Navigating Chicago is easy. Block numbers are consistent across the whole city. Standard blocks, of 100 addresses each, are roughly 1/8th of a mile long. (Hence, a mile is equivalent to a street number difference of 800.) Each street is assigned a number based on its distance from the zero point of the address system, the intersection of State Street and Madison Street. A street with a W (west) or E (east) number runs east-west, while a street with a N (north) or S (south) number runs north-south. A street's number is usually written on street signs at intersections, below the street name. Major thoroughfares are at each mile (multiples of 800) and secondary arteries at the half-mile marks. Thus, Western Ave at 2400 W (3 miles west of State Street) is a north-south major thoroughfare, while Montrose Ave at 4400 N is an east-west secondary artery.
In general, "avenues" run north-south and "streets" run east-west, but there are numerous exceptions. (e.g., 48th Street may then be followed by 48th Place). In conversation, however, Chicagoans rarely distinguish between streets, avenues, boulevards, etc.
Several streets follow diagonal or meandering paths through the city such as Clark St, Lincoln Ave, Broadway, Milwaukee Ave, Ogden Ave, Archer Ave, Vincennes Ave, and South Chicago Ave.
The best way to see Chicago is by public transit. It is cheap (basically), efficient (at times), and safe (for the most part). The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) oversees the various public transit agencies in the Chicagoland area. You can plan trips online with the RTA trip planner or get assistance by calling 836-7000 in any local area code between 5AM-1AM. The RTA also has an official partnership with Google Maps, which can provide routes with public transit.
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operates trains and buses in the city of Chicago and some of the suburbs. Put simply, the CTA is Chicago. It is a marvel and a beast, convenient, frustrating, and irreplaceable. Even if you have the option of driving while you're in town, no experience of Chicago is complete without a trip on the CTA.
Train rides of any length, from one side of the city to another or just one stop, cost $2.25 (save for rides originating at the O'Hare Blue Line station, which cost $5). At certain stations, you can transfer to other train lines at no extra cost. Once you have exited the turnstiles, entering another CTA station or boarding a CTA bus costs $0.25, and doing it a third time is free, provided it is still within two hours of when you started the trip.
Train fares must be paid with Ventra Tickets, which can be purchased and re-filled at kiosks in the lobby of every CTA train station. Purchasing a ticket costs $3, which includes a one-time $0.50 fee. (Reloading the ticket for future trips can be done for any amount and will not require the $0.50 fee.) All kiosks accept cash and credit cards. Many locals use the Ventra Card, which cannot be purchased at stations, but can be ordered online (with a $5 fee that is convertible to transit fare upon registration of the card) and purchased at select retail locations. One version of the Ventra Card includes a fee-heavy, much-criticized prepaid debit account, so take note which one you are ordering.
Visitor Passes are sold for unlimited travel on the CTA: 1 day (24 hours) for $10; 3 days for $20; 7 days for $28 and 30 days for $100. One, three, and seven-day passes are on sale at certain train stations (notably, the O'Hare Blue Line station), currency exchanges and some convenience stores, and online. Tickets for single rides or larger increments can also be purchased on-line. Tickets, cards, 30-day passes, and a special 7-day CTA/Pace pass ($33) can also be used on the suburban Pace bus system. None of these instruments can be used on the suburban Metra or South Shore train systems.
The CTA officially refers to its entire train system as The 'L'. The CTA inherited the name from its predecessor agencies that ran elevated trains, but now refers to all trains, including subways, as The 'L'. All train lines radiate from the Loop to every corner of the city. The "Loop" name originally referred to a surface-level streetcar loop, which pre-dated the elevated tracks. That any form of transportation preceded the present one may come as a surprise, given how old some of the stations look, but they work.
CTA train lines are divided by colors: Red, Green, Brown, Blue, Purple, Yellow, Orange and Pink. All lines lead to the Loop except the Yellow Line, which provides service between the suburb of Skokie and the northern border of Chicago. The Red and Blue lines run 24/7, every day of the year, making Chicago and New York City the two American cities, and one of a handful worldwide, to offer 24-hour rail service within the city. Hours for the other lines vary somewhat by the day, but as a general rule run from about 4:30AM–1:00AM. A few major stations have trackers noting the times when the next trains will arrive, but most do not.
Before you travel, find out the name of the train stop closest to your destination, and the color of the train line on which it is located. Once you're on board, you'll usually find route maps in each train car, above the door (although they are often stolen). The same map is also available online. The name signs on platforms often have the station's location in the street grid, e.g. "5900 N, 1200 W" for Thorndale.
