A Trek to DeKalb

April 29, 2023

New research series? There’s always been something unique about college towns in the United States. I was never interested in attending school in one (and I don’t), but many do. College students also need a way to get around their college towns and often sprawling campuses. As college students don’t usually have cars on campus (at least at the beginning), and parking around campuses is limited and out of the way, students are the main users of transit, and as a result, college towns have high ridership per capita.

So I made my way to the nearest college town, DeKalb, Illinois, home of Northern Illinois University, which is 58 miles due west of Lake Michigan. Besides the fact that it took me three hours to get there… transit there is certainly something.

My time on DeKalb’s transit started at the Elburn Metra station at 9:20 in the morning, where I got the 12, a bus that runs from the Metra station to the Holmes Student Center. The Holmes Student Center is home to the main hub of DeKalb’s transit system. Everything goes there, even Greyhound. I was told that I should buy my ticket for the 12 online, which I did. The system is cash-only, and 50 cents per ride, but free for all NIU students. I didn’t know this until much later, but a number of routes solely on the NIU campus are fare-free for everyone! (These are the 2L, 2R, 3, 4, and 5) That was quite the surprise for me.

The 12 pulling into the Elburn Metra station, but very zoomed in on my phone.

The 12 was very reminiscent of my time on the B79, as it was just four of us riding all the way to the NIU campus from the train station. The bus even deviated to serve the town of Cortland, where nobody got on or off at 9:45 in the morning. We arrived about 5 minutes before our scheduled arrival time of 10:05.

The Midwest. Fields as far as the eye can see.

However, the bus didn’t drop us off at the Holmes Student Center, it dropped us off at the DuSable Turnaround… another hub? Seriously, it’s a five minute walk from Holmes. Why have two? I found my way to Holmes because I was meeting up with a friend this morning. (They were busy and could not join me for the day’s shenanigans.) We caught up, as expected, for about half an hour before we split off. They gave me a couple of recommendations for some of the bus routes to ride with my limited time in DeKalb… oh boy. These were fun.

My first ride was on the 2L, which runs every 10 minutes (except for when it doesn’t) throughout the day. The 2L serves the westernmost bus stop that one can get to on public transit (no Amtrak, Greyhound, etc.) from Chicago. The 2L and 2R are loops that circulate the entire campus in opposite directions. I ended up doing a complete loop on the 2L. I’ve heard that at times, the 2L can get very busy, but that was not the case on my 11 am ride.

It’s just a very secluded residential area. That’s as far west as one can go.

I returned back to Holmes, where I was hoping to get the 17 to the 21 to make it to the nearby town of Sycamore, which is the seat of DeKalb County. The 17 runs every half hour, and I was hoping to get the 11:30 am bus. Turns out the 12, 16, and 17 stop on the east side of Holmes… instead of everything else on the west side. I missed the 11:30 trip.

I ended up getting the 3 instead. The 3, 4, and 5 all loop around a residential area north of the NIU campus, and I only took the 3 up a little bit. It was quite a nice, walkable residential area. Not student housing or anything, but part of the city. Really great that they have a fare-free bus connection, but from where I got off, it was an easy walk back to Holmes.

Round two of trying to get the 17… this time the noon trip. I went over to DuSable Turnaround this time, saw the 17 pull in… and drive right out. I have missed this thing twice already. The driver didn’t even stop! I saw it pass by the east side of Holmes, didn’t see if it stopped or not, but I didn’t make it.

I was determined to get on the 17, so I sat right along the east side of Holmes (at least there were benches) to make the 12:30 trip. And at about 12:20, the 17 pulled up, stopped, and let me on. This was the first route of the day that I had to pay for, so I dropped by two quarters into the farebox, and requested a transfer for my trip on the 21.

Yep, that’s a paper transfer!

Twenty minutes after I got on the 17… and after a ten minute layover at Holmes… we arrived at the DeKalb Walmart, the transfer point between the northbound 17 and 21. I was told to ride the 17 as it travels along Illinois Route 23, a massive stroad through DeKalb and into Sycamore. You could say Walmart is on a one-way turning loop, as one must go north heading out of Walmart, stop at Kishwaukee Hospital, and then return south to DeKalb! This transfer is horribly timed as well. This is also another layover point for the 17 and 18, holding for ten minutes. The transfer mainly sucks because the 17 comes every half hour and the 21 comes every hour. I got the worse end of the stick, and was stuck with a 45 minute wait at Walmart. (If I had made the 12 or 1 pm trip, this would be a 15 minute connection.)

