Tag Archives: Commute

How Walkable is Your Elgin?

How walkable is your Elgin?

This past Saturday included the Winter Market and all the other Window Wonderland activities – reindeer, roasting chestnuts, holiday shopping, and more. Last year, it snowed during the festival, making it even more magical. This year, after a rainy morning (perfect for finishing my final exam of the quarter), the clouds parted, and the sun came out. So I walked to downtown, as I often do on Saturdays. I perused the Market, admired the decorated storefronts, returned some library books, got some coffee, and generally enjoyed the day before returning home about 4.

Of course, as soon as I got home. I realized that I had forgotten about the tree-lighting, scheduled for 5 PM. I’m a sucker for Christmas lights, so I headed downtown again, on foot.

Sunday morning, a friend and I had brunch plans at the Elgin Public House, and we walked. The brisk air felt good, given how miserable early December can be. While at brunch, we talked about the walkability of Elgin. I was drawn to my neighborhood by its proximity to nearly everything I need: Metra, a grocery store, library, coffee, etc. It’s a blessing not to need to dig out my sloped driveway immediately after snow hits.

And while Downtown Elgin has come a long way in the five years I’ve lived here, there are still barriers to walking. In northern Illinois, the weather can be a big drawback, of course. I wimp out when the mercury drops below 20, or when there’s too much ice for my YakTrax to safely overcome. The city does a great job clearing their part of the National Street hill, but one of the business owners doesn’t, meaning it becomes a dangerously sloped ice rink. Plus, there are certain safety issues late at night, especially walking through some poorly lit areas. I could never give up my car entirely, but 7 years without a car in Chicago trained me to shop small and walk whenever possible, habits I’m glad I’ve kept.

Downtown Elgin’s WalkScore is about 82, or “very walkable.” The site calculates a score based on proximity to transit, schools, parks and several categories of businesses, including banks, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, groceries and entertainment. The database seems to have holes in it – it’s missing Butera, the Speakeasy, and others – but it’s interesting, nonetheless.

Walkability, from the center of downtown.

By contrast, New York is the “most walkable” big American city, with a score of 85. Chicago has a 73. Naperville a 74, Schaumburg 54. In each case, I input just the city name, and it calculated a score for the city center. In Elgin’s case, it appears to use the YWCA on East Chicago Street as the center point. You’ll get a different score if you put in a more specific address. My house has a score of 60.

What do you think? Is your part of Elgin walkable? What would make it more walkable? What keeps you from walking? What would encourage you?


Scraps of the Day

What do you do with the scraps of your day?

How do you make the most of your cookie dough scraps of time?

As I write, I’m in that weird hour between when work “ends” and class begins. In reality, it’s about 45 minutes, by the time I factor in walking to class and getting settled before the Regression Analysis talking starts. (Shudder.)

Later this evening, I’ll have 40 minutes before my train departure. Again, it’s not really enough time to “do” anything of any consequence. And with no place to sit at Union Station, I can’t open up the laptop and write or work. It’s precarious in-between time. I usually end up chatting with a classmate, which is great, but I’d rather be home – and in bed – 40 minutes earlier.

At work, the worst days are those with several 30 minute gaps between five or six meetings. Those 30 minute blocks aren’t enough time to really accomplish any project or task that requires attention, especially after you spend a couple minutes reading the emails that came in during your meeting and prepping for the next meeting. What’s left? 20 minutes?

The other night, I was thinking that time isn’t like cookie dough. You can’t combine the scraps, roll them out and end up with tasty sugar cookies.

But maybe time is like chocolate chip cookie dough. The little scraps can be eaten raw, or blended into ice cream.

So I spend my scraps reading blogs or tweets, by reading the newspaper, or making lists, all the while feeling like I’m just killing time. And given how precious time is, that frustrates me.

Am I missing something? What strategies do you have for making the most of those scraps of time?

Working at Home: Avoiding the Office Cuisinart

Since I started school, I’ve been working from home a lot – usually three days a week.