There should be an attendant on duty at every train station. They cannot provide change or deal with money, but they can help you figure out where you need to go and guide you through using the machines.
Buses run on nearly every major street in the city, and in many cases, every four blocks apart. Look for the blue and white sign, which should give a map of the route taken by the bus and major streets/stops along the way. Once inside, watch the front of the bus, a red LED display will list the names of upcoming streets where stops are located, making it easy to stop exactly where you want, even a small side street. To request a stop, pull the cord hanging above the window and make sure you hear an audible 'ding'. Hollering at the bus driver will raise tempers but works in a pinch.
Bus rides of any length cost $2 with a Ventra Ticket or Card or $2.25 in cash. Major bus routes run 7–15 minutes apart during daylight hours, depending on the route. Less-traveled routes or routes during off-peak hours may run less frequently. Check the sign to be sure the bus is still running. There are several bus routes that are 24/7; these are called OWL routes, and the signs usually have an owl to belabor that point. (See individual district articles for major bus routes through different parts of the city.)
If you have a web-enabled mobile device, the CTA runs a little godsend called the CTA Bus Tracker, which uses GPS to provide reliable, real-time tracking information for almost all bus routes. Some bus shelters are equipped with real-time bus trackers of their own.
CTA buses accept Ventra Tickets but do not sell them. They also accept cash but do not provide change. You must pay exact change, or forfeit your change by paying a rate equal to the smallest denomination of money you have.
In compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, all CTA buses and some train stations are accessible to wheelchairs. Wheelchair-accessible 'L' stations are indicated by the international wheelchair symbol and have elevators or are at ground level. If you are trying to get to a place with a non-accessible station, there will be alternate routes by bus so contact the CTA for more information.
Crime on the CTA is low, but as with any major urban area, travelers should be aware of their surroundings, especially when traveling in the wee hours of the night, and sit close to the driver if you feel uncomfortable for any reason. Buses are being equipped with video cameras as the fleet is upgraded. Some train cars have a button and speaker for emergency communication with the driver, located in the center aisle of the car on the wall next to the door. This is for emergencies only: do not press this just to chat, as the driver is required to halt the train until the situation has been confirmed as resolved, and your fellow passengers will not be amused.
Metra, ☎ +1 312 322-6777, runs commuter trains for the suburbs, providing service within Illinois, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, out west, and to the far south and southwest suburbs. Metra trains are fast, clean, and punctual, but unpleasantly crowded during rush hour. Generally, every car or every other car on the train has a bathroom.
Metra's Electric Line provides service to the convention center (McCormick Place), Hyde Park (Museum of Science and Industry, University of Chicago), and the Far Southeast Side's Pullman Historic District and Rainbow Beach. The Electric Line is fast, taking at most 15 minutes to reach Hyde Park from the Loop. Unfortunately, service outside of rush hours is infrequent (about once/hour), so be sure to check the schedules while planning your trip.
The Northern Indiana Commuter Transit District (NICTD), ☎ +1 219 926-5744 operates the South Shore Line railroad. The South Shore Line railroad runs commuter trains between the Millennium Park Metra station in downtown Chicago and the South Bend, Indiana airport. South Shore trains cannot carry passengers whose journey is entirely within the State of Illinois, except to and from the Hegewisch station on Chicago's far southeast side. Although the South Shore Line receives some subsidies from Metra, it is not part of the Metra system and does not accept Metra or CTA tickets.
Although there are plans to change this in the future, none of the commuter trains currently accept CTA fare cards as payment. From downtown Chicago, the Metra fare to McCormick Place is $2.75 and the fare to Hyde Park is $3. Buy your tickets before boarding the train at a window or one of the automated vending machines. You can buy a ticket on the train, but that comes with an extra $3/ticket surcharge if the station you're leaving from had an open ticket window or an operational ticket machine.
Ten-ride, weekly, and monthly passes are available. If you have a group of four or more people, it may be cheaper to purchase a ten-ride card and have all of your fares punched from that one card. If using Metra on Saturday and/or Sunday, you can purchase an unlimited ride weekend pass for just $7. Keep in mind that Metra only accepts cash at this time.
Pace runs buses in the suburbs, although some routes do cross into the city, particularly in Rogers Park at the Howard (Red/Purple/Yellow Line) CTA station and the Far Northwest Side at the Jefferson Park (Blue Line) CTA station. In addition to its regular fixed-route service, Pace provides two types of paratransit services within the areas served by Pace and the CTA. ADA Paratransit Service is provided to passengers who have been previously certified as disabled. Call-n-Ride service is provided in some suburban areas where there is insufficient demand to justify regularly scheduled service. Call-n-Ride passengers must call in advance to arrange pickup and drop-off.
