Transit writer takes ride on wild side -- almost
I get my kicks on Route 855. It's my kind of maverick, stick-it-to-the-man Pace bus.
Now, if you've ever sat stupefied in a Pace bus as it bumbles through suburban traffic, going rogue is the last thing you associate with a Pace commute.
But Route 855 is special. Why?
Shoulder-riding. On the Stevenson Expressway (I-55).
Whenever traffic on the Stevenson starts seizing up, Route 855's drivers nip onto the shoulder of the road, immune to the congestion.
So not only can you get from the suburbs to the city on time, you also get to feel like a commuting Jack Bauer -- breaking the rules for a good cause.
Let me add that Route 855 does have a special dispensation from the state to ride the shoulder with a few provisos. Drivers can only use the I-55 shoulder; when traffic in regular lanes is traveling less than 35 mph; during weekday rush hour; and between Central Avenue and Veterans Tollway (I-355).
Route 855 operates between the Loop and Plainfield with stops in Romeoville, Bolingbrook and Burr Ridge. And, it's not the only cowboy out there. Route 755 runs between Plainfield and the Illinois Medical District with stops in Bolingbrook, at the Damen station on the CTA's Pink Line and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Both are part of a two-year pilot program.
The buses strategically cater to towns without Metra stations. Attendance is skyrocketing since shoulder-riding began in November 2011. On Route 755, daily ridership is up from an average of 34 in July 2011 to 102 this July. On Route 855, it's jumped from 267 daily in July 2011 to 478.
On-time performance has shot up from 68 percent to 91 percent.
Because I'm such a hard-core troublemaker myself, I had to give Route 855 a try.
I boarded the Route 855 bus at 3:40 p.m. Wednesday, and I could barely contain my excitement as we cruised south out of the Loop on Columbus Drive and hit the Stevenson.
"Shoulder, shoulder!" I chanted (but at a level only dogs could hear).
Traffic disappointingly zipped along until we hit Halsted and I-55. Then, bumper-to-bumper!
Time for a little shoulder-riding, I think.
At 4 p.m. it was still congested. And the only cure for congestion is a good dose of shoulder-riding, right? Again, no such luck.
As of 4 p.m. -- still slooooow. Paging Dr. Shoulder.
Alas, not every dream gets fulfilled. Halfway out of the city, the traffic broke up and we cruised to the Burr Ridge park-and-ride five minutes earlier than the 4:31 p.m. posted arrival time. No need for shoulder-riding this trip.
My fellow passengers were big fans.
"I like the convenience, it's air-conditioned and the seats are more comfortable," said government worker Raymond Castillo, who gets up at the crack of dawn to catch the bus in Bolingbrook.
"In the morning it's fast, I get to the office at 6:40 a.m.," Castillo said. He also takes Metra's BNSF Line in Lisle or at Route 59 in Naperville occasionally but notes it's expensive to park at both stations compared to the free Park-n-Ride provided by Pace.
Castillo's only gripe -- "I wish the shoulder-riding started earlier at Kedzie or Pulaski avenues."
Steven Kramer of Burr Ridge is a Route 855 regular and graded it an eight out of 10.
"I love it," he said. "It's usually on time."
Also of note, while Pace often faces criticism for half-empty buses, there were just a few vacant seats on the 855. And the free WI-FI was very useful.
Although it's a pilot program, "we do not foresee any reason this program won't continue," Pace spokeswoman Maggie Daly Skogsbakken said. "In fact, we hope to expand this type of service to other area tollways and highways."
The agency's long-term vision is a 480-mile network of bus rapid transit in the region. Pace currently is working to establish an express bus on the rebuilt Jane Addams Tollway (I-90).
So, are you a Route 855 commuter? Got ideas about express buses? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some insightful comments following last week's column based on an odyssey to all seven Illinois tollway oases.
Bob Turner of Batavia rides the tollway frequently to visit his son's family in Antioch.
"My wife and I will frequently use the Lake Forest oasis and sometimes I use the O'Hare location if I have to pick up my daughter when she flies in for a visit," Turner writes. "We usually will have a light, fast food lunch at Lake Forest (McDonald's snack wrap) and a tasty Frappé for the road. At O'Hare, it's Starbucks waiting for her arrival call. After I order a drink for her and get to the arrivals curb, she is there waiting for me.
"(It) definitely beats the difficult-to-find cellphone lot at the airport. I have seen plenty of signs for that lot and have tried to go there several times, but still have never actually parked there before getting my call. But, that's another story."
You should know
Next time Turner picks his daughter up at O'Hare International Airport, she may bring him some basil in exchange for the Starbucks beverage. The ever-entrepreneurial Chicago Department of Aviation announced the opening of a farmers market in Terminal 3. The CDA promises fresh herbs from its aeroponic garden at O'Hare, local honey and fresh fruit. Aeroponic? The city operates a garden that grows plants in water and minerals without soil at Terminal 3 that are used in airport restaurants.
Learn more about plans to improve passenger rail service between Chicago and Detroit at an Illinois Department of Transportation open house from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Chicago Union Station. The rail corridor extends about 300 miles from Chicago to Pontiac, Mich. Transportation planners note that service now is delay-prone, infrequent, unreliable and not that comfortable for travelers. The hope is to offer more frequent and reliable trains that could make rail compete with air, bus and driving options to Detroit. To learn more, check out www.greatlakesrail.org/.
As if traffic on Route 59 wasn't bad already ... IDOT will be removing trees along the road between now and Oct. 31. This means lane closures starting on the south near Aurora Avenue/New York Street and ending at Ferry Road to the north. The work is part of preliminary preparations to expand Route 59 through Aurora and Naperville with a third lane in each direction and rebuild the I-88 interchange.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/DHInTransit.
Calling all young artistsGot art? If you're a high school student who's at home with an easel, the Illinois tollway is offering a chance to compete in a contest honoring veterans. The winning submission will be featured on the cover of the agency's 2013 road map. The artwork must commemorate the contributions of men and women who served in the military. The deadline is Oct. 5. For info, check out www.illinoistollway.com/news-room/map-cover-art-contest.