A Biker’s Guide to Riding Metra


I’ve spent much of 2011 taking my bike on Metra trains daily, so I feel qualified to offer up some tips for anyone considering taking a bicycle on Metra:

1) Check the schedule! Before you leave the house, make sure you’re heading for a train that allows bikes (basically, everything except morning rush hour heading into town, and evening rush hour heading out of town.)

In particular, make sure it’s not a blackout date – Metra is terrible about publicizing bike blackout dates. If you don’t do your homework, your only warning will be when the conductor barks “NO BIKES!” at you on the platform, leaving you with only seconds to either lock your bike on the platform and leave without it, or skip the train entirely.


2) Bikes are last on, and last off. Wait till everyone else is on the train before boarding. Wait till everyone else is out of the passenger compartment before rolling out. It’s the rules, and it’s just plain polite. You’re likely to whack someone with a pedal or handlebar if you’re in the middle of a crowd of people getting on or off. Don’t worry – the train will not leave without you.

3) Have a bungee cord with you. They’re incredibly cheap at Target or Walmart. The rules require you to strap your bike to the bottom rails. I see bikers routinely using U-locks, chains, or cloth straps for the same purpose, but it’s incredibly awkward and time consuming – particularly annoying when someone else needs to put their bike on top of yours.

4) Unless you’re going to the end of the line, stay with your bike. Or at least pay attention to it. People with bikes are constantly getting on and off, all up and down the line. If you reach your stop and haven’t been paying attention, you may find another bike on top of yours. Likewise, your bike might end up blocking someone else’s.

5) Take 3 seats only – park all the way back. The handicapped/bike/luggage area contains 5 fold-down seats. A bike can easily fit on top of only three of them, if you push it all the way against the compartment wall (toward the door.) It’s rude and thoughtless to take up 4 or even 5 seats when three will do the trick – but I see it happen all the time.

Also, tuck your bike tight against the seats. The pedal that’s against the car wall should go under the rail so the bike is upright and fully against the wall.

6) Don’t block the aisle. For better or worse, a lot of people choose to move around and between cars right before reaching a stop. Bikers who have just unstrapped their bike often stand in the middle of the aisle waiting for the train to stop, oblivious to people in the aisle behind them.

7) Listen to the conductor’s instructions. On the trains, they are God, and what they say goes. Yes, sometimes some of them are assholes, and that sucks. But arguing with them won’t help. Seriously – I’ve seen it tried.


And while I’m at it, a couple of tips for non-biker passengers:

1) Move for the bikers. If you’re in the folding seats, the biker has the right to boot you out. Don’t complain, don’t grumble, don’t be an ass about it – in fact, you shouldn’t even have to be asked. There’s dozens of seats on every car, but only one place where bikes can go. If you see a bike coming on board, be gracious and move to another seat. Is it fair? I don’t know, but that’s the chance you took when you sat on the folding seats. There’s a sign right there announcing it.

2) Don’t hang out in the vestibule. The vestibule is for people getting on and off the train, and you’re in the way – especially for people trying to haul a bike out the door.

Metra 102


Friday Photo Special: Critical Mass, August

Leaving Daley Plaza

I have a lot of mixed feelings about Critical Mass. This was my second time riding in one, but I’m familiar enough with the dynamic from the LATE Ride and other such events. Inevitably, when you get thousands of bikers riding en masse on city streets, some conflicts with drivers occur.


I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I can totally sympathize with a bunch of angry, stressed out drivers slogging through traffic, trying to get somewhere, maybe late for a date or a meeting or a train or a flight, and then getting held up through multiple green lights by this mass of bikers going nowhere.

On the flip side… well, how many of these drivers really have somewhere so important to be that it can’t wait five minutes? It’s a good thing to get pulled out of your little driver world every once in a while. Driving is not the be-all end-all of tasks in life, and cars do not have exclusive rights to public streets.

Anyway, Critical Mass is generally a joyous occasion, full of thousands of happy bikers. At some kind of tipping point, don’t sheer numbers give them the right of way?

But if there’s one true flaw with Critical Mass, it’s that it just doesn’t ever stop itself to let some traffic pass. At all. Considering the mass of riders can be strung out for many, many blocks, it’s not very fair to drivers to make them sit through the whole thing. It’s small wonder that a handful get impatient and start nosing their way into intersections, resulting in the inevitable and pointless confrontations.

View large to see two more bridges' worth of cyclists

All that said? Riding in this enormous group is a heck of a lot of fun.


This was the coolest thing on this ride – a newlywed couple getting their photos made, who happily got out into the middle of the street to mingle with the passing bikers.

Happy bride

The driver blew the whistle for us!


Holy crap, Western Avenue!


Additional photos at my Flickr space.

Friday Photo Special: The LATE Ride rides again!

Shots from the 2010 LATE Ride, Saturday night / Sunday morning July 10/11:



I’m not sure how this contraption operated, but it was slow. After I finished the entire ride, and was heading back north on the bike path — now totally empty — I passed this crew, still struggling toward downtown, waaaay up north at Montrose. There were 7 of them on the bike, plus a few more festively lit bikers riding with them, so I guess they couldn’t have been too lonely.

West on Roosevelt.

North on Halsted.

South on the lake front bike path.