My new parent company has really encouraged working from home, so it’s a relatively serendipitous turn of events, especially after getting home at 11 PM on class nights. Not having to leave again at 6:45 the next morning means I avoid the stress of ensuring breakfast and lunch are ready to go, figuring out my clothes, repacking my bag, etc. Plus, I can sleep in a bit. And, in theory, I can work out with that extra 3 hours of my day I’m saving.

When I first started this routine, I was worried I’d become too much of a hermit. Or worse, I would epitomize the worst of The Oatmeal’s Working At Home warning.

In reality, though, I’m busy enough that it’s not really a concern. Instead, I’m coming to love my work at home days as a way to help balance work with the rest of my life. You know, like doing laundry. Plus, my house is QUIET. Often, in the afternoons as I hit my stride and am cranking through my to-do list, the only sounds in my cozy home office are my fingers flying over the (ergonomically incorrect) keyboard and the snoring of the cat. Compare this to the often-raucous cubeville with bad lighting and plentiful distractions.

And I don’t need a key to use the bathroom.

I can sneak in a run at lunch or mid-afternoon when I need a break. In a few weeks, I’ll pull out the patio furniture and eat lunch outside, in the sunshine – far better than the terrible fluorescent lights and climate control of the office. I take conference calls while balancing on a wobble board.

In reality, I think I’m working more the days I’m at home. There aren’t the distractions of the office – no passing-by-the-desk hello and chat, no experiments to see if we can build a plumb bob to represent the building’s sway in the wind – and there’s no rush to bolt out the door right at five to catch the last express train bound for the hinterlands, so I can reach a more natural stopping point.

And the meals? For an evolving cook, working at home is divine. It’s nice having the time to sautee spinach, dice some peppers, and crumble feta into my morning eggs. I can easily throw together a marinade at 3 PM so dinner is ready to cook at 5:30, and I’ve ended the frantic just-got-home-starving-starving-FOOD-NOW panic.

The other day, I saw a Ted Talk from Jason Fried that nailed my Work at Home rationale:

He’s absolutely right about the office being like a Cuisinart, shredding your day into “work moments” where you can’t really accomplish thing. After all, you can’t get things done in the annoying 15 minute breaks between meetings. Fried says that work is like sleep: useless in short, choppy blocks.

But you know what’s even better than working at home?

Having the day off. I’m heading out to play.

Hall Passes for Grown-Ups

Remember hall passes from high school? The bearer was entitled to a few fleeting moments of freedom during class time, usually to use the restroom or retrieve something from a far-away locker. Some teachers had simple slips of paper – ostensible golden tickets – but others tried to make some point by scrawling “HALL PASS” on a 2×4 or hubcap. Regardless, that token was like a get out of jail free card, letting you slip into the forbidden, delicious quiet of the empty hallways while everyone else was slouched at their desks.

A grown-up golden ticket

When inbound Metra trains are delayed during the morning rush hour, they print the grown-up equivalent of hall passes. These slips of paper, which always include the current date and one of several pat excuses (track construction, signal trouble, freight train interference, or, the most ominous, “pedestrian incident”) are available as you leave the platform.

I know some people need these hall passes to excuse their tardiness, especially when the delays are lengthy. The “pedestrian incident” delays can stretch an hour or longer, depending on circumstances. But some of the track construction or signal problems are relatively short – just 10 or 15 minutes. I haven’t figured out what the tipping point to generate an excuse note is. Must a delay be more than 10 minutes? 8? 12?

There’s a certain feeling of freedom that comes with arriving downtown at a different time. Metra so regiments suburban commuters’ lives – you live and die by the time tables, adjusting work schedules, meetings and social engagements to catch the most optimal train – that on the rare occasion when you arrive off schedule, it feels very odd.

When you arrive at exactly the same time as every other day, you’re walking among the same crowd, at the same pace, watching the same people duck into the same coffee shops. The crowd has a cadence, a rhythm that is familiar to the daily commuters. But arriving fifteen minutes later upsets that delicate routine.

Inevitably, it’s on these days – when my train was late and I’m scrambling to get to the office  – that I run into someone from a past life. A high school classmate I haven’t given a second thought to since graduation or a college confidante who has drifted away will suddenly cross my path. Of course I stop and say hello, exchanging hugs and email addresses, thrilled to run into a blast from the past.

