Using Chicago public transportation is easy

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el on the loop
The el loops through downtown Chicago on elevated tracks
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Getting around in the Windy City is easy with Chicago public transportation

The city of Chicago offers one of the cleanest and most efficient public transportation systems in the country.  The Chicago Transportation Authority provides train lines that access almost all popular neighborhoods and tourist destinations, and a timely bus system that follows the city’s gridded street system to cover everything the trains can’t.  The CTA system extends into several highly populated neighboring suburbs, and for those that the CTA doesn’t reach there’s the extensive Metra network, which runs high-speed train lines departing from three downtown transportation hubs.

For most out-of-town travelers and tourists staying in or near Chicago‘s downtown, the fact is that renting a car will be more of an inconvenience than a help.  Between learning to use the Chicago public transportation system and hailing an always-available cab, there should be few destinations that you can’t reach.

Let’s take a quick look at the basics of using public transportation in Chicago.

Getting Started

Before riding any CTA trains or buses you’ll want to purchase a fare card (buses actually accept cash, but drivers can not provide change).  These can be purchased at the kiosks found at any train station, and work on a pay-as-you-go basis.  A one-way ride is about $2.50 at the time of this writing.  If you know you’re going to be riding frequently it may be best to purchase an unlimited pass, available for one, three, seven, and thirty day periods, which will offer a significant savings over paying per ride.  These can be found at certain larger train terminals, as well as at most Jewel grocery store and CVS convenience stores. 

To ride the Metra trains to the suburbs you will can purchase tickets either at the station or on the train.  Tickets purchased on the train will typically be sold at a higher rate, unless you can prove that the station you left from did not have an open ticketing station.  The Metra trains begin at three separate major stations--Union Station, Ogilvee Transportation Center, and Millennium Park.

The ‘El’

Short for ‘elevated train,’ the El is Chicago’s word for the train system (and yes, this refers to all trains, even the ones that run on an underground subway).  The El network is comprised of 8 separate train lines, each labeled by a color.  All lines (besides the Yellow, which serves the northwest suburbs) run through Chicago’s downtown ‘Loop,’ so-named for the elevated circular route that the Brown, Green, Purple, Pink, Orange lines follow. 

Travelers flying in from O’Hare will catch the Blue Line, which travels from the northwest suburbs surrounding the airport through the loop and out to the popular near-West suburb of Oak Park.  Travelers arriving at Midway will catch the Orange Line, which runs a constant route from the airport through Downtown and then back to the airport again.  The Brown and Purple lines originate in the Loop and run through various parts of Chicago’s North side (the Purple continues through Evanston, past Northwestern University, and into the near-North suburbs).  Both share a stretch of tracks with the Red Line that forms a corridor through the popular (and lake-adjacent) Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods.  The Red Line itself follows a straight north-south path, stretching from Evanston to the far South side of the city.

The Bus

Built on a grid of streets running due North/South and East/West, Chicago is easily navigated by car or bus.  The bus will run on almost all major streets, making it easy to connect between buses or from train to bus.  As an added bonus, the CTA now makes almost all buses available on the Bus Tracker system, which allows riders to check arrival times from the internet (and yes, there are smart-phone app’s available, so you can even find live bus schedules on the run). 

The Metra

The Metra is used primarily as a commuter train, and most tourists will not have occasion to travel to the far suburbs made easily accessible by this system, but if necessary these trains depart from three downtown locations and generally run on an hourly schedule.  They typically drop off at one centrally located station in the suburbs they serve, and run at very high speeds. 

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