I love the LATE Ride. And it’s about the only time I ever see the sun rise over the lake.

More photos here.

What do they want from us?!

Stop!  Yield!  What!

The intersection of the lakefront bike trail and Lawrence Avenue bemuses me every time I pass it.

The cars have a stop sign. The bikes have a yield sign. But if the cars are stopped, what are we supposed to yield to? If we have to yield, shouldn’t that grant the cars the right-of-way?

All this ignores the fact that most bikes hardly even slow down for these intersections.

A stormy day by the sea

Lakefront path indeed

This may not impress you if you live near the ocean.

But this Lake Michigan, and one thing I’ve learned in my eight years of living by Lake Michigan, is that Lake Michigan doesn’t do this.

Lake Michigan does not rise up and send waves crashing over the sea wall and onto the bike path. Lake Michigan does not churn up waves that rise up higher than your head. Lake Michigan is not violent or dangerous!


Living by the placid shores of Lake Michigan, it’s easy to forget that it is a lake in name only; in actuality it’s a vast inland sea, large enough to affect local weather patterns, and large enough to do whatever the heck it feels like. Newcomers like me have only seen it at the low water levels of recent years, but in the early 1980s waves were actually crossing Lakeshore Drive and crashing against apartment buildings.


Riding in the dark

Here’s how I spent my Saturday night last weekend:


Somewhere on the Elston leg

Somewhere at Elston

The L.A.T.E. Ride is a massive yearly event, sponsored by McDonald’s, that sends bike riders on a 25-mile loop around northern Chicago, starting at 1:30 in the morning. The path starts at Buckingham Fountain, heads northwest up Elston, and cuts across Foster to the lakefront to turn back south.

I didn’t join up for the whole ride, but rode southwards from Rogers Park, back-tracing the route down Foster, then Elston. Starting around 2am, scattered groups of bikers started passing me, heading north. First a few… then dozens. Soon packs of a hundred or more were cruising past. By the time I made it to Ashland and Elston, the road was so thick with bicyclists that it was clearly time to turn around and go with the flow.

Elston underpass

What unspeakable comradery, to rule the roads on two wheels with hundreds of like-minded cohorts! The ride attracted all types, all ages. Bar patrons waved and cheered us on. Harried policemen and exuberant volunteers ushered us through major intersections. Waiting drivers whooped and hollered. We got high-fives from what looked like a crowd of Naval cadets and from a hippie lady with a huge stereo system mounted on a three-wheeled bike.

A half-way resting point at River Park on Foster provided snacks for registered riders. Dawn was beginning to show as we reached the lakefront; stopping for frequent photographs and letting many groups pass me by, I’d fallen almost to the end of the mass. Knowing I had places to be that afternoon, I headed home to get some sleep, as the sun prepared to rise over the lake.

Sunrise at the lake

I only did about half the ride total, but next year I’m not missing any of it!

Lakefront bike path etiquette

I love the lakefront bike path, and unlike many people, I just find it more exciting when it gets crowded. Remember the gargantuan space battle at the end of Return of the Jedi, with a billion ships flying in every direction, zipping past at breathtaking speed? That’s the lakefront trail at its best. Bobbing and weaving, zig-zagging a path through elusive and short-lived gaps, shouting warnings, slowing and accelerating, the kchunk! of shifting gears — I love it.

North from Ohio Street Beach

But as much as I love the thrill of it, safety and etiquette have to come first. And so, I have few words for my fellow bicyclists:

1) There is a time to lay on the speed, and a time to hit the brakes. When the path is clogged up with pedestrians, slower bikers, roller bladers, etc., etc., that is the time to hit the brakes. This is a multi-use recreational path, not a velodrome. It won’t hurt you to slow down for a moment till the traffic clears (though not slowing down just might.) You will still get your exercise, you won’t lose any race, and nobody would’ve been impressed with your blazing speed anyway, just annoyed at your rude behavior.

2) You are not mute. “ON YOUR LEFT!”, when properly used, is your friend. It’s rude to blast by people who’re only marginally in your way without giving them some kind of warning. Yes, there are lots of clueless people wandering with their head in a cloud. That is no reason to be rude. You haven’t gotten used to this by now? You should.

3) It is rude to pass a fellow bicyclist who’s slowed down for one of the aforementioned masses of pedestrians, bladers, etc. Believe me, we all want to be at the front of the line, and that goes double for people like me who actually belong there. So just take a number, get in line, wait patiently like the rest of us, and if you have any business passing me (you probably don’t*), you can do it once we’re in the clear.**

North Avenue beach and bike path

* Yes, I am confident of my biking skills to the point of arrogance. What about it?

**Heck, that’s good advice for a lot of Chicago drivers, too.

Unsurprisingly, I’m far from the only resident who has something to say about the bike path.

Eternal questions

  • Why does George Lopez keep getting his face in my photographs? I’m pretty sure I accidentally photographed him at least twice this evening.

  • How can a city that’s laid out entirely on a rational, orthogonal grid still be so damn difficult to get around in? Streets dead end, cemeteries and superblocks get in the way, railroads and highways form impenetrable barriers, one-way signs keep you from going where you need to go. It’s maddening!

  • Why is there no sidewalk on Touhy where it cross the Interstate? Guess they don’t want you west of the highway if you don’t have a car.