And then I wonder – who else is roaming the streets of the Loop in the early mornings, just slightly earlier or later than my normal train?

Night Owls: Riding the Late Train

Since I’ve started grad school, I’m taking a late train home two nights a week. These trains are a completely different experience than the usual 5:17 express train. Depending on whether I go out with classmates for a drink (which happens the occasional Thursday) or go straight to the train translates to a completely different cast of characters.

Earlier Late Train

Mostly work- and class- weary riders: Overall, this train is pretty quiet, with many people coming from grad classes. These are mostly professionals who look tired. They tend to either zone out with ear phones or frantically work on their laptops, catching up on either work or school, a glazed look on their face.

Drunk middle-aged dude: More common on Thursday nights, there’s inevitably one overly chatty, drunk middle aged guy in a leather jacket, trying to act 15 years younger than he actually is. He chats up the conductors and tries to flirt with some of the women. He tends to slur his words. Often he makes a quick call to a wife, asking her to come pick him up from the station.

Giggling Teenage Girls: I don’t know how high school age girls always manage to be on this train, but maybe they’re actually college freshman. Regardless, there tends to be a group of 5-8 giggling, shrieking girls, taking pictures of each other, texting each other, and excited that they just spent the day in the big city. (These are likely the same people who walk five abreast down the sidewalk at rush hour.) Try to avoid the car they’re sitting in.

Loud Talker: Every train has at least one person who shouts their end of a long, inane, deeply personal cell phone conversation. This is more often a woman, but men are guilty, too. When they start rattling off credit card numbers, I wonder who else is listening.

McDonald’s Eaters: After 7 PM, the closest thing to food at Union Station is McDonald’s. (Unless it’s closed, which has happened twice recently, leaving your late night dining options Mrs. Fields cookies or beer.) I think I’ve finally figured out when to eat what so I’m not ravenous as I hit the train, but inevitably, there’s at least one person who boards with a bag of fresh, hot McDonald’s fries.

Later Train

The later train has all of the above groups, but they tend to be rowdier. There are more drunks and gigglers, and fewer students and office workers. During baseball season, there are also hoards of very drunk sports fans. There’s also usually at least one very annoyed single mom with a gaggle of young children who are cranky at the late hour. She usually either lacks patience for them and yells at them to sit still and shut up, or she ignores them entirely while she talks on the phone.

The later train is worse in many ways because it only has two cars open (versus three on the earlier late train), so there’s less room to hide.

What other characters have you seen on the late night trains?

Chilly-Willy the Commuter

Why is it so damn cold on Metra trains?

I’m not talking about that momentary blast of cool when you step from the hot sidewalks into the house, or the comfortable 77 degrees I set my thermostat at when I close up the house and turn on the AC.

I’m talking about see-your-breath, numb nose and toes, where’s-the-coffee cold. The cold that prompts everyday riders to carry a jacket, a hoodie or a scarf  to brace against the inevitable cold.

After spending all day working in my meat locker cubicle, the four block walk to the train is just far enough to thaw out my arms and legs. That initial step outside from the icebox to the heat is divine, as the warmth washes over my body.  I start to enjoy the summer weather, to remember why I like being outside.

Then, I board the train, and the cold is a slap in the face as I walk through car after car, trying to find the least cold spot to sit, passing other commuters wrapped in pashminas or wearing fleece sweatshirts more suited for November.

Over time, I’ve identified trends in my usual trains: which cars are even colder, which ones may merit gloves and a hat. A friend and I often referred to these cars as “penguin cars” and joked about seeing polar bears and eskimos rather than Chicagoans.

Occasionally, a car’s AC will go out entirely, rendering it insufferably hot. You can always tell these cars as you come through the train by the absence of passengers. For awhile, one car on my usual evening train had a faltering AC system that only worked about halfway. This was my favorite car, as I could leave my pashmina in my bag and ride home in relative comfort.

A couple weeks ago, this car was suddenly as cold as all the others. In the vestibule, a sticker proudly read, “This car’s HVAC system was repaired with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” Once again, the good intentions of government have gone awry.

