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Some suburban workers face long, tricky commutes. Communities are grappling with how to fill in transit holes

Monday, October 28, 2019
Chicago Tribune

It takes Lamont Brown two hours to travel between his job at Cintas Uniform Services in Bedford Park and his home on Chicago’s Far South Side. The commute involves two CTA buses and one Pace bus, if he’s lucky.

If Brown’s shift doesn’t line up with the Pace schedule, he has to hike down truck-clogged 73rd Street to get to a CTA stop at Cicero Avenue, a mile away.

“It’s bad,” said Brown, 37, of South Deering. “A couple of times I’ve had to walk in the snow, but you have to pay the bills.”

The long, tricky commutes for some suburban workers pose a regional conundrum — how to fill in the last mile between where a job is and when and where transit ends. It can be especially tough for blue-collar workers, who often do shift work at unusual hours when public transit availability slows and may not be able to afford a car.

Transit advocates and local officials are looking at ways to fill the “first mile/last mile” gap, which could include shuttle buses, bikes, scooters, better sidewalks, ride-share vehicles and, eventually, autonomous or self-driving vehicles.

Bedford Park has received $421,800 in grants from Cook County’s “Invest in Cook” program to study and find solutions for commuters.

“This is a huge problem — the extent to which people can walk to transit stations is very limited in the suburbs,” said Audrey Wennink, transportation director for the Metropolitan Planning Council, which tracks regional transit and infrastructure matters. “When people are working off-hours, it’s even harder because you have lower frequency of transit or transit doesn’t operate at night. It may be impossible to get there on transit.”

Downtown Chicago accounts for 17% of jobs in the six-county region, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Downtown Chicago is like the center of a big wheel, with CTA and Metra lines, as well as highways, acting as spokes that easily lead commuters to and from more than 600,000 jobs.

Some large businesses, such as McDonald’s and United Airlines, have moved back to Chicago from the suburbs in recent years in part because of easy access to transit, and downtown jobs have grown by 28% between 2010 and 2018, the state said.

But most of the region’s jobs — almost 3 million — are outside of downtown and may require more complicated commutes. More than 400,000 people commute every day from Chicago to jobs in the suburbs, according to the Regional Transportation Authority.

That includes workers like Maurice Hughes, 23, of West Englewood, whose round-trip commute to his job at a Bridgeview warehouse takes up to four hours and eight buses. He listens to music to pass the time. If his shift ends early, he can spend almost as much time commuting as he does working.

“Trust me, I’m looking for jobs closer in the city,” Hughes said as he waited for a Pace bus at 71st Street and Harlem Avenue. The intersection, used by both Bridgeview and Bedford Park commuters, is constantly busy with truck traffic during weekdays.

Suburbs with manufacturing and warehouse businesses offer examples of the last-mile problem. Bedford Park has just 600 residents, but 400 businesses and about 30,000 jobs at big companies like Cintas, FedEx, Home Chef and CSX. Located near Midway International Airport, the village has for years promoted itself as business-friendly, and has seen jobs grow.

But with the jobs came commuting problems. Most workers drive to jobs in Bedford Park, creating traffic jams, but there are also issues with public transit. Bedford Park Mayor Dave Brady said the suburb discovered that some workers walked one or two miles to work from bus stops, and companies complained about people taking shortcuts across their busy parking lots.

“We didn’t realize it was as bad as it was,” Brady said.

Starting in 2017, Bedford Park began studying the problem. . Working with Antero Group, a consulting firm, the suburb interviewed workers and looked at things like the condition of sidewalks and crosswalks and bus schedules. Antero Group plans to submit a draft action plan by the end of the year, and start some kind of pilot program in early 2020, said Curtis Witek, senior planner for the company.

“We’re looking at anything from having a scooter system to having an on-demand shuttle with Pace” said Joe Ronovsky, Bedford Park’s chief business officer.

Ronovsky said the goal is to have the program be sustainable, and not dependent on village or county funds.

The last-mile problem goes beyond Bedford Park and into other other suburbs with light manufacturing like Addison, where it’s difficult for workers to connect with Metra because of varying shifts, Wennink said. It also affects white-collar work zones, like the office complexes of Naperville and Warrenville, Wennink said.

A longer-term solution to the job/worker disconnect is to have more jobs located in transit-oriented development areas, Wennink said. But in the meantime, businesses, employers and towns are trying a patchwork of fixes.

One solution is offered by the Transportation Management Association of Lake-Cook, a nonprofit that manages the “Shuttle Bug” program in north suburban business parks. It provides shuttle service on Pace suburban buses to Metra stations.

Ride-sharing is another option. A program started in Bannockburn uses Lyft to transport employees for free between the Bannockburn Lakes office complex and Metra stations. The office park is paying for 75% of the cost, with the RTA picking up the rest.

Walking is a problem in many suburban areas because of a lack of sidewalks. Wennink cited a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning study that found that just 10% of Pace stops have complete sidewalks on both sides of the street within a quarter mile of the stop.

If some good solutions can be found for Bedford Park, they also may work on other industrial campuses, said John Yonan, superintendent of the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways.

“If we get it right here, maybe we can pick up the model and move it to Lincoln Highway," Yonan said. “What can we do around another corridor?”

Transportation song quiz

Last week’s song was “Silver Wings in the Moonlight,” performed by singing cowboy and U.S. Army Air Forces Sgt. Gene Autry. I thought he co-wrote it, too, but was misinformed. Cook County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Hal Mann of Chicago guessed “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer,” also sung by Autry. That’s close enough, so he gets the glory.

This week’s novelty hit was inspired by the citizens band or “CB” radio fad. They even had a bear in the air. What was the song, and who did it? The first person with the right answer gets a Tribune pen, and glory.


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