The standard Pace bus fare is $1.75. This may be paid in cash (no change provided) or by using a CTA Transit Card, CTA Chicago Card, CTA 30-day pass, or a 7-day CTA/Pace pass. Pace accepts transfers from the CTA by passengers using a Transit Card or Chicago Card for the same fee as the CTA charges (25 cents for the second ride and free for the third ride within two hours). Conversely, passengers paying with a Transit Card or Chicago Card receive transfer privileges onto CTA buses and trains under the same terms.
Avoid driving in downtown Chicago if at all possible. Traffic is awful, pedestrians are constantly wandering into the street out of turn, and garages in the Loop can cost as much as $40 per day. And although downtown streets are laid out on the grid, many have multiple levels which confuse even the most hardened city driver. Even outside of the city center, street parking may not be readily available. If you do find a spot, check street signs to make sure that a) no residential permit is required to park here and b) parking is not disallowed during certain hours for "street cleaning", rush hour or something along those lines. Parking restrictions are swiftly and mercilessly enforced in the form of tickets and towing — be especially wary during snowy weather.
Parking is handled by one-per-block kiosks, which will issue a slip for you to put in your front window. The kiosks will accept cash or credit cards. If the kiosk fails for any reason (such as the printer running out of paper), there should be a phone number to call to report it and ensure you don't receive an undeserved ticket. As you do, any passing Chicagoan will be happy to commiserate about how badly the city bungled privatizing the parking meters.
Be advised: talking on a handheld cell phone while driving is illegal in Chicago, and the police are eager to write tickets for it. If you need to take a call, use a hands-free headset — or better yet, pull over.
The perpetual construction is bad enough, but drivers on the city expressways can be very aggressive. For those used to driving on expressways in the Northeast, this may be a welcome reminder of home. For everyone else, though, it can be intimidating.
Chicago has some of the cheapest taxi fares in the U.S. Taxis can be hailed from the street throughout the major tourist areas, and are strictly regulated by the city. Fares are standard and the initial charge ("flag pull") is $2.25 for the first 1/9 mile, then $0.20 for each additional 1/9 mile or $0.20 for each elapsed 36 seconds. There is a $1.00 fuel surcharge added to the initial charge. There is also a flat $1.00 charge for the second passenger, and then a $0.50 charge for each additional passenger after that (for example, if four people take a taxi together, there will be $2.00 in additional flat fees). There is no additional charge for baggage or credit card use. Rides from O'Hare and Midway to outer suburbs cost an additional one half the metered fee. Give the driver the nearest major intersection to which you are heading (if you know it) and then the specific address.
Outside of the downtown, North Side, Near West and Near South neighborhoods, you will likely have greater difficulty hailing a taxi directly from the street. In these situations, you can call for a taxi to come pick you up. Taxis typically take 10–15 minutes from the time you call to arrive. The principal companies are:
The above applies only to Chicago taxis. Suburban taxi cabs have their own fares and rates, depending on the laws and regulations of the town in which they are based.
Chicago has a bike path along the shores of Lake Michigan, making north-south travel very convenient as long as the weather is favorable by the lake. Most major city streets have bike lanes, and the biking culture is established enough that cars tend to accommodate and (grudgingly) yield to bicycles. Bike trips can also be combined with rides on the CTA, and Chicago's new bike-sharing program DIVVY has docks located near many major stations. See the bicycling section below for more details.
In the summer, water taxis are sometimes more convenient than the CTA, if you are traveling around the fringes of downtown. They are also a relatively cheap way to take in some offshore views. Two private companies operate water taxi services around the Loop.
Chicago Water Taxi (Wendella Boats) ☎ +1 312 337-1446, uses yellow boats and has three stops (Michigan Ave, LaSalle/Clark, Madison St), plus Chinatown on weekends ($2, $4 Chinatown/all day pass). Taxis run roughly M-F 6:30AM–6:30PM, Sat-Sun 10:30AM–6:30PM.
Shoreline Sightseeing ☎ +1 312 222-9328, has blue and white boats. It is more expensive ($5–7), but it serves seven destinations including some on Lake Michigan (Union Station/Sears Tower, Wells & Wacker, Michigan Ave Bridge, Navy Pier-Ogden Slip, Navy Pier-Dock St, Buckingham Fountain, and Museum Campus). Shoreline taxis run 10AM-6PM every twenty minutes and 6PM-9PM every half hour Memorial Day–Labor Day, with occasional and less frequent service in the spring and fall.
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