Perhaps I should stock up on pashminas.

Commuter Shoes Revisited

I was at the suburban job for about two months before returning to my old company downtown in a new role. The experience taught me a lot about what makes a good job and a good company. Meanwhile, I expanded my commuter shoes theory.

My current (new-old) job is at an urban office full of a very diverse workforce who live all over Chicagoland and commute via public transit. At lunch, there are dozens of nearby places – all within walking distance – and the area is very amenable to head-clearing lunchtime strolls.

Other Company was in a suburban office park. There was an attached parking garage, and (nearly?) everyone drives. (One of the IT interns often had a bike helmet on his desk, but that could have been a red herring.) Schaumburg has a seemingly great network of bike routes, but they don’t connect with Elgin’s nor those of the towns in between, and sometimes end mid-block, answering the question of where the sidewalk ends. My window cube overlooked the forest preserve, and I could watch hawks soaring around, looking for lunch.

However, working at Other Company added a new dynamic to my Commuter Shoes theory. For the uninitiated, my theory of commuter shoes holds that the easier the commute, the more likely you are to wear practical shoes.

When I lived in the city, I took the El to work, which was usually standing room only. Not only were the cars overflowing, but you were pressed up against strangers, and the lightweight cars would sway and jerk violently from side to side, throwing you into your fellow commuters. Yet, despite the difficulty in staying upright and holding your balance (which, with time, became a skill), the majority of the women commuted in impossible shoes – stilettos, tall boots, heels of all flavors, etc. Even in the summer, with a nod to “comfort,” you would see a flotilla of flip-flops, which offer no support for walking any real distance. Yet, women who commute via the El likely walk the most and spend the greater part of their commute standing on their feet than those who commute with other modes.

While making the suburbs to city trek, I commute on Metra. I bought my house in part because it was an easy walk to the Metra station, so I knew I wouldn’t need to drive at all. In fact, nearly half of my 7-minute walk was through the Metra parking lot itself. Probably 95% of my fellow Metra commuters drive to the train. In the morning, everyone gets a seat – though in the evenings, as gas prices have risen, it has become more difficult and strategic to guarantee a seat – and then we walk to our downtown offices. In my case, it’s about 7 minutes on the Chicago end, too. Even so, despite the much more comfortable, seated commute and the reduced walking, most Metra women wear what I termed “commuter shoes” – comfortable sneakers or, increasingly, the new athleisure shoes to carry them through the commute before changing into “work shoes” at the office. (I periodically purge the accumulated shoe collection from under my desk – at one point this spring, I had eleven pairs lined up.)

In an office where everyone drives to and from work and to and from lunch (as there’s very little in walking distance – and I got crazy looks when I walked the 15 minutes to the nearby strip mall for coffee), many women wear comfortable shoes all day. Many never have to step foot outside at all during their commute, yet Nikes seem to be the footwear of choice.

While at Other Company, I usually wore my work shoes (sandals with heels) to and from work. I did discover one important caveat – the grocery stop. Where I don’t pass anything on my Metra commute, while working in the suburban office park, I passed nine, count ‘em, nine grocery stores on my normal route home – more if I deviated from the path. It was great to run in and grab a couple things or heck, even do my full shopping trip for the week – the stores are much less crowded on a Tuesday evening than on a Saturday afternoon. But high heels are not designed for grocery store power-shopping and can be dangerous in the slippery produce aisles. So I threw a pair of old flip-flops in the car to slip on when I need to snag strawberries.

When I made the decision to return to the city – albeit with more opportunities to work at home, or WAH – I happily dusted off my commuter shoes. It’s great to be back, though I’m not looking foward to the icy days ahead.

Odes to Commuter Shoes

Bad job close to home
Better job, commuter shoes
I’m back on Metra


Suburbs nice to live
City better for working
Back to commuting


Morning drive to work
Quick, easy come, easy go
Job sucked – had to leave

Commuter Shoes: The End of an Era

Friday was my last day as a Metra commuter. When I bought my house, I drew a one mile radius from the three Elgin train stations. My goal was to live within a mile – easy walking distance – of a train to ease my commute downtown as much as possible.

