabled. If you can point to a policy somewhere that shows this policy I’ll be happy to forward it to the Justice Department because it is a clear violation of the ADA.

      • http://twitter.com/#!/Justinhaugens Justin Haugens

        Yeeaaah, I don’t think bicycles are given priority over handicapped individuals as that’s a clear violation of the law. Though my wife does not require physical disability support, she is disabled and I would be irritated if someone actually believed this or felt it was justified.

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  • Meead

    You are not alone. I just posted a picture about this on my blog.
    http://photoblogchicago.blogspot.com/2012/07/cta-and-metra-bicycle-policies-are.html

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I don’t think the essay author is opposed to rush hour restrictions on either train company. He’s opposed to inconsistent application of the policy.
      Many others dislike how the policy doesn’t allow bikes on what are consistently empty train runs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthewlkiefer Matt Kiefer

    I’d love to see a bikes-only car with no seats on the lower level. Add one to the trains that already run. Even during rush hour. Save money by using older stripped-down cars. It’s probably easier to maintain bike racks than upholstered seats. Metra needs some creativity.

  • James Palazzolo

    I think you are correct that the Metra is for commuters primarily, and tourists secondary, and not really designed as an alternative transportation system. Perhaps that is the real question: should the Metra be designed for commuters or as an alternative transportation system?

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I think it should be designed for anyone who has the need to travel within the region.