After getting lunch at Walmart and walking around the store for what felt like a while, the 21 pulled in 5 minutes late. It was another 20 minute ride to Sycamore, on a minibus, nonetheless. This was the type of route where the drivers know everyone on the bus, what they do, and where they’re headed. It was just me and this older woman for the trip to Sycamore. The driver knew that she was headed to the apartments in Sycamore, and I just got off at the same point. It was at the end of the route anyway.

Because I didn’t want to look crazier than I already was, I spent an hour just walking around Sycamore. It was a nice day out, with temperatures in the 60s and sunny. Sycamore is a classic Midwestern town. You don’t see much of these being built nowadays, as strip malls became more common, and car-oriented infrastructure continues to dominate development nationwide.

The DeKalb County Courthouse in downtown Sycamore.

I left Sycamore on the 3:00 trip back towards Walmart. Oh yeah, the apartment building in Sycamore is another layover point for the drivers, probably to balance the schedule and leave on the hour. The 21 is one of those routes which passengers can deviate within a certain radius of the route, and a few passengers did exactly that for this trip. We still were roughly on time, as I was able to make my connection back to the 17 at the Kishwaukee Hospital.

I got on the 17 back into DeKalb, where I chose to get off downtown and walk around downtown for a bit. My friend said that they’d be free around 4:30 to drive me back to the Elburn Metra station (hey, they offered to). Downtown DeKalb is pretty nice, with an assortment of local businesses along the main road. However, once I went west towards the NIU campus, the road became more stroad-like and chain businesses and fast food restaurants became common. Goodbye walkability!


Downtown DeKalb.

I walked all the way back to the Holmes Student Center, and completed my shenanigans with the DeKalb transit system. And yes, I did get a bit lost around the NIU campus. I’m not good at navigating college campuses at all.

Some photos of the NIU campus.

“So, what did you think about DeKalb?” I was asked on the drive back to Elburn. Well… let’s see. Let’s go through my main issues with the city, and more importantly, the bus system!

The 2L and 2R - oh boy do these schedules confuse you. The 2L leaves at 7:00 am, 7:20, 7:30, 7:50, and then every ten minutes until 3:30. This is when it randomly, out of nowhere, switches frequencies to leave Holmes at 3:50, 4:00, 4:20, 4:30, and other seemingly-unknown frequencies until 6:30, when it runs every half hour until 11:30 pm. Remember, my morning trip on the 2L wasn’t busy, but when the 2L goes to seemingly random frequencies in the afternoon, that’s when it’s the busiest! Why?

The 17 and 21 - These should just be combined into one route. The transfer can be annoying… but the Walmart and Kishwaukee Hospital are technically served in one-direction only… just combine them, okay? Send every other trip to Sycamore or something. I did not enjoy waiting at Walmart for 45 minutes, and I bet there are others who are also annoyed at this. Another solution that we discussed was to coordinate the 21 trips with the 17 trips, allowing for 0 minute (timed) and 30 minute transfers, instead of 15 and 45 minute ones.

Signage - Barely any stops on the system are signed, even on the NIU campus. One has to know where the bus stops in order to ride the bus. People were flagging down the 17 and 21 along the stroad as well. Great job, DeKalb. Some stops had shelters, which was a nice touch, but no signs or shelters at many, including the Walmart and Kishwaukee Hospital.

The university and the city are decently connected, but you can tell that there’s a line between where the downtown area ends and the university area begins (it’s First Street). The town’s zoning and development switches from being a vibrant, mixed–use downtown area to stroads, single-story buildings, front parking lots, and other lower-density uses. The city wants to extend Metra’s Union Pacific West line from Elburn, about 15 miles east. If they do that, and development and demand increase in DeKalb, go west along Lincoln Highway / Illinois Route 38! There’s some bus coverage connecting NIU’s campus with downtown DeKalb (though this isn’t a terrible walk on a nice day), but a lot of the bus coverage in DeKalb tends to serve the NIU campus and the area directly adjacent to it.

Overall, DeKalb, you have a lot to work on. From the simple things like signage, to the more complex task of managing decent headways on the 2L and 2R, there’s easily room for improvement for the system. One thing I did notice is that the buses tended to actually show up when scheduled. There was seemingly always a 2L trip waiting at Holmes, as it runs every 10 minutes during the middle of the day. Other buses leave Holmes on the ten minute intervals as well. The 3 leaves at 10 past, 30 past, and 50 past. The 4 leaves at 20 past, 40 past, and on the hour, and the 5 leaves every 10 minutes. These make it super easy for students and other riders to memorize the schedules.

Published: Apr 29, 2023 19:18