After living in Chicago for seven years, moving to the farthest reach of the suburbs was a shock to the system. My commute grew to an average of about 80 minutes – ten minute walk from the house to the train, 60 minutes on the express train, and about a ten minute walk to the office downtown. Another 25 minutes could easily be tacked on if I deigned to work late or go out after work, stranding me on a non-express train, watching the freight trains breeze past.

I learned a lot from my train commuter days, though. The train becomes almost like family, in a way, with the same characters sitting in the same seats five days a week. You learn the rhythms of the train, the cadence of the conductors and what it means when you slow down through Franklin Park. In November, you pass the Ringling Brothers’ circus train, nearly a mile long, parked just west of the city. In the dead of dark winter evenings, the strategically set fires light the night like fireworks, keeping the switches from freezing. Passing just south of O’Hare, there’s a steady stream of planes landing and taking off – you can see them queued up for miles off toward the horizon.

You learn that if you typically finish the main news section of the Chicago Tribune around Itasca, though on Mondays and Tuesday, it may be as soon as Schaumburg. By Friday, when the paper is larger, the Elgin Courier may not get read until the train ride home. Occasionally there would be entire weeks where nothing sounded appealing, so I’d do the crossword puzzle and Sudoku from the morning papers. If I had work to do – especially editing – I’d tackle it on the way home, since working on an express train was preferable to staying late at the office and then taking a slower milk train home.

At first, entertaining yourself for the commute is almost fun. Finally, a chance to read, uninterrupted, every single weekday! I got into the very comfortable routine of bringing coffee and reading both newspapers in the morning. In the evenings, I would usually read for pleasure, either a novel or magazine (National Review or Verbatim). Over time, though, I would grow antsy with the sheer length of the commute, especially when nice weather beckoned. In winter, it didn’t seem to bother me as much, since regardless of when I got home, it was cold, dark and miserable. In summer, though, with beautiful sunshine rapidly diminishing, I couldn’t wait to get home, and the train would seem to creep through suburb after suburb.

Overall, I like Metra. It’s clean, safe, relatively quiet and usually on time. Since I live out in the boondocks, I always got a seat in the morning, often on the upper deck where I could sit in a single seat and spread out with my newspapers. Coming home, especially lately since gas prices have been rocketing up, it’s been increasingly difficult to get a seat, but leaving work five minutes earlier helped.

Plus, my years commuting fueled my first (and thus far only) novel, Commuter Shoes. It was written for National Novel Writing Month in 2006 and comprises a series of vignettes about fictionalized characters I saw on my daily commute. The title comes from my observation that suburban women who commute to the city often have a pair or two of commuter shoes that they reserve for the trip, carrying dress shoes with them or having a stockpile at the office to change into. Commuter shoes are often tennis shoes or the newish athliesure shoes, allowing comfortable walking and the occasional sprint to the train. I recently had a whopping eleven pairs of shoes under my desk at work.

But over time, I was nagged by a voice in my head, whining, “Are we there yet?” I never really slept on the train, always afraid I’d sleep past my stop. But I’d stare out the window in bored exhaustion from my day, anxious to just be home.

As I hunted for a new job, I pondered whether I wanted to stay downtown and remain a Metra girl, or if I wanted to be driving distance. I ended up finding one in Schaumburg, about a 35 minute drive from home. I accepted the offer, hoping that the drive wouldn’t hurt. There appear to be a different possibilities for routing myself that I’ll have to explore and time. Even though it will likely be relatively heavy traffic – as it was the morning I interviewed and clocked the drive at 35 minutes – I’ll still be home sooner in the evening and leave later in the morning. And that’s appealing to me. I envision going to more City Council meetings, finally joining the book club at the library I’ve eyed for the last year and doing more with my evenings without having to dash out of work early or plan ahead and work from home.

I would commute on Metra again, but maybe not from the far reaches of a line. If I could afford to live closer to Chicago and could buy a place near one of the closer stations – say no farther than zone D (vs H, as Elgin is), that might be okay. But for now, I hope I’ve made the right choice.

We shall see. The driving era begins Monday.